Language naming in Indigenous Australia: a view from western Arnhem Land

Jill Vaughan, Ruth Jennifer Singer, Murray Garde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Language naming systems are local ways of organising diversity, yet the language names used by linguists are sometimes incommensurable with the lived social reality of speakers. The process of assigning language names is not neutral,
trivial or objective: it is a highly political process driven and shaped by understandings of group identity, similarity and difference. Closer attention to local perspectives on language naming offers important insights into ideologies
around social and linguistic differentiation. This paper draws together accounts of diverse language naming practices from across Indigenous Australia and applies a close lens to the region of western Arnhem Land. Through an examination of three
groups (speakers of Bininj Kunwok, Mawng, and Burarra), we describe the range of
strategies speakers use to divide up their local language ecologies, practices for
naming lects, and the role of variation in the processes of differentiation. Naming
practices between these groups show interesting similarities but also striking
differences. We further highlight the interplay between two key processes which
characterise local language naming strategies in the region: the ‘erasure’ of difference, typically from the perspective of a politically more powerful group, and
the intentional creation of linguistic differentiation, or ausbau.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages36
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Cite this