Whether it is due to genetic unity or some other factor such as occasional contact, typologically the Australian languages form a language area or Sprachbund, sharing much of their vocabulary and many distinctive phonological features across the entire continent.
A common feature of many Australian languages is that they display so-called avoidance speech, special speech registers used only in the presence of certain close relatives. These registers share the phonology and grammar of the standard language, but the lexicon is different and usually very restricted. There are also commonly speech taboos during extended periods of mourning or initiation that have led to numerous Aboriginal sign languages.
For morphosyntactic alignment, many Australian languages have ergative–absolutive case systems. These are typically split systems; a widespread pattern is for pronouns (or first and second persons) to have nominative–accusative case marking and for third person to be ergative–absolutive, though splits between animate and inanimate are also found. In some languages the persons in between the accusative and ergative inflections (such as second person, or third-person human) may be tripartite: that is, marked overtly as either ergative or accusative in transitive clauses, but not marked as either in intransitive clauses. There are also a few languages which employ only nominative–accusative case marking.
A typical Australian phonological inventory includes just three vowels, usually [a, i, u], which may occur in both long and short variants. In a few cases the [u] has been unrounded to give [a, i, ɯ].
There is almost never a voicing contrast; that is, a consonant may sound like a [p] at the beginning of a word, but like a [b] between vowels, and either symbol could be (and often is) chosen to represent it. Australia also stands out as being almost entirely free of fricative consonants, even of [h]. In the few cases where fricatives do occur, they developed recently through the lenition (weakening) of stops, and are therefore non-sibilants like [ð] rather than sibilants like [s] which are common elsewhere in the world. Some languages also have three rhotics, typically a flap, a trill, and an approximant; that is, like the combined rhotics of English and Spanish.
Besides the lack of fricatives, the most striking feature of Australian speech sounds is the large number of places of articulation. Nearly every language has four places in the coronal region, either phonemically or allophonically. This is accomplished through two variables: the position of the tongue (front or back), and its shape (pointed or flat). There are also bilabial, velar and often palatal consonants, but a complete absence of uvular or glottal consonants. Both stops and nasals occur at all six places, and in some languages laterals occur at all four coronal places.
A language which displays the full range of stops and laterals is Kalkatungu, which has labial p, m; "dental" th, nh, lh; "alveolar" t, n, l; "retroflex" rt, rn, rl; "palatal" ty, ny, ly; and velar k, ng. Wangganguru has all this, as well as three rhotics. Yanyuwa has even more contrasts, with an additional true dorso-palatal series, plus prenasalized consonants at all seven places of articulation, in addition to all four laterals.
A notable exception to the above generalizations is Kalaw Lagaw Ya, which has an inventory more like its Papuan neighbours than the languages of the Australian mainland, including full voice contrasts: /p b/, dental /t̪ d̪/, alveolar /t d/, the sibilants /s z/ (which have allophonic variation with [tʃ] and [dʒ] respectively) and velar /k ɡ/, as well as only one rhotic, one lateral and three nasals (labial, dental and velar) in contrast to the 5 places of articulation of stops/sibilants. Where vowels are concerned, it has 8 vowels with some morpho-syntactic as well as phonemic length contrasts (i iː, e eː, a aː, ə əː, ɔ ɔː, o oː, ʊ ʊː, u uː), and glides that distinguish between those that are in origin vowels, and those that in origin are consonants. Kunjen and other neighbouring languages have also developed contrasting aspirated consonants ([pʰ], [t̪ʰ], [tʰ], [cʰ], [kʰ]) not found further south.
Descriptions of the coronal articulations can be inconsistent.
The alveolar series t, n, l (or d, n, l) is straightforward: across the continent, these sounds are alveolar (that is, pronounced by touching the tongue to the ridge just behind the gum line of the upper teeth) and apical (that is, touching that ridge with the tip of the tongue). This is very similar to English t, d, n, l, though the Australian t is not aspirated, even in Kalaw Lagaw Ya, despite its other stops being aspirated.
The other apical series is the retroflex, rt, rn, rl (or rd, rn, rl). Here the place is further back in the mouth, in the postalveolar or prepalatal region. The articulation is actually most commonly subapical; that is, the tongue curls back so that the underside of the tip makes contact. That is, they are true retroflex consonants. It has been suggested that subapical pronunciation is characteristic of more careful speech, while these sounds tend to be apical in rapid speech. Kalaw Lagaw Ya and many other languages in North Queensland differ from most other Australian languages in not having a retroflexive series.
