Every Word Has a Story

4. The Family Tree of Australian English

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To explore the evolving inter-relationship between Australian Aboriginal languages and Australian English

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can explain how some Aboriginal words have been borrowed and used in Australian English
  • I can explain how English words are used in Aboriginal English
  • I can explain the history and meaning of some Australian place names

Computers, laptops or tablets and access to the internet 

Atlases or online tools such as Google Maps

Graphic organisers/thinking protocols:

Primary resources:

  • Extracts form Thomas Mitchell’s journal: docx PDF
  • The story behind the word ‘kangaroo’: docx PDF

Supporting resources:

  • Origins of Victorian Place Names: docx PDF
  • Etymology of borrowed words: docx PDF
  • Timeline of Australian English: docx PDF
  • Aboriginal English words referring to family and community: docx PDF

This stage provides opportunities for students to explore the interrelationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island languages and Australian English. It is recommended that students have engaged with Stage 1 of this sequence and have some understanding of the history of the English language.

Display a world map displaying countries that speak English as the official language.

Ask students to consider:

  • Why might English be the official language of Australia?
  • In what ways might Australian English differ from the English spoken in other parts of the world?
  • Why might Australian English differ from the English spoken in other parts of the world?

Facilitate a class discussion examining each of these questions. Use a thinking tool, such as Know, Think, Wonder, to organise student responses, for example, ask students what they know, think or predict and wonder about each question. A template is available in the Materials and texts section above.

Support the discussion by providing a timeline of Australian English and invite students to elaborate on the factors that may have influenced Australian English since the arrival of the First Fleet (see Materials and texts for a downloadable copy of a Timeline of Australian English). 

Write a selection of words on the board that include words borrowed from European and Australian Aboriginal languages, for example: yakka, menu, yarn and galah.

Ask students to turn and talk to a partner to discuss the meaning of each word and the possible language the words may derive from. Provide the graphic organiser, word origin and meaning for students to record their thinking (see resources available in the Materials and texts section above).

Invite students to share their responses. Provide further information on the origin of each word as required. An explanation of the etymology of the borrowed words is included in the Materials and texts section. 

Facilitate a discussion about how ‘borrowed‘ words such as yarn, yakka and galah, are used in English and how word meanings change over time. Questions prompts include:

  • How might we explain what a ‘borrowed’ word is?   
  • Why might ‘borrowed’ words be used by English speakers?
  • How have the meanings of ‘yakka’ and ‘yarn’ and ‘galah’ changed over time?
  • Why might the meaning of words change over time?

Following the class discussion, encourage students to add any additional information they have learned to their graphic organiser.

Students work with a partner to prepare a presentation explaining the story behind the word ‘kangaroo’ (see Materials and Texts). Explain that ‘kangaroo’ is thought to be the first Australian Aboriginal borrowed word that entered the English language. Distribute the resource, The story behind the word ‘kangaroo’, available in the Materials and texts section above.    

Discuss how ‘kangaroo’ became a generic term with Captain Cook failing to recognise that there were over two hundred and fifty distinct language groups in Australia. Invite students to suggest how the borrowed word changed in meaning.

Present a map displaying the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia to support student understanding of significance of Aboriginal languages before European settlement.

Australian Place Names

Ask students to think about how places in Australia have been named. Question prompts could include:

  • What might the names Victoria and Melbourne represent? 
  • Why do you think James Cook chose the name ‘Cape Tribulation’? 
  • What might be the significance of the names 'Endeavour River' and 'Cooktown'? 

Organise students to work in pairs to investigate these questions.

Enable students by providing suitable websites or model research techniques to support independent research such as using effective questions, identifying suitable websites, skimming and scanning to find relevant information and summarising key points.   

Invite students to share their research and to generalise about the guiding rules that were used to decide on place names.   

Present videos that represent Aboriginal perspectives on traditional place names and the importance of place. Suitable selections could include:

Historian and Author of Dark Emu, Professor Bruce Pascoe has said that Indigenous place “names should be regarded like a treasure”. Ask students to consider why he might make this statement and make notes as they view the videos. 


