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Aboriginal English – what isn’t it?

13 Jan 2022

The land gave birth to our languages; language and culture are inseparable. And yet, languages have been and continue to be stolen, with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages currently under threat.

“If you attack my language you attack me, because what I am and what I know and believe and feel are all mediated through language” Dwyer, 1989.

Self-proclaimed “citizen journalist”, social media “personality”, and convicted abuser of women, Avi Yemini tweeted a video of Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan sending a vaccination message to Western Australian Aboriginal communities that was also translated into Aboriginal English (AbE) by Aboriginal Interpreting WA

The racist twitter furore that followed was not surprising, given the far-right ideologies held by Yemini, however the amount of misinformation about AbE and Kriol spouted by both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people across social media was something to behold. 

Now, it is January after all, and most mob are familiar with the bin-fire that surrounds Invasion Day, so my patience levels for educating the masses are already low. But given the amount of AbE misinformation shared across most social media platforms, I think we could all do with a bit of AbE 101.

  • Isn’t it just broken English?

No, and if you say that again I’ll put chilli in your mouth. AbE is the name given to complex, rule-governed varieties of English that are spoken by over 80% of Indigenous peoples in Australia. These differ from standard Australian English (AusE) in systematic ways and at all levels of linguistic structure, like sentence formation and meanings of words. AbE is mutually intelligible between varieties and can also be known by its local names, such as Koori or Murri English, Broome lingo and Noongar English.

 

Image credit: The Wholesome Yamatji @the_wholesome_yamatji

Big’ole (from the English “big hole”) has its own meaning in AbE 

  • Well, where did it come from?

Upon invasion, it’s estimated that there were over 250 distinct languages plus around 600-800 overlapping, connecting languages. Given that gudiyas (non-Indigenous people) weren’t that keen to learn our languages, we adapted English to enable communication. With our traditional languages stolen, along with our land, and being the adaptive and highly intelligent people that we are, we took the way they talked (and forced us to talk) and decolonised it to suit our needs. AbE is NOT a form of AusE, but rather both are varieties of English. These graphics adapted from Making the Jump help explain the development of AbE.  

Image credit: Making the Jump, Berry and Hudson.

The development of creoles, such as Kriol

Image credit: Making the Jump, Berry and Hudson.

‘Heavy’ to ‘light’ Kriol

Image credit: Understanding the Languages Panda Gardner. Twitter: @grandnapread

Aboriginal English; overlapping and encompassing.

  • Oh, righto. So, what’s Kriol then?

Kriol is a specific creole; a new Aboriginal language that is spoken across northern Australia that developed because of colonisation and the expansion of the pastoral industry. This table is helpful to see where Kriol fits.

Image credit: Understanding the Languages Panda Gardner. Twitter: @grandnapread

While non-AbE speakers may be able to pick up what’s being said in conversations with AbE speakers, it is less likely with in Kriol due to the inclusion of more traditional language words. As with AbE, Kriol sits on a spectrum, as shown here: 

Language continuum
Image credit:
Making the Jump, Berry and Hudson.

  • How come I can understand it? It sounds like English but with a weird accent.

Don’t be fooled! AbE and AusE are false friends. While you may think you understand AbE, there are many different layers, and some of these cannot be seen or heard, such as pragmatics, semantics and worldview (values, beliefs and attitudes). Check out this anthill analogy from Tracks to Two-Way Learning

The anthill analogy: Department of Education, WA.
Image credit: Department of Education, Western Australia

  • So, it’s not a real Aboriginal language…

Bruh. C’mon now. Sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich once famously remarked, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, suggesting that the categorisation of a way of speaking into “language” and “dialect” isn’t necessarily a linguistic choice, but rather based on disparities of politics and power. I think this rings true when people talk about AbE. People tend to poo-poo AbE as slang or broken English, when it is a rule-governed, legitimate language that connects Aboriginal people to culture, Country and community.  

Consider an Aboriginal person speaking this sentence to you: 

 “Wen we got ome, dat ole man said: “You mob wanna hab a feed now, owot? It gettin proper late.”  

And now ask yourself, what level of education does this person have; what do they do for a living; and where do they live? 

Check yo language bias fam. 

  • Can I, as a non-Aboriginal person, speak AbE?

In my opinion, nope. What makes AbE different from many traditional languages and Kriol, is that is it not officially taught (in a Western sense). It is a community developed language that belongs to community. Being a marker of Aboriginal identity, it is confusing and pretty offensive for non-Indigenous people to just pick up AbE and start talking. Imagine you are in the US, and you walk up to a group of African American people and started speaking in Black American English. You would soon be put in your place; same goes here. A rule of thumb… Just don’t. It’s shame. Don’t be a Tiffany.

Abc Indigenous Black Comedy GIF - ABC Indigenous Black Comedy ABC Black Comedy - Descubre & Comparte GIFs

  • All the Aboriginal people I know speak normal English.

AusE is the language used in law, media, politics, and education in Australia, holding immense power. Over the years, many mob have been forced to speak AusE at the expense of traditional language, Kriol, or AbE to survive this place. While we can choose to speak AbE to power, there may also be times where we need to codeswitch into AusE. Control over codeswitching helps us to walk in the gudiya’s world while maintaining home language and all the richness and connection that comes with it. If you think that your Aboriginal mates don’t speak AbE, you are probably wrong, given that over 80% of us speak a form of AbE. 

  • Is it racist to have information interpreted into Aboriginal English or Kriol?

No. 

  • Who cares anyways? 

We do, and you should too. Negative attitudes towards AbE risks the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal people every damn day. Many Aboriginal people have been left without interpreters when dealing with police, health sectors and in education settings. The misinterpretation of AbE can lead to incarceration, misdiagnosis, and lead to low (standardised) education outcomes. What’s most frustrating is that systems continue to ignore the important role that understanding AbE has in all these social determinants of health. By excluding AbE from reports, strategies and policies, the powers that be are denying the legitimacy of our connection to community, culture, and our identity. AbE has been recognised by linguists and educators as a legitimate language since the 1960s, so why is it still treated as slang? *cough-racism-cough*

The land gave birth to our languages; language and culture are inseparable. And yet, languages have been and continue to be stolen, with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages currently under threat. So, it is essential we retain and revitalise our languages everywhere we can. And this also means we need to do some myth-busting and stop positioning AbE or Kriol as bad English.

Aboriginal English is important.

Aboriginal English is a marker of Aboriginal identity. 

Aboriginal English holds culture. 

Aboriginal English holds knowledge.

Aboriginal English is not slang. 

Aboriginal English is not broken. 

Aboriginal English is us and it is ours.

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