Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages

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.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

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. Book cover

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.

Sign in Arnhem Land

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.

Book coverFinally, 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?

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages

  1. One activity I used to like doing with my classes was to go through the street directory to find suburbs with Indigenous names. (It was partly a ruse to teach them how to use the directory, though I suppose that’s redundant now that we all use a Navman.) There are so many in Melbourne, from Maribyrnong to Murrumbeena, Narre Warren to Bulla, there are dozens of them, and I’d like to see more.
    I imagine there would be many in other capital cities too…

    • Thanks Lisa. I thought about adding suburb etc names. We have a few in Canberra but most suburbs are historical figures. I mean, who wants to live in Taylor or Forde when you could have a gorgeous local name? But, as I said, we do have a few scattered around!

  2. WG – Yuma! I grew up on Goonoo Goonoo Road. And swam with my brother and mates in the Creek of that same name – most exciting when in spate. I wonder if you can pronounce it? Visiting Hobart around five years ago I took an elderly uncle down to Putalina – otherwise known as Oyster Cove – where Truganini lived after being brought back from Flinders Island – and looking across from there to the northern edges of her homeland – what we now know as Bruny Island.but to her as Nuenonne. At the site we spoke to a woman who was teaching Palawa kani – a reconstructed composite Tasmanian language in local schools to the south of Hobart. Later during that trip I drove up to the summit of Kunanyi – a string blustery wind and snow lying around. Named Mt Wellington by the coloniser/invaders.

  3. The indigenous languages are so musical, so beautiful and so very very important. BTW – on the matter of the history of the indigenous people of Australia, Cassandra Pybus has written a most wonderful new book on the subject of Truganini. Published in March by Allen and Unwin,

  4. I recently wrote about Budj Bim in Western Victoria, which when I was growing up around there was Mt Eccles (one of my two favourite names, unfortunately, the other being Ercildoune). What you haven’t mentioned is the determination of racist governments in NT to bar the education of Indigenous children in their first language.

    • Interesting how we get attached to names isn’t it, Bill. I think there have been moves afoot to change Mt Kosciuszko (after an earlier change to fix the Polish spelling) but so far it hasn’t come to anything.

      Are you sure you’re still right about the NT Government? In our Arnhem Land trip in 2018, for example, we were told that Yolngu children had to learn their own language as well as English in school. I understood moves were strong, these days, in the NT for indigenous languages to be taught, with support from the NT Dept of Education, but is there something I don’t know about all this?

      • My understanding is that a successful programme to teach children IN their own language was forced to stop and it was mandated that all lessons must be in English, which of course many Indigenous children understand only imperfectly.

        • I don’t think that’s completely true Bill from what I’ve been told.

          Ah, I’ve done some research. It seems that the NT Government ran an active Bilingual Education Program for 40 or so years (I think) but that they stopped it in 2008 partly it seems because of poor NAPLAN testing. (That NAPLAN has a lot to answer for.) However, I believe some programs did continue, and in the last few years the NT government has been developing policy and practice to support languages in their schools. One 2016 report said that there were at least 50 schools delivering programs in 27 different languages across NT schools. This supports what we were told. I might be naive and believing uncritically what I’m reading, but I do think things have changed.

          It’s really complex though – and one problem my reading in recent months tells me is that teacher training is a challenge.

        • You might have saved me some work, but I’m looking it up anyway. The official NT Gov site says clearly that Indigenous students will be taught in English and that they will be given ‘assistance’ if English is not their first language. This is the racist’s agenda: learn the language of the master race or don’t learn at all.

          Yes, Aboriginal Language is taught, but it is taught as a curiosity,

        • OK, so I give you SOME points! I’ve just seen the documentary IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS, which shows some schooling in NT – in Alice Springs and in Borroloola. IN the former in particular, the situation seems more as you describe, while in the latter it seemed father more sensitive too and focused on bilingualism. See

        • I would rather you had been proved correct. My daughter (‘Psyche’) worked in a remote NT school a few years ago, as assistant to the Indigenous women who were helping children with English speaking teachers. English was at best the kids’ (and the women assistants’) third language behind their local language and Creole.

          Two opposite problems are being conflated – (remote) children with little English being forced to learn in English; and (urban) children with better English (or more likely Creole) being taught Language.

        • I do think things are improving again in the NT, but it’s patchy -and I think a big issue, as much as policy, is teacher training. Curriculum could also do with a bit of an overhaul. The lesson in the film about Captain Cook was excruciating to see.

  5. I’m learning a great deal about the Torres Strait Islands, and Torres Strait Islanders, for my current project. The Blue Water Empire documentary series on ABC TV is a terrific source of info, BTW. They were colonised, of course, but not dispossessed and that seems to have made a huge difference. The languages of the Straits are still commonly used and now you’ve inspired me to at least learn to say some basic words for that region, and for Djadjawarrung country in which I live. As you say, it’s only polite.

    • Thanks Michelle – you are intriguing me even more now about your next project. Wouldn’t it be great if every Australian knew basic words of greeting at least in their local language.

  6. I find this fascinating, and it’s quite heartening to hear of all the initiatives. Language is such an important component of culture, and it’s tragic when a language dies. Here in Europe there have been success stories, such as the revival of Welsh—mostly achieved by quite extensive state funding for language education, TV and radio stations, literature, street signs, etc. Some people complain about it, but I view it as money well spent.

  7. I enjoyed your post today and also the conversation about the implementation/withdrawal of education services in one specific region; I have the sense that, in the land currently called Canada, the colonial mechanism to educate in indigenous languages is ineffective (there is at least one course offered in the local high schools but only available to a small number of students and I believe only in one or two out of the hundreds of schools) but that there are many more encouraging signs within the indigenous communities.

    For a peek, some might enjoy the “First Words” podcasts, part of the CBC’s “Unreserved” programming; each episode of the FIRST WORDS series is under ten minutes and a guest shares a handful of words and the significance to them personally and culturally and then they review them at the end. It’s always interesting and sometimes very moving. (The entire series is very good – and often touches on language – but the regular episodes average out at 45 minutes, so more of a commitment.)

    There’s also a new game I heard about which teaches the verb forms in Ojibwe, more than a hundred of them apparently, to describe farting, designed to get kids (of all ages?) interested in learning the nitty gritty of grammar, beyond basic vocabulary. 🙂

    • Thanks Buried. So often there are similarities between our two countries aren’t there. I think a lot of the action re language in education here is happening within indigenous communities here too.

      Will try to check out that podcast. Sound wonderful.

  8. ‘Fluency isn’t necessary to show respect’ – so true.

    Wonderful post. I’m halfway through The Yield and enjoying it so much – I think it will be a strong contended for the Stella as it speaks to so many important and current issues.

    • Thanks Kate … I’m not halfway through yet but I feel it will be a strong contender too. It’s powerful – in subject matter and writing. She’s good, isn’t she!

  9. Pingback: Guwayu – For All Times | The Australian Legend

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