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Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages (2)

July 5, 2021
2021 National NAIDOC logo.

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2021 Indigenous Literature Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week, and, again, I’ve decided to contribute this week’s Monday Musings to the cause. The topic I’ve chosen, the reclamation of First Nations languages, was partly inspired by last week’s Monday Musings on Eliza Hamilton Duncan, but also follows up a post I wrote early last year on the topic.

According to academic Elizabeth Webby, Dunlop was the “first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and [w]as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture”. Dunlop also created vocabularies of the local language. Consequently, her work, like that of other colonials, is helping language reclamation projects around Australia. Of course, if settlers hadn’t stolen land and destroyed culture, and hadn’t actively suppressed language, in the first place, this arduous work would not be needed.

Each year NAIDOC week has a theme, and 2021’s is “Heal country, heal our nation” which, the website says, “calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.” Given the significant role played by language in maintaining culture, a post on language reclamation is, I think, relevant to this theme.

‘The living voices of our past giving strength to our future’

This heading is the goal of a 2013-established organisation, First Languages Australia. They are working, they say, to “a future where Aboriginal language communities and Torres Strait Islander language communities have full command of their languages and can use them as much as they wish to.” This is just one organisation working on the goal.

Another is Living Languages, founded in 2004 under another name. They describe their purpose as “to support the sustainability of Indigenous languages and Indigenous peoples’ ownership of their language documentation and revitalisation.”

It is difficult to assess the magnitude of the challenge because so much is lost, but Living Languages says that some 250-400 languages were spoken across Australia, or up to 700 and 800 if you include language varieties and dialects. However, they say, Australia has been “identified as one of five language endangerment hotspots worldwide, with only around 13 languages being passed on to children today”.

As I wrote in my previous post, First Nations communities vary in their attitude to sharing language outside their communities. This statement by the Kaurna people on the University of Adelaide’s language courses webpage clearly states their position:

Kaurna language and culture is the property of the Kaurna community. Users of this site are urged to use the language with respect. This means making every effort to get the pronunciation, spelling and grammar right.

Kaurna people reserve the right to monitor the use of the language in public. Users of this site should consult with Kaurna people about use of the language in the public domain.

Random projects and activities

There’s no way I could document all the projects – big and small – that are happening around Australia, so I’m going to share three (adding to those I mentioned in last year’s post) which exemplify the sorts of things that are happening.

Eidsvold State School Wakka Wakka program

Located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, this school has developed, says the Teach Queensland website, a “unique language program” that engages the whole school with the local community and in learning the local Aboriginal language, Wakka Wakka. The local First Nations people support this program:

After several years of planning and consultation with Traditional Owner groups, the Wakka Wakka Corporation and the community, Eidsvold State School encourages all students and staff to speak to each other in Wakka Wakka using short phrases.

Mawng Ngaralk language website

Mawng is spoken in the western part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The site tells us that Warruwi School runs a Mawng language program and supports the 2014-established Warruwi Language Centre which runs other Mawng language activities. Do check out this website, because it contains a dictionary and many, many videos in which local speakers share their knowledge in ways that both document vocabulary and pronunciation, and show how the language is used in song and dance.

Paper and Talk workshop

This was a two-week workshop held in 2019, led by Monash University, in collaboration with Living Languages and AIATSIS. Its aim was “to help revive languages from five Aboriginal communities”: Anaiwan (NSW), Wakka Wakka (QLD), Yorta Yorta (VIC), Ngunnawal (ACT) and Wergaia (VIC). The workshop gave language researchers from these communities “the opportunity and skills to access archives and transform them into usable language resources”. They were, for example, introduced to resources, like an 1800s surveyors’ notebook, in which language were documented by early settlers (like Dunlop).

What about irretrievably lost languages?

Maïa Ponsonnet, who researches Aboriginal languages, though is not Indigenous herself, makes the point that “while there are very good reasons to deplore the loss of small languages, assuming this loss condemns cultural identity may be unhelpful and reductive to those who have already shifted away from their heritage language”. In her article in The Conversation she argues that reclaiming languages is important, but that over-focus on it can be hurtful and, in some circumstances, politically damaging for those whose languages are lost. Language, her research is showing, is “plastic”. Post-colonial languages like Kriol can be “shaped by culture”, she writes. “Even when language is replaced, culture can continue”.

Thoughts, anyone?

Click here here to see all my previous ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2021 06:49

    This was new insight for me – I knew that Australia had indigenous languages but never imagined there would be hundreds of them.

    • July 6, 2021 08:48

      I love it, Karen, when something I write, particularly about our First Nations peoples, increases knowledge., so thanks for telling me.

  2. July 6, 2021 07:06

    Great to learn about some language projects around the country. Thank you

  3. July 6, 2021 08:39

    My next big research project if I ever had (made) the time would be Daisy Bates in Western Australia. At the turn of the last century she was paid by the state government to document Noongar languages which were clearly in the process of being lost. She lived for a number of years in a tent on a reserve (near Hale Rd for WAians) in what is now Perth’s southern suburbs. She had previously done similar work near Broome, briefly on her own property in the Pilbara, and near Mt Magnet. This is all now a major resource for the reclamation of Noongar language in particular.

    • July 6, 2021 08:53

      Thanks Bill. There were so many, though clearly not enough, who cared about what was happening to the original Australians and their culture.

