Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language Resources – Language Maps

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State Library contains a range of cartographic resources such as tribal/language maps of value to researchers and community members interested in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage of Queensland.

When researching Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander tribal/language group names and boundaries there is no one primary source that is definitive. Researchers are advised to consult a wide variety of information such as some of the sources and items listed below. This material should be complemented by accessing knowledge held by local community Elders, community groups, Indigenous Language Centres, IKCs and other organisations.


A common query at the State Library relates to language areas or locations where Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken. Traditionally, Aboriginal languages were based on drainage systems and the associated catchment areas. While groups tended to stay within their own areas, there was a fair degree of interaction with neighbouring groups for trade, ceremonies and other social interactions. Consequently, Aboriginal people were multilingual and spoke adjacent languages as well as their parents' languages. There were also many 'shared' or 'borrowed' words across language groups.

Within the Torres Strait, the two distinct languages were based on island groups: Eastern (Meriam Mir) and Western and Central Islands (Kala Lagaw Ya). TSRA as part of their Torres Strait Island Language Symposium compiled a map of the languages of the Torres Strait Islands: http://www.tslangsym.net/information/language-map

The traditional language landscape of Queensland changed dramatically with European settlement and the impact of English on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, leading to pidgins, creoles and Aboriginal Englishes. With the onset of the Protection Act and the subsequent establishment of Missions, blended or hybrid languages also came into being. The difficulty today for many language revival groups is rediscovering the original extent of their language.

working copy of Indigneous Languages map

This language map was originally created in 1999 by State Library to raise awareness of the diversity of Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Information on the map was provided through consultation, advice and other input from a range of community groups and individuals. Its main purpose was to highlight the diversity of Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as well as provide an insight into the areas they were spoken.

screen shot of Indigenous Languages map

From this initial starting point, State Library explored ways to assist community language groups, researchers and others to identify language regions, but more importantly to locate resources in the State Library collections. Often library clients would have a general idea of the location or region where the language was spoken and from this, staff could provide assistance.

By using the AIATSIS Geographic and Language codes, State Library has added subject descriptors and 'tags' to the catalogue to assist researchers. The next progression was to generate an interactive map that identified general information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages but also hyperlinked to items in the collections.

Further details on the AIATSIS codes can be found at their Pathways Thesauri http://aiatsis.gov.au/publications/products/pathways-thesauri

example of data from Indigenous Languages map

The outcome from this initiative was an interactive languages resource map.

This is a useful reference tool for language research; however, community language workers and community members wished to explore and map the areas where their language was spoken. Fortunately, there is a range of materials and other sources within the State Library collecitons. Resources relating to mapping languages or depicting language maps should be seen as a guide or starting point for discussions rather than the absolute/definitive authority on language groups and their areas.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language Maps

The below list in the appendix is a selection of State Library collection items and websites that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language maps and are useful starting points for schools, communities and public libraries.

Further consultation should be undertaken with local community members and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, including Elders and Traditional Custodians to gain an insight into the language landscape of a region.

Note: These maps were primarily designed to highlight the diversity of Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages; they are not intended or designed for Native Title research or claims. Queries relating to Native Title should be directed to the representative Native Title body. A list of such bodies can be found on the Queensland Government Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander portal: https://www.qld.gov.au/atsi/environment-land-use-native-title/native-title-representative-body/

Further details

For further information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages at the State Library of Queensland, please contact:

kuril dhagun, State Library of Queensland
Stanley Place, South Brisbane Qld, 4101.
PO Box 3488, South Brisbane Qld, 4101.
t: (07) 3842 9836 f: (07) 3842 9893

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