In my recent Delicious Descriptions post on Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami, I referred to last year’s UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. It occurred to me that while I’ve referred to Indigenous Australian languages several times in this blog, I’ve never specifically posted about them. Now seemed a good time, particularly given interest the year generated. As local Canberra newsreader Dan Bourchier wrote last year, ‘to the UN, language is more than a method of communication, it’s a “repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions, and memory”.’
Late last year, The Conversation published an article on “the state of Australia’s indigenous languages”. They started with some facts: in 1788 there were between 300 and 700 Indigenous languages spoken across Australia as shown by anthropologist Norman Tindale’s 1974 map, but by the 2016 Census, only around 160 of these languages were reported as being spoken at home, and of these, only 13 traditional Indigenous languages were still spoken by children. The article then lists the languages and the number of speakers recorded in the Census. Do read the article, if you are interested, as it also discusses the challenges involved in obtaining a true picture of the situation. Here, though, I want to move onto the recovery of language – assuming, of course, that readers here agree that recovering language is important, critical, to people and their culture.
Certainly, it’s clear that Indigenous people want to revive heritage or original languages, and many are doing so “from old recordings and documents, and sometimes from elderly speakers”. In 2017, I wrote a post on Indigenous Australian author, Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture “A paradox of empowerment” which was about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” Scott talked about a project he’s involved in to regain and claim Noongar language, and he described how they were doing that. One way is through archival sources, and – Bill (The Australian Legend) will like this – he used a story recorded by Daisy Bates as an example. It shows something that Dickie alludes to in her novel, which is that Indigenous languages, like English, change – so Bates recorded the Noongar people incorporating the the name of the settlement, King George Town, into their language, Kin-joor-town.
So, there is a quite a lot going on in specific Indigenous communities to revive languages that have died or nearly died (as the Noongar are doing) and to maintain languages that have survived (as the Yolngu are doing). There are indigenous publishers, like Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), who are publishing books in language. (I reviewed the English edition of the ILF’s picture book, I saw we saw, which was first published in language.) There are Indigenous singers, like the late Gurrumul*, who sing in language. Red Room Poetry has a Poetry in First Languages project. And, slowly, Indigenous languages are being taught in schools and universities. Saying all this, though, is not say the job is done. It simply says that things are happening – and, seemingly, increasingly so.
But I also wanted to say something about the relevance of all this to non-Indigenous people. Right now, many Indigenous people are not keen for non-Indigenous people to learn their languages – not while their own people are not proficient, as this could easily become a new form of dispossession. However, reconciliation and respect are helped, as many like Scott and Stan Grant believe, by non-indigenous Australians becoming more familiar with Indigenous languages. For some time now, significant Australian sites have returned to their local Indigenous names – Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), Watarrka (King’s Canyon), Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge), Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) and Purnululu (The Bungle Bungles) are some examples. This recognises that these places have a history long preceding that contained in the names given them by settlers.
Signage around Australia is increasingly recognising local Indigenous culture. Welcome signs to many towns now include the name of the local Indigenous nation. I have also come across some bi-lingual signs in larger Indigenous communities, though this is rare. You can now buy clothing displaying Indigenous language, such as the t-shirt we bought our grandson. It featured an echidna with the Indigenous label biggi billa. And, excitingly, our Canberra newsreader now starts the evening news bulletin with “Yuma, Good-evening” and closes with “Yarra, Good-night”. We all know greetings like Caio and Au-revoir. Why not Yuma and Yarra? Or, whatever it is, where you live? Indigenous author Tara June Winch said in a conversion I attended last year that it’s a sign of respect to use local words when we travel overseas, so why not the same here? Fluency, she said, isn’t necessary to show such respect.
Finally, on the subject of authors, Indigenous words are increasingly appearing in contemporary fiction – in, for example, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review), Tara June Winch’s The yield (a novel about language, in fact), and, yes, Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami. Just a few words here and there – and being done in a way that doesn’t exoticise language but, rather, assumes it is part of the culture.
Dan Bourchier, in the article linked in the opening paragraph, quotes Stan Grant:
Indigenous languages also present a tantalising opportunity for all the people of Australia to find a deeper sense of belonging. The empty space of terra nullius could be filled with the voices of people of all backgrounds speaking the first languages of this land. It is a space to truly build a nation.
I’m loving all these initiatives. What about you? And do you have any examples to share?