Deadly! Aboriginal English down under
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
Australian English is sometimes called the ‘dingo lingo’ – usually by totally hilarious wordsmiths or linguists who are poets and do know it.
Since the British Invasion of Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, Australia has imprinted its renegade, colourful flavour onto the stiff upper lip of the Queen’s English. From the slang-dominated thieves’ cant of the penal colony (‘flash language’) to endless modern-day abbreviations (such as arvo), new life has been breathed into English down under.
But there’s a particular strand of Australian English that receives somewhat less attention: Aboriginal English. Indigenous Australians have their own lexicon, with distinctive vocabulary, grammar, accents, and meanings, which reflects their culture, character, and spirit.
A dialect of its own
Aboriginal English is primarily an oral language, which continues the oral storytelling traditions of many indigenous Australian cultures. I spoke to Dr Diana Eades, Adjunct Professor at the University of New England, who is an expert on Aboriginal English. She said we’re also starting to see the dialect in published literature: ‘Like many other non-standard language varieties, Aboriginal English has a history of being dismissed as “bad English”. It is only since the 1960s that linguists and educators have recognised it as a valid, rule-governed language variety.’
After Australia’s colonization, the Brits were reluctant to learn any of the 250 indigenous languages, with roughly 600 dialects, to communicate with the people upon whose land they were walking. A form of pidgin English emerged, with the responsibility falling on Aboriginal people to learn it if they wanted to defend their culture, their land, and their families.
This form of pidgin English became more sophisticated because it enabled different Aboriginal groups without a shared language to communicate with each other. Parallel to this, what Professor Eades describes as a process of ‘Aboriginalisation’ of English occurred – lending Australian English many of the Aboriginal words we still hear today.
The Australian National Dictionary records 10,000 additions to the word family of Englishes, with 536 in a recent update from Aboriginal languages – including some surprising etymologies. For instance, ‘kylie’, before she was a Minogue, was a Nyunga Aboriginal word for boomerang, reassuring Aussies that, no matter how internationally successful their pop princess gets, she’ll always return home.
Meanwhile, kangaroo could really mean ‘wanker’. No! I hear you protest. Surely the single most quintessentially Australian word cannot have such a vulgar etymology. But according to Susan Butler, Macquarie Dictionary’s editor, it could be an Aboriginal joke or expletive.
In her book on Australian English, The (H)aitch Factor, Butler drops the bombshell. The story goes; Captain James Cook saw an unfamiliar creature bounce past and asked the Aborigines what it was. Kangaroo, they told him. But they could’ve been pulling his leg. Nobody could track down the word in the local Aboriginal language (so poor was the research), so several ‘folk etymologies’ now exist. In one such story, they gave him a rude word to joke at his expense. You can insert your own profanity.
This is one of several folk etymologies Butler details or debunks in her book. In a similar befuddlement of Aboriginal languages, Butler dispels the belief that didgeridoo is an Aboriginal word. It’s actually onomatopoeia, or as she puts it: ‘a white man’s imitation of the sound given a pseudo-Aboriginal spelling.’
Words with power
There’s a unique flavour to Aboriginal English – an expression of identity and a hint of defiance of oppression post-invasion. It could be argued that some of the words in the lexicon of Aboriginal English reclaim some of the power that has traditionally been wrestled away from or denied to Aboriginal Australians.
Deadly, an adjective to describe the highest form of praise in the Aboriginal English lexicon, uses the same subversion technique of wicked, bad, or sick in American and British, transforming it from a negative into describing something highly impressive. Mob is a collective plural for any group of friends, family, or colleagues, while clever is the term given to anyone holding knowledge of medicinal plants and traditional healing practices, bestowing onto them a spiritual power.
In contrast, some terms in the lexicon are euphemistic, revealing cultural sensitivities and the everyday realities of life. Sorry business, for example, is a ceremony associated with death. Poor is the prefix given in front of the name of someone who has died, and exhibiting unrestrained violence as a consequence of being intoxicated is referred to as silly. Cheeky, meanwhile, means aggressive, unpredictable, or dangerous when relating to people – but when relating to plants or reptiles, it means poisonous or venomous.
Same words, different meanings
Some terms have an especially loaded meaning, differentiating them from their standard English counterpart.
Country is a very important word, loaded with significance in the Aboriginal lexicon. It has a spiritual and philosophical dimension, describing more than just the area of land where an Aboriginal person or community belongs, but highlighting that this is a place to which they have responsibility, and from which they can draw spiritual strength.
Similarly, mother isn’t just the woman who gave birth to you, but her sisters too – revealing the tight-knitted nature of many Aboriginal communities, especially in their care and consideration for the children they are raising with many important female role models looking out for their welfare.
Once sidelined and sometimes mocked, Aboriginal English is now being considered as cool street slang in some circles. Certainly, it has become an essential, inseparable fixture of Australian English. Deadly.