Grammar of Australian Indigenous languages

Before delving into the grammar of Australian Indigenous languages, you can have a quick look at what grammar is.

Australia’s Indigenous languages are distinguished from the majority of the world’s languages in terms of grammar. Ergativity is one of the most renowned features, compared to the more common nominative-accusative system most of the world’s languages follow, including English. Let’s look at how English works first.

She runs.
She likes her.

In the sentences above, we see three girls – the girl who runs (Sue) and the girl (Amy) who likes another girl (Olivia). According to the relation between a noun and a verb, linguists label Sue as Subject (of the action/intransitive verb run), Amy as Agent (of the transitive verb like), and Olivia as Object (of like). Here, Sue and Amy are described in the same form she, while Olivia is in a different form her – that’s how the nominative-accusative system groups nouns in different positions in a sentence.

Most of the Australian languages, in comparison, describe Sue and Olivia in the same form while marking Amy differently. But, the grouping may differ across languages depending on types of pronouns and/or nouns. For example, some languages follow ergativity (S/O vs. A) when describing in pronouns, but then follow the nominative-accusative distinction (S/A vs. O) when describing the girls with their names (i.e. proper nouns).

Another common feature of Australian languages is that they can use a single word to convey meanings that English speakers must use a sentence or more. Such languages are called ‘polysynthetic’, and words in a polysynthetic language are built on a verb root with many other ‘morphemes’ (the smallest grammatical unit; linked with hyphens in the Murrinh Patha example below).

‘We two (exclusive, female, nonsiblings) will be splitting it open.’

The Murrinh Patha example also reveals an interesting grammatical feature of many Australian Indigenous languages – the relationship between the speaker, the listener or others that are mentioned is coded in a single word without the need to explain it in an explicit, lengthy way, as in ‘We are both female, and we are not siblings; we, not including you (the listener), will be splitting it open’ because the morpheme ngintha already carries the information that we are two females.



Video: Ergativity: Her Likes She. This video uses English to illustrate some of the common grammatical features that can be found in ergative languages, including ‘morphosyntactic alignment’ and ‘split ergativity’. The realisation of ergativity can differ from language to language. If you wish to learn more, Oxford Bibliographies lists some significant works in the literature.

Resource: The Australian Indigenous Languages Collection of AIATSIS contains dictionaries, grammars, learning kits and other publications in 200 languages. Linguist David Nathan also compiles a resource database on Aboriginal Languages of Australia.