Enable students to identify relevant information in the videos by providing a framework for their thinking. For example, factual content, emotive content and wonderings a more theme-based focus, such as information about place names, stories associated with place and information about how people related to and used Country.  

Extend student thinking by asking them to compare the significance assigned to a place name by Europeans with the significance of place names to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Examine attitudes to land and country. 

The article, ‘Before James Cook renamed them 250 years ago, these places along the East coast were known in ancient languages’, is also a useful resource with some of the placenames and their stories told by the traditional custodians, elders and community members of these locations along with the daily entries of Cook's journal. 

Draw student attention to the statistic provided by Bruce Pascoe, that between sixty and seventy percent of places in Australia have Aboriginal names. Students work collaboratively to create a class list of some the names of natural geographical features, cities and towns. They should include:

  • capital cities, provincial cities and small towns in each state
  • some of the rivers in Australia
  • some well-known natural features, such as mountain ranges, waterfalls, lakes and deserts.

Alternatively, support students to create a list of the names of towns, suburbs, streets and natural features in their local area. Provide atlases to support students if needed.

Ask students to suggest what languages the names from the list may derive from (for example, English, French, Aboriginal languages).

Explain that students will work with a partner to investigate the stories behind two place names. Invite discussion about the information they should include and how the research will be presented.

Provide instructions and a check list for students:

You can present your work as a postcard, a multimedia presentation or deliver an oral presentation supported by visual material. Your response should include:   

  • a map to explain where the feature is located
  • a photograph of the geographical feature
  • historical and cultural information on the place
  • an explanation about why the name was chosen and who chose it.

If possible, include the original Aboriginal name and any creation stories that relate to your inquiry.

Ask students to reflect on their learning using the Step Inside routine. The extracts from Major Thomas Mitchell’s journal and a list of Victorian place names and their origins would be useful resources to support student reflection (see the Materials and texts section).  


Enable students by modelling the research process to the class. Demonstrate using key words and questions to locate information, selecting reliable sources, skimming and scanning for relevant information and summarising key points. Alternatively, support students in a structured inquiry, for example investigating the naming of the Yarra River. Provide the paragraph subtitled, ‘The Wurundjeri and European discovery’, on the yarra.river.melbourne site. Ask students to read the text and locate information to answer and discuss and the following questions:

  • Who named the Yarra?   
  • Why was the name selected and what does it mean? 
  • What was the original Wurundjeri name for the river and what did it mean?
  • Why might it be important to understand the significance of Aboriginal place names?

Invite students to share their findings and to compare the meaning and history of place names in Aboriginal cultures with names derived from European cultures. 

Extend students by asking them to consider why European explorers may have used Aboriginal place names. Challenge them to consider to what degree the true meaning and significance of the traditional name was acknowledged or overlooked. 

Borrowed Aboriginal words in English 

Present the video Understanding Aboriginal English. Ask students to note Australian Aboriginal words that have been borrowed by English, and English words that have developed a specific meaning in Aboriginal English. Prompt students to suggest other Australian Aboriginal words that are used regularly in Australian English.

Enable students to identify Aboriginal borrowed words by reading and discussing the text, Aboriginal words in English, or Learn English: Borrowed Indigenous Australian words.

Students may be able to recognise Aboriginal words relating to flora and fauna. Discuss the diversity of indigenous languages in Australia and prompt students to question if the word meaning altered with a generic application.  

English words with Aboriginal meaning

Explain to students that there are many English words that have an altered meaning in Aboriginal English. Lead students to compare the Australian English understanding of the word ‘country’ with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s understanding of the word.

Ask students to write a definition of the word ‘country’. Encourage students to write more than one definition. Students may define ‘country’ as a state or territory with its own government, a rural area as opposed to a city landscape or an expanse of land with a particular feature, for example a mountain range or an area or land where a person was born or belongs to.

Provide opportunities for students to share and discuss their definition using the Think, Pair Share protocol (see Materials and texts section). Share and display student definitions.

Present suitable material for students to explore the meaning of the term ‘Country’ in Aboriginal English, e.g. The Mungo National Park website explains how Aboriginal people use the term ‘Country’ and the videos, Lets Cry a River, Care for Country – Looking after our Beaches and Back to the Baaka provide information on peoples relationship to Country that would be suitable for guided discussion.

