Back to listing

Video: The genius of Australian Indigenous languages (public lecture)

Date: 16 May 2019

On 6 February, Professor Rachel Nordlinger, one of the country’s foremost experts on Australian Indigenous languages, explained their unique importance to an audience of hundreds at the Parade Theatre of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Sydney.

Professor Nordlinger, Chief Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language and Director of Melbourne University’s Research Unit for Indigenous Language, celebrated the genius of Australian Indigenous languages to kick off the Centre’s activities for the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019.

She discussed some of her favourite features of these languages – ranging from unusual grammatical properties, to intriguing word meanings, to the questions they raise about how languages are learned and processed.

 “Australian languages have many interesting and unique properties not found in other languages of the world,” Professor Nordlinger said.

“For example, Lardil has 16 different words for ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ depending on whom you are speaking about. Murrinhpatha takes one word to say what requires a whole sentence in English.”

With only 80 of 300 original Indigenous languages still spoken, and only 15 still being acquired by children, Professor Nordlinger said preserving them was crucially important for understanding human cognition.

“Some concepts from nature or spirituality have no easy translation at all,” Professor Nordlinger said. The genius of Australian Indigenous languages is that they have come up with fascinating design solutions that show what humans can do with and through language.”

Australia’s Indigenous languages have contributed greatly to our understanding of how human beings perceive and process the world around them. However, much of this knowledge has remained within the domain of language scientists. The International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 presents the perfect opportunity to consider how fascinating Australian Indigenous languages are, and what they teach us about the nature of language more broadly.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University