If we are we going to understand the language skills which Aboriginal children bring to school, as well as their English language needs, then we need to understand how AE differs from SE. Differences are found in all aspects of language: i.e. phonology (or accent and pronunciation), morpho-syntax (or grammar), lexico-semantics (or words and their meaning), and pragmatics (or the way that language is used in socio-cultural contexts). Examples of these differences are given below.
As I have explained, AE is really a continuum of dialects. Certain features are distributed very widely through all dialects, while other features are localised within certain regions, or somewhere along the continuum from heavy to light varieties. In the examples which follow, the symbol (H) indicates that the feature is usually found only in heavy AE, whereas the unlabelled features are widely found in AE varieties around the country.
Interested readers are referred to Malcolm and Kaldor (1991) for information about the distribution of AE features.
Phonology (accent and pronunciation)
Many varieties of AE have no h sound at the beginning of the word.
This feature is largely the result of the influence of traditional Aboriginal languages which have no h sound. Over the generations, Aboriginal speakers have learnt English with an Aboriginal accent. So when they have learnt SE words which start with an h sound, the Aboriginal accent has produced them without it. It’s likely that this pronunciation was also influenced by the accent of many of the early non-Aboriginal Australians (especially Cockney and Irish convicts), and it coincides with some other non-standard varieties of English. Thus it is a mistake for teachers to assume that the pronunciation of words without h is just uneducated English. It is as much a part of the Aboriginal accent as the ‘cute’ vowel pronunciations of French speakers of English are part of the French accent, and should be recognised and respected as a feature of which many Aboriginal people are proud. However, it can cause misunderstanding, as in the example below:
|| Helen different from Ellen
(H) Aboriginal languages rarely have f, v or th sounds, and so the heavier varieties of AE often change these sounds in English words to other consonants. The most common changes are these:
| p or b
| b or p
| t or d
This feature can sometimes cause misunderstanding, as in the following example:
| We ‘ad a bight.
|| We had a fight.
| different from
|| We had a bite.
To express possession, many varieties of AE simply juxtapose the possessor and the possessed. By contrast, to express possession in SE the possessor noun receives the suffix -s.
| I can’t see that man car.
|| I can’t see the man’s car.
| Where Tom house?
|| Where is Tom’s house?
Note that this grammatical construction parallels the expression of possession in Aboriginal traditional languages. It is also worth noting that these languages rarely have an s sound. It would be inaccurate to describe this feature of AE in terms of speakers ‘dropping off the SE possessive -s suffix’.
(H) In the heavy varieties of AE, he (or ‘e) is used to mean either he or she. This feature can cause misunderstanding, as in the following example:
| ‘E come from Perth.
|| He comes from Perth.
She comes from Perth.
But of course the context often prevents such misunderstanding, as in the following example:
Q. Your mother lives where?
A. Before up in Cairns, now ‘e down Brisbane.
Lexico-semantics (words and their meaning)
In the area of lexicon or vocabulary there is often specific regional variation. So, for example, the word for policeman in parts of NSW and Queensland is buliman, in other parts of NSW it is gandjibal (sometimes spelt gunjibul), in Perth it is monartch, in Geraldton it is mardanyuwa, and so on. All around the country, this is one of the words which remain current the longest, well after almost all of the Aboriginal language of the area has died.
Mardanyuwa means ‘person with chains’. Buliman and gandjidal were originally borrowed from English policeman and constable respectively and incorporated into Aboriginal languages. Thus they have come into AE as Aboriginal words with an English history.
There are also some English words used with different meanings in AE. For example, the SE word mother means ‘the woman who gave birth to a person, or her equivalent’. But in many varieties of AE the word mother means ‘the woman who gave birth to a person, and that woman’s sisters’. This shows a continuity from the kinship organisation of traditionally oriented societies, where a mother’s sister is often treated as a mother, and a single word would translate into SE both as ‘mother’ and ‘mother’s sister’.
|| Aboriginal language
| grow [a child] up
|| raise [a child]
An interesting lexico-semantic feature of AE is the word deadly, which would translate into SE as something like ‘really good’. It appears that this is a word which is spreading from AE into general Australian teenage slang.
Pragmatics (the way language is used in socio-cultural contexts)
The area of pragmatics is where we frequently see the most persistent features of AE. In metropolitan and urban areas particularly, Aboriginal speakers often use linguistic forms which are very close to, or even identical with, SE. However, there are significant aspects of meaning which are not shared with speakers of SE because of sociocultural differences — in other words, the same utterance may have different meanings in AE and SE because of these differences. For similar reasons Aboriginal speakers may use English in different ways.
A good example of the pragmatics of AE can be seen in the way that people find out information. AE speakers use direct questions to seek certain information, such as clarification of reasonably public details about a person (for example, Where’s ‘e from?). But in situations where Aboriginal people want to find out more substantial or personal information, they typically do not use direct questions. It is important for Aboriginal people not to embarrass others by putting them ‘on the spot’. So they volunteer some of their own information, hinting at what they are trying to find out. Information is sought as part of a two-way exchange. Being silent, and waiting until others are ready to share their knowledge, are also central to Aboriginal ways of seeking any substantial information.
Although people in mainstream Australian society can recognise these ways of seeking information, they use them only in sensitive situations. But in Aboriginal interactions they are the everyday strategies for seeking substantial information — they are part of the sociocultural context. Aboriginal societies in Australia are based on small-scale interaction between people who know each other and are often related to each other. Information is sought as part of an exchange between people who are in a reciprocal, on-going relationship. None the less information or knowledge is often not freely accessible; certain people have rights to certain knowledge.
By contrast, mainstream Australian society is a large scale society where information is highly valued and much information and knowledge is assumed to be freely accessible. There is also a deep-rooted assumption that if a person needs to find something out, then direct questions are appropriate and effective. The direct question is central to communication in most mainstream Australian institutions, including education, the media and the law. In fact we have ‘institutionalised’ the question in our interviews, enquiry counters and questionnaires.
Furthermore direct questioning is so central to western notions of how to teach children that parents and other care givers often communicate with babies, long before they can talk, by asking questions and then answering them on the baby’s behalf. For example:
Who’s that? Daddy.
Where’s Mummy? Gone to work.
Why are you crying? Oh, you’re hungry!
However, this conversational pattern doesn’t appear to be characteristic of interaction between Aboriginal people and their babies. Much of their interaction is physical, and the question-answer format is not central to verbal interaction. It is much more important to teach Aboriginal babies who their relatives are by telling them things like:
This is your auntie.
That’s your cousin brother. (= SE father’s brother’s son)
Thus there are significant differences in the way English is used within Aboriginal and mainstream societies in Australia, and they can cause serious misunderstandings, of which teachers are often unaware. To take one further example, silence in AE conversations is frequently a sign of comfortable interaction and is not interpreted as a breakdown in communication. Aboriginal people like to use silence while they develop their relationship with another person, or simply while they think about what they are going to say. However, in the mainstream use of English in Australia (as in many western countries), silence in a conversation is an indication that something is going wrong. People try to avoid silences, and, if one develops, there are efforts to fill it. So, even though silence has the same linguistic form (or sounds the same) in both AE and SE, it does not have the same meaning.