Have you heard of the story The Three Little Pigs? Remember how the smartest “little one” saves his brothers and deals with the big bad wolf? Before we start, let’s take a look at the comics below:
Yes, you may have guessed right – the comics is not written in English; the language is called Kriol. If you try to read the lines out loud, you may hear something similar to English words, such as lilwan and “little one”, bigibigi and “piggy piggy”, or perhaps faindim stro and “find straw”. That’s because Kriol is developed from some sort of combination of English and northern Australian Indigenous languages.
This kind of language is known as a creole, a fully developed language arising from contact of two or more language varieties. Before a creole is developed, a pidgin always emerges first. In the beginning, a pidgin is merely a means for people without common language to communicate in order to efficiently achieve common goals like trading. Pidgins are thus used only for limited purposes, with specific interlocutors and in simplified grammar. As time goes by, when a pidgin becomes thoroughly established that it can be used for all kinds of purposes apart from trading, and when a pidgin is acquired by children as their first language, that is the signal when a creole is born.
Creoles are commonly seen in places where cross-community trading was active or where colonisation took place, including Torres Strait Creole (aka Broken) spoken across the Torres Strait and in Cape York, the French-based Haitian Creole with influences from English, Taíno, some Romance languages and West African languages, and the English-based Singlish influenced by Malay, Tamil and southern Chinese languages. Another English-based creole, Tok Pisin, is now even an official language of Papua New Guinea. Just to name a few!
However, because of seemingly similarities between creoles and their dominant originated languages, creoles are usually stigmatised and considered deficient, ‘broken’ languages throughout history. Fortunately, as Kriol is now the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Australia (with more than 15,000 speakers), people’s attitudes towards Kriol have been shifting positively in recent years.
Map of speaker distribution in the NT in relation to contact languages
Kriol and Gurindji Kriol (source)
Remember, though, Kriol is not Aboriginal English. While Kriol is legitimately a distinct language, Aboriginal English is a variety of English just like Australian English or British English. To look closely at the linguistic features, Kriol, for example, follows the distinction of singular (‘he/she’), dual (‘they two’) and plural (‘they all’) pronouns influenced by Aboriginal languages. In comparison, although Aboriginal English may also have systemic linguistic features different from English, its grammatical structure is still generally based on English, such as leaving out -s for third person singular (i.e., he/she/it) present verbs and plural nouns. It is nonetheless important to bear in mind that Aboriginal English has its distinctive communicative norms, including averting eye gaze and remaining silence to express politeness.
Radio: ABC Indigenous News Radio has news broadcasting in Kriol, along with Warlpiri and Yolngu Matha.
- Moli det bigibigi (Molly the pig) is a story written and narrated by Karen Manbulloo in Kriol, published by Indigenous Literacy Foundation in 2017.
- “Waltjim bat Matilda” by the singer Ali Mills is a Gurindji Kriol version of “Waltzing Matilda”, the best-known bush ballad of Australia. Gurindji Kriol is usually classified as a mixed language, combining Gurindji noun structure and Kriol verb structure. Have a go to compare between the Gurindji Kriol and English lyrics of the chorus! (The full Gurindji Kriol lyrics can be accessed here; an introduction of Gurindji Kriol can be found here.)
waltjim bat matilda, waltjim bat matilda,
you balla cum n waltjim bat matilda langa me
im bin chingum but corobree watchim but him billy boil
you balla cum n waltjim bat matilda langa me
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
- Kriol Kid Song Medley with Kriol lyrics and English translations is compiled by Ian Ross Williams, an artist and primary music teacher based in the Northern Territory. Check it out and see how much you could understand without peeping at the translations!
- Benny’s Journey, narrated in Torres Strait Creole, is a short animation made by the organisation RHD Australia to raise health awareness.
- Learn about some other creoles spoken across the world:
Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Hawaiian Creole (Hawai‘i), Haitian Creole (Haiti), Singlish (and other pidgins and creoles based on Mandarin and Malay, Singapore), Unserdeutsch (German-based, Papua New Guinea), Yilan Creole (Japanese-based, Taiwan)
- The English-Kriol Online Dictionary edited by Jason Lee supported by Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL), which provides dictionaries on another 13 Australian Indigenous languages.
- The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages has a great collection of digitised publications written or spoken in Indigenous languages of the Northern Territory, including a few hundreds of stories in Kriol.