Ask students to compare and extend on their earlier definitions of ‘country’ to include the perspectives of Australian Aboriginal people. Prompt students to consider why Aboriginal people use a capital ‘C’ when they talk or write about the concept of Country.    

Organise students to work in pairs and to research the meaning of other words that have altered meanings in Aboriginal English. Words could include: deadly, shame, gammin, bung. Students could also examine Aboriginal English words describing family and community (see Materials and Texts).

Support students to collaborate to create a class dictionary that defines and illustrates Australian Aboriginal words that are commonly used in Australian English and English words that have an altered meaning in Australian Aboriginal English.

Exploring Aboriginal Languages

Present the Behind the News episode, Indigenous Languages. Ask students to consider why it might be important to revive or awaken traditional languages across Australia. Provide a framework for students to record their ideas as they view the video. For example, they could use a table to list new information, points of interest and any questions or wonderings they have. 

Invite students to share and discuss their summaries in small groups before facilitating a whole class discussion.

Explain that they will be reading a creation story that uses Indigenous words. Provide students with a photocopy of a story selected from Nyernila – Listen Continuously. Select a story that includes an Indigenous word list, for example, The Southern Cross and Nerran the Moon. Do not provide the word translations to the students. Instead, ask students to read the story with a partner and predict what the Aboriginal words might mean. Provide the glossary of Aboriginal language terms and invite students to affirm or correct their predictions. This collection has stories from various regions across Victoria. Consider selecting a story from your local area.

Enable students to infer the meaning of Indigenous words by selecting texts that match their reading abilities and offering support in teacher directed reading groups.

Ask students to select a word from the text, identify the language group and location from which it derives, and to define and illustrate the word. This could be added to the class dictionary or Word Wall.

Areas for further exploration

Facilitate a discussion about how natural and artificial geographical features are named. Invite students to discuss why Uluru has two names. Read the text about the Ayers Rock or Uluru with the students.

Ask them to form pairs and respond to the following questions:

  • Why did William Goss, an explorer, choose the name Ayers Rock in 1873?
  • Who named the rock Uluru? 
  • Why does the rock have two names?
  • Why might the rock always be referred to as Uluru in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park?

Invite students to discuss their responses, share their thoughts and pose any questions or wonderings.

Enable students to respond to the above questions by watching a Behind the News episode, Uluru Climbing Ban

Present a video to the students to encourage reflection on the learning in this stage. First Languages Australia: The importance of Language and/or Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night' sung in Wiradjuri language.

Display the following quote to launch discussion:

“How we speak about something using the words in our language determines a great deal about how we think about it.” Langton (2019, p.35)

Possible discussion prompts could include:

  • How might languages evolve?
  • How might Australian English continue to evolve?
  • Why might language be important to a person’s culture and identity?

Ask students to respond to these questions on an exit ticket.  

Assessment opportunities in this stage include: 

  • word meaning and origin responses
  • personal summaries of the story behind the word ‘kangaroo’
  • investigation and presentations on the origin of place names
  • step inside protocol
  • contributions to class dictionary.

ABC Education, 2017. Learn English: Borrowed Indigenous Australian words. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/education/learn-english/learn-english-borrowed-aboriginal-words/8248664
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC Education, 2022. Understanding Aboriginal English. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/education/radio-national-understanding-aboriginal-english/13820928
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC: Behind the News, 2014. Indigenous Languages. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/btn/classroom/indigenous-languages/10528324
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC: Behind the News, 2017. Uluru Climbing Ban. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/btn/classroom/uluru-climbing-ban/10522182
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC: This Place, 2019. Wutiyeti: Bunyip from Ackle Bend - This Place. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=OfNRrpmKiJw
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC, n.d. This Place. [Online]
Available at: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/this-place
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

