palawa kani

(Aborigines talking)


Contact:  palawa kani Language Program      03 63 323 800

palawa kani is the revived form of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. It incorporates authentic elements of the original languages remembered by Tasmanian Aborigines from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. It also draws on an extensive body of historical and linguistic research. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is acknowledged both within and outside the Aboriginal community as the body with responsibility for that work, conducted by the palawa kani language Program statewide.

There are no living speakers of the original Tasmanian languages. Spoken records of the original sounds are limited to a few sounds that can only just be heard when Fanny Cochrane Smith spoke on the records of her songs in 1899. So to attempt to recover the original sounds and meanings, we have to start from written records made by early Europeans of the sounds they heard, and the meanings they thought they understood when they heard our ancestors speak.

Those Europeans are the recorders of our original Tasmanian languages, and there are over 20 of them, including convict labourers, published scientists, sailors, soldiers, farmers, doctors, writers and clergymen. They were Scottish, Polish, French, Danish and mostly Englishmen, from different regions and social classes. Each one of them used the familiar spelling of their own language to write down something that approximated to the unfamiliar sounds they were hearing in our Aboriginal languages.

Their spellings are what we call ‘recordings’ and ‘spelling variants’. Different recorders give different spellings for the same word, and one recorder can even give several different spellings for the same word, if he heard it on different occasions and from different people.

Those spellings of words made by the recorders, which have become familiar through repeated use in publications by Plomley, Ryan, and other historians and writers, are not Aboriginal words. They are part of the smorgasbord of recordings from European scribes of many nationalities, writing down what they heard spoken by Aborigines, and attempting to capture unfamiliar Aboriginal sounds in their own European spellings.

We are fortunate to have so many different recorders of the original languages because this allows us to compare spellings and meanings. Using linguistic analysis and phonetics we derive statistically common sounds from this comparison of the different spellings of the one word. We already know from earlier analysis what sounds existed in our languages, and we represent the sounds we recover with the alphabet system we have developed.

We can then work out the most likely authentic sounds for a word from all the possible sounds. This is what reconstruction is – retrieving the authentic original sounds and meanings as closely as possible from the evidence in the recordings, based on the principles described in the palawa kani Sounds and Spelling Book 1998. These principles were developed by Gaye Brown and have been applied since by Theresa Sainty; both were trained by and worked with linguists engaged by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Before we began any reconstructions, we also determined who were the most accurate, hence most reliable, recorders of the sounds and meanings. This also helped us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of individual recorders. These factors are taken into account with every word.

Historical and biographical research and, where possible, knowledge still held within today’s Aboriginal community, assist in checking the meanings of words.

palawa kani   dictionary

Dictionary cover sm


palawa kani Dictionaries and other learning materials

are available from each regional TAC offices to all Aborigines eligible for TAC services.

Policy for use of language

Policies determining Aboriginal language use are based on the principle of Aboriginal control. These policies are set by the Aboriginal community through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Policy and Protocol for Use of palawa kani Aboriginal Language

palawa kani  posters

These mark seasons and events in the calendar, with cultural themes yet to come.

They can be enjoyed on this website, with accompanying audio.


Place names

Flowing on from the revival of the palawa kani language has been the eventual state government recognition of the original names of some places in lutruwita (Tasmania).  There are currently 13 officially gazetted Aboriginal or Dual names, one National Park (Narawntapu) and two community- allocated names for Aboriginal Land.

See more:

Aboriginal and Dual naming  and

Community Place names

Digitising palawa kani

In recent years, much work has gone into digitising the language materials into a database that is made available in Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre facilities around the state.  The multi-media materials catalogued include documents, supporting images and audio recordings.

The second phase of this digitising process has seen the creation of two language apps, allowing users to read and hear words, either singly or through building phrases.  A record function also lets them note their improvement in speaking the language over time.

This takes place in structured learning environments, such as the Aboriginal Children’s Centre in Hobart, the luwutina Children’s Centre in Launceston and across the TAC’s child and family programs statewide.

See more: Digitising palawa kani

Discover more at:

palawa kani news

Some of the language material displayed on this website was produced with the assistance of funding from Indigenous Languages and Arts,  Australian Attorney-General’s Department.