The dental series th, nh, lh are always laminal (that is, pronounced by touching with the surface of the tongue just above the tip, called the blade of the tongue), but may be formed in one of three different ways, depending on the language, on the speaker, and on how carefully the speaker pronounces the sound. These are interdental with the tip of the tongue visible between the teeth, as in th in English; dental with the tip of the tongue down behind the lower teeth, so that the blade is visible between the teeth; and denti-alveolar, that is, with both the tip and the blade making contact with the back of the upper teeth and alveolar ridge, as in French t, d, n, l. The first tends to be used in careful enunciation, and the last in more rapid speech, while the tongue-down articulation is less common.
Finally, the palatal series ty, ny, ly. (The stop is often spelled dj, tj, or j.) Here the contact is also laminal, but further back, spanning the alveolar to postalveolar, or the postalveolar to prepalatal regions. The tip of the tongue is typically down behind the lower teeth. This is similar to the "closed" articulation of Circassian fricatives (see Postalveolar consonant). The body of the tongue is raised towards the palate. This is similar to the "domed" English postalveolar fricative sh. Because the tongue is "peeled" from the roof of the mouth from back to front during the release of these stops, there is a fair amount of frication, giving the ty something of the impression of the English palato-alveolar affricate ch or the Polish alveolo-palatal affricate ć. That is, these consonants are not palatal in the IPA sense of the term, and indeed they contrast with true palatals in Yanyuwa. In Kalaw Lagaw Ya, the palatal consonants are sub-phonemes of the alveolar sibilants /s/ and /z/.
These descriptions do not apply exactly to all Australian languages, as the notes regarding Kalaw Lagaw Ya demonstrate. However, they do describe most of them, and are the expected norm against which languages are compared.
Probably every Australian language with speakers remaining has had an orthography developed for it, in each case in the Latin script. Sounds not found in English are usually represented by digraphs, or more rarely by diacritics, such as underlines, or extra symbols, sometimes borrowed from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Some examples are shown in the following table.
Most Australian languages are commonly held to belong to the Pama–Nyungan family, a family accepted by most linguists, with Robert M. W. Dixon as a notable exception. For convenience, the rest of the languages, all spoken in the far north, are commonly lumped together as "Non-Pama–Nyungan", although this does not necessarily imply that they constitute a valid clade. Dixon argues that after perhaps 40,000 years of mutual influence, it is no longer possible to distinguish deep genealogical relationships from areal features in Australia, and that not even Pama–Nyungan is a valid language family. However, few other linguists accept Dixon's thesis. For example, Kenneth L. Hale describes Dixon's skepticism as an "extravagantly and spectacularly erroneous" and "wrong-headed" phylogenetic assessment which is "so bizarrely faulted, and such an insult to the eminently successful practitioners of Comparative Method Linguistics in Australia, that it positively demands a decisive riposte." In the same paper, Hale provides pronominal and grammatical evidence (with suppletion) as well as more than fifty basic-vocabulary cognates (showing regular sound correspondences) between the proto-Northern-and-Middle Pamic (pNMP) family of the Cape York Peninsula on the Australian northeast coast and proto-Ngayarta of the Australian west coast, some 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi) apart, to support the Pama–Nyungan grouping, whose age he compares to that of Proto-Indo-European.
It is often noted that it is odd for one family to dominate so much of a continent when the speakers are not agricultural and have no technological advantage over their neighbours. Johanna Nichols suggests that the northern families may be relatively recent arrivals from Maritime Southeast Asia, perhaps later replaced there by the spread of Austronesian. That could explain the typological difference between Pama–Nyungan and non-Pama–Nyungan languages, but not how a single family came to be so widespread. Evans suggests that the Pama–Nyungan family spread along with the now-dominant Aboriginal culture that includes the Australian Aboriginal kinship system. Dixon of course believes that the languages are not related, but merely a long-standing Sprachbund.
