Indigenous Language Families

There are a number of language families throughout Australia. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has identified 22 languages families as well as well as numerous ‘unclassified’ languages.

The Pama-Nyungan Language Family is by far the most widespread language family and includes all of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the southern parts of Northern Territory and Western Australia. The family includes the Arandic, Bundjalungic, Dieric, Durubulic, Dyirbalic, Galgadungic, Galibamic, Jaru, Karnic, Kulinic, Kurnai/Gunai, Maric, Murawaric, Nyawaygic, Paakantjic, Paman, Pitta Pitta, South West, Torres Strait, Waka-Kabic, Wangkumara, Warumungic, Wiradjuric, Yidinyic, Yolngu, Yorta Yorta, Yuin-Kuric and Yura language groups.

In the northern region of the Northern Territory, there are a number of other language families including: Anindilyakwa, Burarran, Daly: encompassing the Anson Bay, Eastern Daly, Northern Daly, Southern Daly and Western Daly language groups, DjingiliWambayan: encompassing the Djingilic and Wambayan language groups, Gungarakanyan, Guwinyguan, Jamindjung, Iwaidjan, Larrakiyan, Mangarrayan, Mangerrian, Maran, Nakkaran, Ndjeebana, Tangkic, Tiwi and Waanyi-Garawan language families.

In north Western Australia, there are also the following language families: Bunuban, Djeragan/Jarrakan, Nyulnyulan: including the Bardi and Nyikina language groups, Tangkic, Waanyi-Garawan, and the Worrorran: including the Ngarinyin/Ungarinyin, Worrorran and Wunambal language groups.


There are a number of language groups that span the desert region of Central Australia, extending through the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. There are arbitrary boundaries, which are associated family and kin and significant cultural locations.

Today there are three main language groups within the vast Central and Western Australian Deserts. These language groups are known as the Western Desert or Wati, and the Arandic and Ngarrka – all from Pama-Nyungan Language Family – with each group comprising a number of mostly mutually intelligible dialects. The overlapping dialects/languages are based on common vocabulary and grammatical features, and accordingly, the distinctions between the dialects may be quite minimal.

Western Desert Language Group (Wati)

This language group is common from eastern Western Australia, through northern South Australia into southern and central Northern Territory. European contact particularly through missionary involvement, the cattle industry and the building of the railway, together with a greater movement around the country by Aboriginal people, has resulted in less defined traditional dialectal regional distinctions.

Pitjantjatjara: The Pitjantjatjara Lands, commonly known as the Pit Lands and located in the northwest of South Australia, eastern Western Australia near the South Australian/Northern Territory border and southern Northern Territory, embrace the communities of Ernabella (Pukatja), Fregon, Amata, Wingellina (Irrunytju), Docker River (Kaltukatjara), Mutitjulu and Areyonga (Utju).

Yankunytjatjara: A dialect generally spoken further east of the Pit Lands but also in communities in the north of South Australia at Mimili and Indulkana and the south of the Northern Territory in areas around Finke and Mutijtulu.

Luritja: Also spoken to the east of the Pit Lands from Oodnadatta in South Australia through Finke (Aputula), Maryvale (Titjikala), Kings Canyon area, Areyonga (Utju), Jay Creek, Imanpa and Mutijtulu in the Northern Territory. It is often used as a common dialect between Western Desert and Arandic and Warlpiri speakers. It is thought that the term Luritja, may derive from the Arrernte word for non-Arrernte people – Ulerenye. For instance, at Hermannsburg Mission, all the Western Desert speaking people were and are still called Lurinya/Luritja.

Pintupi Luritja: This Western Desert dialect as spoken from around Papunya, west to the border. From the time the Pintupi came out of the desert, they have tendered to live in close proximity to the Hermannsburg Mission and Papunya and Haasts Bluff ration stations. There are similar features of languages with the neighbouring Warlpiri and Arrernte.

Pintupi: Pintupi speakers tend to come from the desert region around Kiwirrkura community in Western Australia.

Kukatja: These speakers can be found around Kintore in the Northern Territory through to Kiwirrkura in Western Australia and north as far as the Balgo region.

Ngaatjatjarra: This dialect is spoken by only a few families around the Western Australian border communities of Tjukurla, Warakurna, Blackstone (Papulankutja) and Docker River (Kaltukutjara).

Ngaanyatjarra: This dialect is the main language of the families of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, including Warakurna, Blackstone (Papulankutja), Jameson (Mantamaru), Wanarn, Warburton (Mirlirrtjarra) and Tjirrkarliin Western Australia near the South Australia/Northern Territory border. Speakers can also be found as far west as Kalgoolie.

Arandic Language Group

This group consists of closely related languages includes a number of varieties of Arrernte, Anmatyerr and Alyawarr, all of which comprise a network of mutually intelligible dialects. A further language Kaytetye is a separate language. There are probably around 4,500 to 6,000 speakers in all.

