Plotting Indigenous languages in 50 Words


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Visit 50 Words

Ngurna yanku ngurra-ngkurra means ‘I’m going home’ in Gurindji. Jakiliny means ‘moon’.

These words and others are captured on, the first comprehensive website that allows users to hear and see the diversity of First Nations languages in Australia. All information contained on the site is provided with community permission.

Of the hundreds of languages spoken in Australia before the invasion by European settlers, fewer than 50 Australian Indigenous languages are spoken fluently today.

The lead researchers, linguists Professor Rachel Nordlinger and Associate Professor Nick Thieberger, saw it was difficult for people to appreciate First Languages if they don’t know about them. There were few reliable and accurate sources of Indigenous words, and none with audio that covers the whole of Australia.

50 Words was developed by the Research Unit for Indigenous Language (RUIL), primarily as a resource for Australian schools, but it also helps the general public appreciate Australian Indigenous languages.

Users select a language from a map of Australia to bring up words with audio or video recordings. There is a word written in the relevant Aboriginal language and a translation into English. Users can also search the map by one of the 50 words, for example ‘hand'. The map displays that word in each local language, and users can click to hear it being spoken. The site directs people to pronunciation guides, as well as the Indigenous language database AUSTLANG.

The team chose common words that complemented themes of the Curricula Project, an Australian Government initiative to help teachers integrate First Nations perspectives into the classroom.

Professor Nordlinger and Associate Professor Thieberger worked with the peak body for Australian Indigenous languages, First Languages Australia, and First Nations communities, language and cultural centres. More than 60 communities have been consulted. The site currently hosts more than 65 languages and is growing.

Currently 50 Words includes greetings like ‘welcome’ (marni naa pudni in Kaurna) and ’goodbye’ (nginowa in Awabakal), animal names like ‘emu’ (wurrparn in Djinang) and ‘goanna’ (kaarda in Wadjak Noongar), and words that describe the weather, plants, constellations, time and the body.

As well as being intrinsically valuable, Indigenous languages help linguists understand how our minds process and learn information. They also give us insights into Indigenous culture and knowledge.

For example, in the Kunwinjku language of Arnhem Land, the Spangled Grunter fish and the White Apple tree are both known as bokorn. This is because the presence of the tree often indicates that the fish is nearby, since the fish waits around to eat apples that fall into the creek.

People interested in adding a language or obtaining further information about the 50 Words project can

Next steps

The team is exploring how can work as a smartphone app that displays local information relevant to the user's location.

The team is also writing a guide using examples from 50 words to demonstrate how different languages contain different types of information, which in turn provide insights into culture and society.

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Banner image: In Bilinarra, yibu means rain. In Gurindji, a language spoken not far away, the word for rain is yipu. Fiona Napaljarri Gibson and Angela Harrison explore 50 Words. Image: Jenny Green

First published on 11 March 2022.

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