Australia’s unspeakable indigenous tragedy
That’s “hello” in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains.
And isn’t it a travesty that none of us learnt it in school. Of the 250 Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia before white settlement, only 15 (or six per cent) are still spoken fluently across all age ranges.
The rest, according to Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, are either “sleeping beauties or about to be sleeping”.
You’ve only got to look across to New Zealand to see how the preservation of language can help to cement and celebrate indigenous culture.
Driving around NZ, the first thing you notice is that road signs are written in both English and Maori. Maori is also taught in schools, to ALL kids, non-Maori as well. It builds pride, understanding and cohesion in a contemporary context.
Our kids learn French or German, Indonesian or Mandarin. I’m all for that, but how about even just one Aboriginal word each week, too? One word!
True, many local governments like Adelaide City Council are committed to identifying and signposting traditional place names. That’s great, but presented to us in a cultural vacuum they don’t mean anything.
For the most part, any recounting or celebration of our indigenous heritage is confined to the Dreamtime.
I know the Dreamtime is central to Aboriginal identity, but even with the best of intentions many of us white Australians simply cannot engage with it. (In fairness, we’re given such a tiny portion of it, and even then it’s mostly out of context, that it seems abstract, irrelevant and slightly dull.)
A much stronger and enduring connection could be made by learning a bit of language. After all, what’s the first thing we do when we head overseas? We learn the local word for ‘hello’ – from bula to bonjour – precisely because it helps us connect.
Prof Zuckermann, an Israeli who’s worked around the world and been in Adelaide since early 2011, says many white Australians mistakenly believe Aboriginal languages are primitive, when they’re actually grammatically complex and multi-faceted.
“Language could definitely be a vehicle for reconciliation in Australia,” he says. “It could be an antidote for a lack of self-esteem among Aboriginal people, and also an antidote for the hyper self-esteem which causes many white fellows to look down their noses at Aboriginal people.”
The good news is that even “sleeping” languages can be reclaimed and revived.
In the 1840s, a Lutheran missionary recorded the Barngarla language of the Eyre Peninsula in order to translate the Bible.
Ironically, given that the work of missionaries contributed to wiping out native languages, those 170-year-old documents are now helping Prof Zuckermann to rebuild the Barngarla language.
Port Lincoln’s Jenna Richards, whose father, uncles and aunties were part of the Stolen Generation and consequently disconnected from their traditional language, says a recent two-day workshop was hugely liberating for her family.
“Professor Zuckermann taught us ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in the Barngarla language and the kids just can’t stop singing it,” she says.
There’s a push Australia-wide for Aboriginal languages to be taught in schools, with a federal parliamentary committee due to report on its findings later in the year.
It can’t come soon enough.
But in the meantime, how about an Aboriginal word of the week in the Sunday paper? School kids could follow up with a brief lesson on the week’s special word on Mondays.
How about a massive sign at the revamped Adelaide Airport, shouting “Niina marni” when people touch down?
This isn’t about being tokenistic or PC – it’s about embedding Aboriginal language and culture into our lives to such an extent that, for future generations at least, this vastly underrated and uncelebrated part of our heritage becomes second nature.
I like the sound of that. Til next week, Nakutha!
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