Eastern and Central Arrernte: These languages are spoken mainly at Harts Range (Artetyere), Bonya (Uthipe Atherre), Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte), Amoonguna (Imengkwerne) and Alice Springs (Mparntwe).

Western Arrernte: This dialect is spoken mainly around Hermannsburg (Ntaria/Nthareye), Wallace Rockhole, Jay Creek (Iwuputaka) and Alice Springs.

Central and Eastern Anmatyerr Central: Anmatyerr is spoken to the north of Alice Springs around the communities of Mt. Allan (Yuelamu) Napperby (Laramba/ Alherramp) and TiTree (Ilperl Anyent). Eastern Anmatyerr is spoken at Stirling (Ilewerr) and Utopia. It overlaps with Alyawarr to the north.

Alyawarr: Spoken further to the north and east and includes the communities in the Utopia homelands, Ammaroo (Amperlatwaty), Epenarra (Wetenngerr), Murray Downs, Alekarenge, Canteen Creek, Lake Nash (Ilperrelhelam) and also Tennant Creek.

Kaytetye: Spoken some 300 kilometres north of Alice Springs, the main communities are Neutral Junction (Artarre), Stirling (Ilewarr), Ankweleyelengkwe and Barrow Creek, and to a lesser degree at Murray Downs (Ipmangker) and Ali Curung (Alekarenge).

Ngarrka Language Group

The Ngarrka Language Group languages are spoken in Central Australia. Warlpiri is the main language of the group, but it also includes the Ngardi/Bunara and Warlmanpa, which are both declining in use.

Warlpiri: The main language within in the Ngarrka language group. Warlpiri covers a vast area northwest of Alice Springs. The main Warlpiri speaking communities are Yuendumu (Yurntumu), Lajamanu, Nyirrpi and Willowra (Wirliyajarrayi). There are speakers also in Tennant Creek, Katherine, Alekarenge, Ti Tree and Alice Springs. There are around 3,000 speakers of Warlpiri as a first language with many speakers of Warlpiri as a second or third language. There are a number of mutually intelligible dialects with differences evident in pronunciation and vocabulary within the Warlpiri language group.


The main language families within the Kimberley and North Western Australia are the Bunuban, Djeragan/Jarrakan, Nyulnyulan, Worrarran and Pama-Nyungan Families.

Bunuban Language Family

The Bunuban Language Family languages are spoken in north Western Australia and parts of the Northern Territory. The family consists of two main languages, Bunuba and Gooniyandi, which are closely related. Both languages are endangered.

Bunuba/Punuba: The Bunuba language belongs to a large region in the south Kimberley bounded by the Fitzroy River to the southeast, the Leopold Range to the northeast, the Oscar Range to the southwest, and the Napier Range to the northwest. The majority of the 114 Bunuba speakers currently live in Fitzroy Crossing.

Gooniyandi/Gunian: The language is spoken in the south Kimberley from Fitzroy Crossing in the west to the vicinity of Margaret River Station in the east, a distance of some one hundred and fifty kilometeres, west to east. This territory abuts on the Great Sandy Desert in the south, and extends into the King Leopold Ranges in the north. There are just over 400 speakers of the Gooniyandi language.

Djeragan/Jarrakan Language Family

This language family is a small family spoken in northern Western Australia, cradling the border between Northern Territory and Western Australia. The word jarrak is derived from the Kija word for ‘language’.

Kija: The Kija language has approximately 200 speakers and is part of the Djeragan/Jarrakan language family. The language is linguistically closest to Miriwun language, but is also related to Kuluwarrang (Guluwarin, Guluwrung). The language is spoken in the region from Halls Creek to Kununurra.

Nyulnyulan Language Family

The Nyulnyulan Language Family is a small family of closely related languages spoken in northwest Western Australia, near Broome.

Bardi: The Bardi language is the main language spoken in the Bardi Language Group. Bardi traditional country is the area at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome. The language has approximately 150 speakers.

Nyikina: The Nyikina language is the main language spoken in the Nyikina Language Group which includes the Warrwa/Warwa and Yawuru languages. The language is spoken in the area between Derby at the north, Fitzroy Crossing at the east, Noonkanbah at the south and Logue River at the west. The language has approximately 70 speakers and is endangered.

Worrorran Language Family

The Worrorran Language Family is a group of languages spoken in the northwest corner of Western Australia.

Ngarinyin/Ungarinyin: A language which is part of the Ngarinyin/Ungarinyin language group. The language is generally spoken in the western half of the Kimberley Plateau, between the Couchman Ranges, Gibb River, King Leopold Range and the Kind Edward River. The language is considered endangered but it still spoken by approximately 58 people.

