Frequently Asked Questions

So you want to find out something about Australian languages?  Here we’ve adapted some FAQs from the ASEDA page.

Well, to start with there are more than 300 languages. So…

Q: I want to find about Aboriginal names and meanings.

A: Macquarie Aboriginal Words, ed Nicholas Thieberger & William McGregor, Macquarie Library, 1994.
This has word-lists from many Australian languages, properly labelled.


Cooper, H.M. 1952. Australian Aboriginal words and their meanings. Adelaide: (South Australian Museum).
Kenyon, Justine. 1982. Aboriginal word book. Melbourne: Lothian.
Reed, A.H. and A.W. 1965. Aboriginal words of Australia. Sydney: A.H. and A.W. Reed Pty Ltd.
These are lists of words WITHOUT identification of the source language.  The meanings are often very fanciful.  The only use for these books is to track down some “Aboriginal” name that someone gave some boat/house/institution after finding it in one of these books…

For particular languages, check out the  AIATSIS Indigenous Languages Bibliographies

Q: I want to find about Aboriginal words that are used in English.

A: Check out: Australian Aboriginal words in English: their origin and meaning, by R. Dixon, W. Ramson & M. Thomas. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Q:  I think the word X comes from an Australian language (/the Aboriginal language/…) – can you tell me which one / what it means?

A: If English dictionaries near to hand do not answer this for you, look the word up in the Australian National Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1988) or Australian Aboriginal words in English: their origin and meaning, by Dixon, Ramson & Thomas (OUP 1992). If it isn’t in these books, then it is probably difficult to answer your query, since many of Australia’s 300 plus Indigenous languages have not been well documented. Step one is to find out where the word is supposed to have come from.  then find out the language or languages spoken in that area. Then look up dictionaries of those languages. For particular languages, check out the  AIATSIS Indigenous Languages Bibliographies
Otherwise, if you don’t know the region the word is supposed to have come from, the task is probably hopeless. You could check out the horrible little Aboriginal words books (Kenyon, Cooper and Reed) mentioned above, since they were once popular and people used to pick words out of these for all sorts of purposes.

Q: I would like to know the Aboriginal word for X.

A: There are over 300 Australian languages (not dialects) so the question needs to be more specific. If you think X is a concept likely to be lexicalised (expressed by a word) in Australian languages generally (or of a particular region), for a start, you could try the English index to Macquarie Aboriginal Words, ed Thieberger & McGregor, a paperback published by Macquarie Library, 1994.

Q: I would like an Aboriginal word meaning ‘rain forest’ / ‘fearless’ /… for my house/boat/dog/a new variety of beetle.

A:  If you are in Australia, try contacting your local Aboriginal language or culture centre, such as listed in RNLD’s list of Australian Language Centres.  Some communities are prepared to help think of good names – in Adelaide Kaurna Warra Pintyandi regularly deals with such requests.

Q: A friend of mine is looking for an indigenous language that can cover the translation of “Preserving the Dreaming” / “Don’t smoke” /”scarcity” / “Come and visit Australia”/ “Happy Christmas” – Can you help?

A: See previous answer.

Q: (a) How do I find out what language is spoken in my area?
(b) How do I find a speaker of X language?

A: One way to start is by contacting a local language organisation in your area. A good list of contacts is in FATSIL’s National Indigenous Languages Directory Another possibility is to try a geographic search in the AIATSIS Library catalogue.

Q: I want to know more about endangered Australian languages.
(I am writing a magazine article / preparing a documentary proposal / writing a school report / a novel …) I want information about the language, brief historical summary and, most importantly, information about preservation work and what, if any, the native speakers themselves are doing to record and preserve their language, and names of the main campaigners.

A: Basic information is available in various publications and to some extent on the web. The best place to start is with the “WWWVL – Aboriginal Languages of Australia” and for Central Australia and some other areas, http://www.anu.edu.au/linguistics/nash/aust/

Q: I’d like to know the meaning of placename X.

A: Here are some hints for doing it yourself, but be warned that it is time consuming tracking down the meanings of placenames, especially those of indigenous origin, and calls for some linguistic expertise.  First, check the official records of the relevant State or Territory – the information there may be sufficient for your purpose. If you want to take the inquiry further, the important starting point is to find out the circumstances of the first written record of the name: who wrote down the name, what (s)he thought the name referred to, and who told him/her the name. Then you can start to look for meanings.  However, beware! Most people who record words given to them by indigenous people don’t transcribe sounds precisely, so that it is hard to work out what word was actually given to them. Moreover, early recorders often either did not ask for, or did not understand, the meanings of place-names. For tips for dealing with historical manuscripts see the handbook Paper and Talk: A manual for reconstituting Australian indigenous languages from historical sources, AIATSIS,1995. [Aboriginal Studies Press listing]
The next step is to find out what languages are spoken in the area where the placename was recorded, then consult a dictionary of that language and see if there is any information about the word. There’s a reasonable chance that there won’t be any – some placenames are simply that, names, without necessarily having a ‘meaning’.
Some Australian placenames from Indigenous languages are discussed in Richard and Barbara Appleton’s The Cambridge dictionary of Australian places,Cambridge University Press, 1992.  The Australian National Placenames Survey may be able to help.

Q: I want copies of digital dictionaries and texts of Australian Indigenous languages.

A: Try ASEDA: the Aboriginal Studies Electronic Data Archive at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Studies.

Q: I’d like to learn an Indigenous language.

A: The Koori Centre at Sydney has some information on this. The first ever on-line Pitjantjatjara course started in 2006: http://www.ngapartji.org/.  Some language learning materials are available from the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs.   Kaurna Warra Pintyandi in Adelaide runs courses on Kaurna. Charles Darwin University offers courses in Yolngu, including a Graduate Certificate in Yolngu Studies.