Back to listing

Mother tongue

Date: 3 June 2019

A chance find of a language fragment buried in archives of a family farm sheds light on a forgotten Indigenous language. Jane Faure-Brac reports on how the find is emblematic of the United Nation’s Year of Indigenous Languages.

When Roni O’Brien was sifting through 150 years’ worth of belongings on the family property in the Riverina, a stamped, hand-written pen-and-ink envelope dated April 1863 caught her eye.

Inside was a three-page list of 43 Indigenous words and phrases with their English meanings.

Sensing its value, she sent the wordlist to Professor Jane Simpson and Dr David Nash of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at ANU. They initially thought it was a new or unknown language, but further research matched it to a Brisbane-area language.

Roni believes it was compiled by a relative who worked with indigenous stockmen and for the the Scottish explorer, William Landsborough.

Exciting though this historical connection was, what really thrilled Simpson was the richness of the wordlist which included commands like: ‘Make haste – Borma’, ‘come here – gba’ and a term of endearment – ‘ao’ – translated as ‘a friendly expression, like “old fellow”.’

“It’s like finding gold when you see words like this because they’re rarely recorded and don’t appear in dictionaries,” Simpson says.

She says such fragmentary clues are the reason the UN designated 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

“Globally we’re just realising that Indigenous languages are highly endangered despite being treasure houses,” she says. “They represent how a community sees the world and how they package information about that world through speech.

“However, there’s great pressure to speak the languages of wider communication like English, Spanish or Chinese and in doing so, people tend to leave their traditional languages behind.”

In 1788 between 300 and 700 Indigenous languages were spoken by hundreds of thousands of people across Australia. However, the 2016 Census showed only 160 of these were currently being spoken at home and only 13 traditional Indigenous languages being spoken by children.

“The UN is now recognising language rights and we need to make it easier for people to maintain their languages in everyday life,” Simpson says.

ANU is doing its bit, for the first time offering tertiary-level courses in two Indigenous languages. A dozen students are enrolled in level one Gamilaraay, a NSW revival language, while Bininj Kunwok, the general name for everyday languages in Western Arnhem Land, has eight students on the course.

Linguist and Indigenous languages expert, Dr John Giacon, is one of only a couple of people in NSW and the ACT teaching Gamilaraay at university. Painfully aware of the frailty of Indigenous languages, he says community involvement is essential for language revival.

“Gamilaraay people who've taken my classes are now teaching their language,” he says. “Many of them want to keep learning more about their language and keep close to their traditional language.

"We need a partnership where state education departments fund Indigenous teachers to learn and teach language and universities run courses for these teachers."

Indigenous linguist and translator, Elizabeth Ellis, is working at ANU to document the various forms of her language Ngaanyatjarra, a Western Desert dialect, and its ‘verbal arts’.

One of these is a fully-formed auxiliary sign language.

“Not many people realise sign language is part of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and people sign as they speak,” she says. “Signing is crucial when hunting so you don’t scare the animal and it’s handy when you need to communicate over distance.

“It’s also useful in the kinship relationships where there has to be a lot of avoidance with certain people. You could still sign to another person to communicate.”

Just as with the spoken form of the language, Ellis says there’s a different way of signing to indicate respect, for example when signing during a ceremony. “You sign closer to your body so it is like whispering. Other forms of my language include sand-story telling, everyday language, early morning talk, and respect and polite speech.”

Assisting Ellis with the documentation is linguistic anthropologist Dr Inge Kral.

“Lizzie’s language is communicated through many modes, each equally valued in the culture,” Kral says.

“So signing isn’t for deaf people, but if you happen to be deaf, you’re still included in all aspects of life because you’re using traditional sign language.

“The signing is totally standardised with grammar and syntax and new signs are being developed for new concepts. I call these verbal arts ‘the crown jewels’ because they’re so precious and express the genius and creativity of the language and its speakers.”

The practitioners feel their work is precarious and undervalued by society. They fear having funding pulled for a lack of perceived progress, but stress the work is in its infancy and there’s a mountain to climb to have Indigenous languages ‘thriving’.

The sector is anticipating the forthcoming National Indigenous Languages Report commissioned by the Department of Communication. It’s the third such report in 14 years and will provide a status report on Indigenous languages.

Researcher Denise Angelo who worked on the ANU contribution says it highlighted links between speaking Indigenous languages and wellbeing.

“We hope our contribution to the report provides some tools for researchers, governments and funding models to differentiate between places where First Nations peoples' mother tongue is a form of English, a traditional Indigenous language or a ‘new language’ which developed out of our contact and colonial history,” she says.

A key part of language revival is ‘repatriation’ of a language to its inheritors. Simpson says it helps redress past policies prohibiting people speaking their traditional languages.

“Repatriation is a continuous negotiation with communities about how they’d like to receive their language material. We’re looking at resources like electronic dictionaries and digital technology is making this easier.”

Simpson showed the Brisbane-area wordlist to linguist Tony Jefferies, who recently completed an ANU doctorate on peoples of the Brisbane area. He immediately identified the language as Yagara, of which very little has been recorded.

“Now we know what language it is, we’ll reach out to community members from the Greater Brisbane Valley, Moreton Bay and Pine River areas to return some new aspects of their language to them,” Simpson says.


Image: Elizabeth Ellis, by Lannon Harley. This story first appeared in ANU Reporter magazine. 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University