  4. July 6, 2021 10:17

    I’m currently reading Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss for ILW. It is, as you probably know, the first book to have a title in any Aboriginal language on the front cover.
    But that’s not all: Anita (as she told us in her address at the Non Fiction Festival in 2018) has been learning Wiradyuri (more commonly spelt Wiradjuri) and her book is sprinkled with language, always in context so that you can work out its meaning. In the back of the book she talks about this reclamation of language and her journey to learning it, and she mentions an app. I downloaded it, and it’s really clever. As well as vocab, it has some handy phrases that can be used (respectfully) on Wiradjuri country and you can hear it spoken so that you can learn the right way to pronounce it.
    The book BTW is wonderful. I don’t want it to end!
    I wish, I wish we had something similar for Bunerong, but that’s a language that is very fragile, like those you mention in your post. I like learning languages as you know and it has always pained me that I haven’t been able to learn the language of the land on which I live. It feels disrespectful that I can’t even say ‘hello’ ‘please’ or ‘thank-you’ which IMO are the minimum words any traveller should know when they go to another country.

    • July 6, 2021 13:25

      Thanks Lisa. I was going to include reference to the increasing number of books incorporating language in them, like Tara June Winch’s The yield (also Wiradjuri – I hadn’t heard that “y” spelling) and the increasing children’s books, in my post. But, in the end I decided I had mentioned in my February 2020 post, so didn’t make this post longer!

      An app? I’ll check it out. I would have included that if I’d known. As you probably know, Stan Grant’s father has been heavily involved in reclaiming this language.

      Re those basic terms, I agree. I have probably told you that our ABC newsreader here starts and ends every bulletins with a local Indigenous greeting and goodnight words. It’s encouraging to see slowly increasing recognition of local languages in local communities around Australia.

      Sounds like I need to read Heiss’ book too!

      • July 6, 2021 14:01

        It’s wonderful, don’t wait for my rapturous review. (I’m going to try not to gush, but hey, it’s hard!!)

        • July 6, 2021 15:08

          Haha, Lisa … I will wait as I have many many in front of it. It may even wait until 2022 the way I’m going! I am hoping to do two books for this ILW, but we’ll see.

  5. July 6, 2021 17:55

    As a teacher of languages (not Indigenous ones, however), I am constantly pushing the importance of language to the sharing/understanding of culture. I mourn all the languages lost in our country, especially the way some of them were deliberately targeted for extinction. I am looking into any courses that I might be able to take to learn some of the Indigenous languages myself.
    The Wiradjuri Language and the work of Stan Grant Snr is vitally important to last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, Tara June Winch’s ‘The Yield’. Look out for my forthcoming review.

    • July 6, 2021 18:13

      Thanks Meredith. You won’t find disagreement here re sadness about the loss of language!

      And yes, I know about Stan Grant Sr and Tara June Winch’s book. She acknowledges him as I’m sure you know. I reviewed the book last year, and also heard her talk at a festival about it. I look forward to seeing your take.

  6. July 7, 2021 10:31

    Fascinating! I’m so glad there is such a week and so many efforts around the issue

    • July 7, 2021 14:07

      Thanks W&P. It is a good and important week to have and is finally gaining done real traction I think.

  7. Meg permalink
    July 7, 2021 13:05

    Hi Sue, I just finished reading If Everyone Cared by Margaret Tucker. She also laments the fact that many Aboriginal children do not know even one word of their own tribal language. She does explain some Aboriginal words such as pang pang gooks – damper covered with wild honey and Cunnichman is Police. I do have a copy of Aboriginal Words of Australia by A W Reed, and obviously not a full list of Indigenous words.

  8. July 9, 2021 06:36

    Great post! And I’m glad you mentioned the active suppression of language by the settlers. In other places I’ve read stuff about the loss of languages that makes it sound like some tragic accident, instead of a deliberate policy pursued for a long time. Your point at the end about language being plastic reminded me of the Caribbean, where people of African ancestry had their languages and cultural identities almost obliterated, and yet they created new languages that morphed English, French and other colonial languages with the vocabulary and grammar of African and sometimes Indian and Chinese languages to create whole new forms. The cultural destruction is still immense and lamentable, but the newer fusions of languages are still bearers of culture. The human will to create and transmit culture is very difficult to wipe out, even when people and governments make a concerted effort to do so over decades and centuries.

    • July 9, 2021 18:24

      Thanks Andrew, lovely to hear from you. I appreciate your added insights too into areas I don’t know.

  9. buriedinprint permalink
    July 17, 2021 07:22

    Great topic! There are a couple of metal street signs that have been re-named in Toronto (Tkaranto) along what was once a well-trafficked pathway inland (now a busy four-lane paved street) and in some ways that feels like slow progress. But, on the other hand, there are many books being published here now, bilingual with indigenous and settler language (for children, mainly, but not exclusively). And so many immersion events for learning that it’s impossible to think of making a list (whereas I believe, even five years ago, those efforts seemed quantifiable). I have a couple of thank you’s in my lexicon, but that’s it. Works in progress, eh?

    • July 17, 2021 16:44

      That’s interesting, Buried, because I think there’s a lot of activity in that direction here too in children’s books. I’ve even reviewed a couple though it’s not my area of expertise.

      And yes, work in progress!

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