Worrorra: The Worrorra language is part of the Worrorran Language Group and is spoken by approximately 22 people. The language region spreads from the coast of Rothsay Water in the north to Collier Bay in the south, extending inland approximately 50 kilometres.

Wunambal: a language part of the Wunambal language with about 28 speakers. Wunambal Gaambera Country lies in the northwest Kimberley area of Western Australia just north of Worrorra and Ngarinyin country. It incorporates approximately 200 kilometres of coastal and inland country, from Prince Frederick Harbour in the southwest to Napier Broome Bay in the northeast.

Pama-Nyungan Family

The Pama-Nyungan Language Family encompasses most of the Australian continent, except for north Western Australia and northern parts of the Northern Territory. In the Kimberley, the main language within this family is Kukatja/Wangajungka.

Kukatja/Wangajungka: This language is part of the Paman language group within the Pama-Nyugan Family. It is still spoken at Kunawarritji in Balgo, Western Australia by approximately 500 speakers.


Today there are a number of main language groups within Arnhem Land and the Top End. This area has the largest concentrated area of separate language families, including the Gunwinyguan, Pama-Nyungan, Daly, Iwaidjan, Tangkic and Tiwi Language Families.

Gunwinyguan Language Family

The Gunwinyguan family is spoken in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The main language is Gunwinggu.

Gunwinggu/Gunwinygu/Kunwinjku: A language spoken by approximately 1,000 people.

The language country is from upper section of Coopers Creek, north of Oenpelli, to the Liverpool River, southwest of Maningrida.

Dalabon/Dangbon: A language used in North East Arnhem land sandstone plateau. The language is threatened with only 15 speakers according to the 2006 Australian census.

Mayali/Mayawarli: The language is spoken by approximately 150-200 speakers in the area from Barunga to Pine Creek, into Jawoyn country.

Nunggubuyu: The language ‘s boundaries are from Blue Mud Bay, and near the coast from Minnie Creek up to the Walker River. The language has approximately 100 speakers.

Wardaman: The majority of the 80-100 speakers of Wardaman now live in and around Katherine and around Aroona Creek, Hayward Creek, Delamere Creek and Scott Creek.

Burarra: Part of the Burarran Language Group, the Burarra language is spoken by over 1,000 people. The country encompasses the Blyth and Cadell River regions and Maningrida in Arnhem Land.

Other languages still spoken in Arnhem Land and the Top End include the Jawoyn language (42 speakers), Kunbarlang/Gunbalang language (19 speakers), and the Rembarrnga language (38 speakers).

Pama-Nyungan Language Family

Yolngu Matha (Yolngu meaning people and Matha tongue/language) is a cover term for the languages of the Yolngu, the Indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land. The languages include the following broad language groups: Djinang, Dhangu and Dhuwaya.

Djinang and Dhangu: Both languages are spoken by several clans in the Yirrkala area and have about 200 speakers each.

Dhuwaya: A common contemporary dialect of Yolngu that has arisen from language contact. Thus, unlike other Yolngu dialects, Dhuwaya has no clan affiliations and no associated territory, although it is associated in a non-traditional way with the Yirrkala settlement. It is used universally by the younger generation (approximately 300 speakers) in all informal contexts, but regarded as a low status, stigmatised dialect.

Daly Language Family

The Daly Language Family encompass four to five language groups spoken within the vicinity of the Daly River in the Northern Territory. The two main languages spoken Murrinhpatha and Ngangiwumirri/Ngangumiri are part of the Southern Daly language group.

Murrinhpatha: A language in the Wadeye community of approximately 1800-2000 people near Port Keats.

Ngangiwumirri/Ngangumiri: A language spoken by approximately 50 people in the area bound by the Daly-Peppimenarti road, Fish River and Wudipuli.

Iwaidjan Language Family

A small family of languages spoken in the Cobourg Peninsula region of West Arnhem Land.

Maung/Mawng: A language spoken by approximately 250-300 speakers in the region between South Goulbourn Island and the coast from Iliwan Swamp and to the western side of Angularli Creek.

Tiwi Language Family

The Tiwi Language family encompasses the Tiwi language, which is spoken by approximately 1,700 people on Bathurst and Melville Islands, just off the coast of Northern Territory.


The Pama-Nyungan language family is the most widespread language family within Queensland. However, in the northwest, near the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Northern Territory border there is also the Tangkic Language Family.

Tangkic language family

A small language family spoken in northwest Queensland near the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria, cradling the border with the Northern Territory.

Kayardild/Kaiadilt: The Kaiadilt country includes South Wellesley Island, Bentinck Island, Sweeers Island, several smaller islands, and sometimes Allen Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The language has approximately 25 speakers.

Lardil: The Lardil language is spoken by approximately 50 people in the northern Wellesley Islands and into the northern half of Denham Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Pama-Nyungan Language Family

The Pama-Nyungan Language Family encompasses most of the Australian continent, except for north Western Australia and northern parts of the Northern Territory. In Queensland, there are a number of language groups within this family still spoken today.

