Dialects in Auslan – Northern vs Southern

When learning Auslan in Australia, you will inevitably learn about the northern and southern dialects. I have noticed some confusion and concern around dialectical differences by new Auslan learners time and time again.

Let’s explore Auslan dialect and hopefully I can share why I believe learners shouldn’t be so worried about it.

Firstly, let’s look at how these dialects have come about and then I’ll explain my honest (and potentially unpopular) opinion on this.

In 1860 two of Australia’s first Deaf schools were established (by sheer coincidence) within 3 weeks of each other! The first being in Sydney, NSW and the second in Melbourne, VIC.

Thomas Pattison set up the first school for the deaf in Australia in East Sydney, NSW. Pattison hailed from Scotland which means the origin of the northern dialect also has Scottish roots.

Frederick John Rose was a deaf man who came from England and set up a school of the deaf in Melbourne, VIC. This eventuated in the southern dialect having roots in English sign.

Back in those days, British and Scottish sign languages had some clear differences. But over time as the students of these schools grew up, went away, and mingled with deaf folk from other schools and states – these languages melded and evolved into the Auslan that we know and use today.

Initially the differences in some signs were quite distinct and noticeable, but over time these differences have become much subtler.

Now, here’s the point I want to make.

While yes, there ARE dialects in Auslan, it was perhaps over 40+ years ago that these differences were clear, noticeable, and prevalent.

In present times however, with people traveling or moving interstate and the prevalent use of technology such as Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime for communication and Auslan education, has meant that geographical and dialectical distinctions have blurred and almost disappeared.

Today you will still see some dialect differences, mostly in colours and numbers but it’s my ‘guesstimation’ that overall there might be only about 30-40 signs that are different between northern and southern dialects.

But focusing on these few signs and worrying about them should not get in the way of one learning Auslan! *

*(I am aware there are exceptions to this, such as if you are teaching children Auslan and therefore need to ensure the applicable dialect signs, in particular, colour signs).

Just go ahead and learn the Auslan language and any good Auslan tutor/teacher/educator will inform you of and educate you on any signs you need to be aware of as you progress. These days, just being aware that there are differences will suffice. You are likely to see northern signs used down south and vice versa.

An analogy I often use is this: If you are traveling from Australia to New Zealand, one does not tend to panic that they won’t be able to communicate in either country as they know both speak English.

We say “esky” in one country and “chilly bin” in the other, “swimmers” or “bathers” in Oz are known as “togs” in NZ. “Thongs” in Australia are called “jandals” in NZ, etc.

The same concept applies in Auslan.

Learn and focus on the language. Rely on and trust that your Deaf teacher and friends will guide you with any dialect differences you need to know.

NOTE: Northern dialect tends to be used in Queensland and New South Wales, southern dialect in all the other states in Australia.

Hope you found this handy and keep up your Awesome Auslan!

Disclaimer This information is entirely subjective and based on my personal experience, interpretation and understanding of the subject matter.