It has been suggested that most or all Australian languages have a relationship with the Trans–New Guinea family or the Sepik–Ramu languages. Neither of these conclusions is currently widely accepted. William A. Foley (1986) noted lexical similarities between Robert M. W. Dixon's 1980 reconstruction of proto-Australian and the East New Guinea Highlands languages. He believed that it was naïve to expect to find a single Papuan or Australian language family when New Guinea and Australia had been a single landmass (called the Sahul continent) for most of their human history, having been separated by the Torres Strait only 8000 years ago, and that a deep reconstruction would likely include languages from both. However, Dixon later abandoned his proto-Australian proposal and thus more research into the area is needed before drawing conclusions.
Australian languages divide into a dozen or so families. Note when cross-referencing that most language names have multiple spellings: rr=r, b=p, d=t, g=k, dj=j=tj=c, j=y, y=i, w=u, u=oo, e=a, and so on. A range is given for the number of languages in each family, as sources count languages differently.Presumptive isolates:
Previously established families:
Daly (four to five families, with 11–19 languages)
Newly proposed families:
Darwin Region (4)
Macro-Gunwinyguan languages (22)
the Garawa (3)
Pama–Nyungan proper (approximately 270 languages)
Western and Northern Tasmanian (extinct)
Northeastern Tasmanian (extinct)
Eastern Tasmanian (extinct)
It has been estimated that there were some 250 Aboriginal languages, with an average of between 3,108 - 4,800 speakers per language, at the time Europeans arrived. Very few Europeans made the effort to learn any Aboriginal language, it was expected that Aboriginal people would have to learn English. During the period of the "stolen generations", aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in institutions where they were punished for speaking their indigenous language. Different mutually unintelligible language groups were often were mixed together with Aboriginal English or Kriol, as the only lingua franca. Today only 48 different Aboriginal languages with more than 100 speakers survive, of which 12 have only perhaps 100 speakers. On these grounds it is anticipated that despite efforts at linguistic preservation more than 25% of the remaining languages will disappear within the next generation. As the language dies, much of the indigenous culture dies too, songs and stories are lost, and the ecological basis upon which the language was based is also lost.
Living Aboriginal Languages (having more than 100 people speaking the language)
New South Wales – 1 language ~ 100 • Wiradjeri ~ 100
Victoria – • None
Tasmania – • None
South Australia 5 languages ~ 2,000
• Ngarrindjeri ~ 100
• Adyamathanha ~ 100
• Yankanytjatjara ~ 600
• Pitjantjatjara ~ 1,200 (shared with Northern Territory and Western Australia)
Queensland – 9 languages ~ 10,000
• Yidiny ~ 100
• Kuka Yalanji ~ 300
• Guugu Yimidhirr ~ 800
• Guguberra ~ 100
• Kuuk Thaayore ~ 300
• Wik Muungan ~1,000
• Yumplatok ~ 6,000
• Kala Lagaw Ya ~ 1,200
• Miriam Mir ~ 200
Western Australia – 16 languages ~ 5,400
• Noongar ~ 200
• Wangkatha ~ 300
• Ngaanyajatjara ~ 1,000
• Mandjilitjara ~ 100
• Mardu Mandjilitjara ~ 600
• Bandijima ~ 100
• Yindjidjibandi ~ 300
• Nyangumarta ~ 300
• Bardi ~ 100
• Pintupi (shared with Northern Territory) ~ 200
• Kukatja ~ 400
• Walmatjarri ~ 500
• Gooniyandi ~ 400
• Djaru ~ 300
• Kija ~ 200
• Banuba ~ 100
• Miriwoong ~ 200
Northern Territory – 18 languages ~ 28,800
• Luritja ~ 1,200
• Arrernte ~ 3,000
• Alyawaar ~ 1,700
• Anmatyerri ~ 1,000
• Walpurri ~ 2,100
• Kaytetye ~ 300
• Warumungu ~ 300
• Gurindji ~ 600
• Jamindjing ~ 100
• Marrinha Patha ~ 1,500
• Tiwi ~ 1,700
• Iwaidja ~ 100
• Mauung ~ 300
• Kunwindjku ~ 1,200
• Burrara ~ 1,000
• Yolnyu ~ 3,000
• Nunggubuyu ~ 100
• Anandilyakwa ~ 1,300
• Yanyuwa ~ 300
Total 48 languages ~ 46,300 of which 12 have approximately only 100 speakers.
Kriol ~ 20,000