Girramay: A language part of the Dyirbalic language group that is still spoken by approximately 28 people in the area between Townsville and Cairns.

Koko Bera/Koko-Kaper: A Coastal Paman language part of the Paman language group spoken by approximately 100 inhabitants. The language is spoken through the area lying within 30 kilometres of the Gulf of Carpentaria between South Mitchell and Massau River.

Wik Mungkan: A language part of the Middle Paman language group spoken by approximately 1,000 people. The language is used in at least three areas separated by the estates of clans where other languages are spoken. These areas are all on the western coast of the tip of Queensland, near Cape Keerweer. Today, the majority of Wik Mungkan people today live at Aurukun. Also part of the Middle Paman language group are the Wik Nganychara/Wik Ngencherr language, spoken by 30 people, and the Wik Ngathan language, spoken by about 100 people.

Kaanju/Kaantju: A language part of the Northern Paman language group. The National Indigenous Language Survey (NILS) 2005 lists the number of speakers at 1000, although the 2006 census lists only two. The language is spoken in the area surrounding the town of Coen on the eastern tip of Queensland.

Kuuk Thaayorre/Thaayorre: A language from the Western Paman language group that is spoken by approximately 24 people. It is spoken to the south of Pormpuraaw near the mouth of the Mitchell River on the western coast of the tip of Queensland.

Guugu Yimidhirr/Gugu Yimithirr/Kuku Yimidhirr: a language part of the Yalandjic language group spoken by approximately 700-800 people on the northeast coast of Queensland. The language area is from the Annan River and Cooktown to the mouth of the Jeannie River, and westwards to near the mouth of the Jack River, and south to the Normanby River. The language is spoken on several islands including Lizard Island.

Kuku Yalanji/Gugu Yalandji: a language part of the Yalandjic language group spoken by approximately 300-400 speakers. The language traditionally inhabited an area of over 2000 square kilometres extending from the Mossman River in the south to the Annan River in the north, bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the east and extending inland to just west of Mount Mulgrave.

Kalaw Kawaw Ya and Kalaw Lagaw Ya/Kala Lagaw Ya: These two languages are part of the Torres Strait Language Group and are spoken by approximately 1200 people each.

Kalaw Kawaw Ya is spoken on Saibai Island, Dauan Island and Boigu Island, all just south of Papua New Guinea. Kalaw Lagaw Ya/Kala Lagaw Ya is spoken on Mabuiag Island (formerly Jervis Island) and Badu Island (Mulgrave Island), just north of Thursday Island near the tip of Queensland.

Yidiny/Yidindji: A language spoken by approximately 140 people is part of the Yidinyic language group. The language ‘s region encompasses the area between Cairns and Aloomba and to the west at Kairi.

Further References

This document has been adapted from information provided on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ‘ Australian Indigenous Languages Database (AUSTLANG): Source.

Blake, B.J. Australian Aboriginal languages: a general introduction, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane 1991
Breen, G. Introductory Dictionary of Western Arrernte. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2000.

Dixon, R.M.W. The languages of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980 Goddard, C. Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1996

Green, J. A Learner’s Guide to Eastern and Central Arrernte. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1984.

Hale, K. An Elementary Warlpiri Dictionary. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1995.

Hansen, K.C. and L.E. Pintupi/Luritja Dictionary. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1992.

Heffernan, J. and Heffernan, K. A Learner’s Guide to Pintupi-Luritja. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1999

Henderson, J. and Dobson, V. Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1994.

Hoogenraad, R and Thornley, B. The jukurrpa pocket book of Aboriginal Languages of Central Australia and the places where they are spoken. IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2003 Kaldor, S. ‘The Aboriginal languages of Australia’ in R.D. Eagleson, S. Kaldor and I.G.

Malcolm English and the Aboriginal child, Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, 1982, pp.31 -72

Kral, I. An Introduction to Indigenous Languages and Literacy in Central Australia, Alice Springs: Central Australian Remote Health Development Services (CARHDS), 2002.

Laughren, M., Hoogenraad, R., Hale, K., Granites, R.J. A Learner’s Guide to Warlpiri. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1996.

Nathan, P. and Leichleitner Japanangka, D. Settle Down Country – Pmere Arlaltyewele.

CAAC: Kibble Books, 1983.

Papunya School, Papunya School Book of Country and History. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001.

Tindale, N. B. and Jones, R. Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits, and proper names. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974.

Vászolyi, E.G. Aboriginal Australians speak: an introduction to Australian Aboriginal linguistics, ATEP, Mt Lawley College of Advanced Education, Perth, 1976.

Yallop, C. Australian Aboriginal languages, Andre Deutsch, London, 1981.