ABC, n.d. This Place: View From The Shore. [Online]
Available at: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/this-place-view-from-the-shore/series/0/video/RA1913H008S00
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, n.d. Map of Indigenous Australia. [Online]
Available at: https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Australian National University, 2017. Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms. [Online]
Available at: https://slll.cass.anu.edu.au/centres/andc/meanings-origins/g
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Bird, E., 2006. Place Names on the Coast of Victoria. [Online]
Available at: http://seha.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Place-names-on-the-Coast-of-Victoria-by-Eric-Bird.pdf
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Casterton and District Historical Society, 2020. Extract from the Diary of Major Mitchell, august 1836. [Online]
Available at: http://www.swvic.org/dartmoor/mitchell_1836.htm
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Common Ground, n.d. Connection to Country. [Online]
Available at: https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/connection-to-animals-and-country
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Creative Australian, 2014. Nyernila: Listen Continuously. [Online]
Available at: cv.vic.gov.au/media/3046/nyernila-listen-continously-2015.pdf
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

First Nations Media, 2018. Caring for Country - Looking After Our Beaches. [Online]
Available at: https://www.indigitube.com.au/video/5c466d2aff2df07802d09698
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

First Nations Media, 2019. Lets cry us all a river: Uncle Pete Williams. [Online]
Available at: https://www.indigitube.com.au/video/5f0f95da574aa206c942ccc7
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

First Nations Media, 2020. Back to the Baaka | This Is Water | Ep.1. [Online]
Available at: https://www.indigitube.com.au/video/5f0f95da574aa206c942ccc7
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2020. Project Zero: Feel, Think, Care. [Online]
Available at: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Think%20Feel%20Care_1.pdf
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Dev & Comms, 2019. First Languages Australia: The Importance of Language. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=xtamrf0cfiU&feature=emb_title
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Langton, M., 2019. Welcome to Country. School ed. s.l.:Hardie Grant Travel.

Mitchell, T., 1848. ournal of an Expedition by Thomas Mitchell. [Online]
Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00034.html
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Moran, A., 2020. Before James Cook renamed them 250 years ago, these places along the east coast were known in ancient languages. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-22/james-cook-250-anniversary-indigenous-place-names-timeline/12251968?nw=0
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Mungo National Park, n.d. Share Mungo Culture: Aboriginal Country. [Online]
Available at: http://www.visitmungo.com.au/aboriginal-country
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

National Museum Australia, n.d. Dooragan, Mooragan, Booragan — Three Brothers Mountains. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/dooragan-mooragan-booragan-three-brothers
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

National Museum Australia, n.d. Waalumbaal Birri — Endeavour River. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/waalumbaal-birri-endeavour-river
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

National Portrait Gallery, 1838. Piper,... who accompanied Major Mitchell in his expedition to the interior of NSE. [Online]
Available at: https://www.portrait.gov.au/portraits/1999.23.2/piper-the-native-who-accompanied-major-mitchell
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

NITV, 2019. Christmas carol 'Silent Night' sung in Wiradjuri language. [Online]
Available at: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/12/17/christmas-carol-silent-night-sung-wiradjuri-language
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Readings, 2020. Recommended First Nations children's books. [Online]
Available at: https://www.readings.com.au/collection/recommended-first-nations-childrens-books
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Royal Museums Greenwich, n.d. 'The Kongouro from New Holland' (Kangaroo). [Online]
Available at: https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/573621.html
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Saxton, J. G., 1907. Victoria Place Names and their Origin. [Online]
Available at: http://dro.deakin.edu.au/eserv/DU:30111533/saxton1907victoriaplacenames-text.htm
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

State Library of Queensland, 2015. Aboriginal words in English. [Online]
Available at: https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/aboriginal-words-english
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, 2020. Ayers Rock or Uluru?. [Online]
Available at: https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/about/ayers-rock-or-uluru/
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

VACCHO, 2014. Koorified: Aboriginal Communication and Well-being. [Online]
Available at: http://www.vaccho.org.au/vcwp/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Koorified-Aboriginal-Communication-and-Well_Being.pdf
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Wikipedia, 2016. List of territorial entities where English is an official language. [Online]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_territorial_entities_where_English_is_an_official_language#/media/File:Countries_with_English_as_Official_Language.png
[Accessed 13 April 2022].

Back to Stages