Welcome back: the recovery of Australia’s Indigenous languages

November 26th, 2020 by Dharug* woman Jacinta Tobin is Buruberongal (belonging to the kangaroo, the people from around Richmond) and Canamadagal (belonging to the possum, the people from near Prospect). But growing up dyslexic in Emu Plains in the 1970s, she didn’t know the names of the western Sydney clan groups of her ancestors, or know they were "Dharug dhalang" – Dharug speaking. "Before I knew I was Aboriginal, I thought I was from outer space," says the 51-year-old, whose fair skin hails from her Tobin father’s Irish roots. Her mother’s Indigenous heritage dates to both Yarramundi, chief of the Richmond tribe, and Bennelong, who served as an interlocutor between the Indigenous people of Port Jackson and the British settlers. It's a role she continues in a way today, as a teacher of Dharug, the Indigenous language spoken in the Sydney Basin and one of more than 700 spoken before 1788. She was a teen when she discovered her mother’s Indigenous background. Since then, as a musician gifted with a good ear, she has learnt and now teaches the Sydney language largely through song. "Kids pick it up straight away – adults are usually the same as singing is the quickest form of remembering new words. Like studying French, you start by singing Frere Jacques." "Most people are surprised to learn they already know some Dharug words: wallaby, wombat, woomera, boomerang, bunyip and coo-ee, which means ‘I am here’ and even boogie – to bathe or swim – as in boogie board." But Tobin wanted to know more about the language her grandparents and great aunts and uncles were forbidden to speak for fear they’d be taken away by "whitefellas". She began learning her mother tongue by visiting an elder, aunty Edna Watson in western Sydney, who taught her the best place to start was with Aboriginal place names. As they made their way through the list of Sydney suburbs with Indigenous names – Bondi, the sound of a hard crashing wave; Coogee, meaning stinky seaweed/smelly place; Parramatta, where the eels lie down; Cronulla, the place of pink shells – Tobin soon heard the lyricism in the language. "A lot of our wording is onomatopoeic, like mimicking the sound of bird or an animal found on that country. The Dharug word for kangaroo, buru, is the sound the kangaroo makes when it jumps, so my clan the Buruberongal, were the gal (people) belonging to (beron) the kangaroo (buru)." Tobin, who now lives in Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, studied social ecology at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury campus, where there is a Yarramundi Road, named for her ancestor. She had an inexplicable pull to this land of the Hawkesbury River, and even wrote a song about Yarramundi before she knew they were related. She loved the ebb and flow of the sound of the area's Indigenous language, although it was almost extinct. "We lost two-thirds of our tribe within five years of European settlement, so it was as hard for the language to survive as it was for the people to survive smallpox, rabies, massacres and poisoning," she says. Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald

The next generation is bringing Australia’s ancient languages into the future

November 21st, 2020 by Before colonisation, over 250 First Nations languages were spoken in Australia. Now, just over 100 are still in use and 90 per cent are considered "endangered". "Without your language, you're nobody," Ms Holden said. "Your language describes your country and your culture. That's why it's so important for us." Ms Holden is one of a dozen committee members working for First Languages Australia, a national organisation working to reclaim and revive Indigenous languages across the country. "We have to protect our languages … for a long time we weren't allowed to speak our languages, and that's how we're in the predicament we're in now," she said. Researchers from the University of Melbourne are also trying to tackle the issue, starting the 50 Words Project, which aims to record 50 everyday words in every Indigenous language possible. The project has been running for a year and currently has around 65 First Nations languages recorded. Researcher Rachel Nordlinger said the project is breathing new life into ancient languages, many of which have been dormant for decades. "Indigenous languages are a really crucial part of Australia's heritage … they've been the languages of this continent for more than 65,000 years," Professor Nordlinger said. The online audio library is linked to an interactive map which shows the country each language comes from. Researchers hope the language library will be used as an education resource, and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages can be embedded into the school curriculum. "Obviously 50 words alone isn't going to preserve a language," Ms Nordlinger said. "It's just a tiny little snippet of a language, but all of Australia should be really proud and fascinated by these languages." Read more: ABC Australia

‘The kids soak it up’: How Aboriginal language transformed a school

March 2nd, 2020 by Aboriginal elder Michael Kulka overheard a conversation between students that stopped him in his tracks while on a recent visit to the local primary school at Mossman, an hour north of Cairns in far north Queensland. It wasn’t the topic of the discussion that struck him, but the fact that the children were speaking in snippets of his native language, Kuku Yalanji. The words transported him back to his own early childhood, growing up on the banks of the Daintree River surrounded by traditional language and culture. As a boy, he would paint himself in white clay and sneak up on the “old girls” while they were fishing in the river, earning him the nickname he still bears today: Uncle Spook. When he was around five years old, his parents stopped speaking Kuku Yalanji in line with discriminatory government laws that banned cultural practices. “I lost something and I wanted it back,” said Mr Kulka, now 73. It wasn’t until age 17 that he ventured three hours north to immerse himself in the Wujal Wujal community, where Kuku Yalanji was still the dominant language, to reacquaint himself with his native tongue. These days, he loves nothing more than to sit with his granddaughter, telling her the language names for birds and trees. But without proper teaching, he worries his grandkids will “gradually lose it later on”. More than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken across Australia prior to colonisation. Only 13 are still spoken by children. Census data show there are now just over 300 Kuku Yalanji speakers. In Mossman, Mr Kulka is one of only about a dozen people who speak the language fluently. Read more: Brisbane Times

How New Indigenous Languages Are Changing Australia

February 4th, 2020 by Before European colonization, as many as 300 languages were spoken on continental Australia, reflecting the cultural diversity among its original inhabitants. Today, only about 40 to 60 of these languages remain, with more than half of them no longer learned by any children. Yet the dynamic nature of language is giving some indigenous groups and linguists something to cheer about: Younger indigenous generations are driving the rise of a new crop of languages — ones that fuse aspects of traditional languages with modern English. One of the most widespread is Kriol. Spoken by about 20,000 people, mostly concentrated in northern and central Australia, it first gained serious recognition from linguists as a new, separate language in the 1970s but has only more recently become a means of communication between governments and indigenous populations. In 2014, national broadcaster the ABC began airing Kriol news bulletins, marking growing recognition of what experts believe is a steadily growing number of Kriol speakers. The language is distinct from the creoles common in the Americas. Linguists are also beginning to find more languages that have sprung from Kriol and draw heavily from traditional languages. The two most prevalent examples are Gurindji Kriol and Light Warlpiri, both of which have about 500 speakers and have evolved as a result of language mixing among indigenous groups. Light Warlpiri was recognized as a separate language only in 2013. For many, like Olive Knight — who hails from a small indigenous desert community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia — these new languages represent a positive identity marker and a “happy compromise” between traditional languages and English. Knight’s own native language — Walmajarri — has around 1,000 active speakers, but those numbers are declining. Read more: Ozy

Reviving aboriginal language through literature and tech

January 18th, 2020 by A group of academics and indigenous language advocates are using technology and books to try to revive an endangered aboriginal language. Dr Hilary Smith is a linguist and author who has just launched a series of children's books written in the aboriginal Gamilaraay language. She's been working for the last four years in Gunnedah, north-east NSW, learning about the language and developing tools to try to resuscitate it, particularly with younger generations. Gamilaraay was one of the hundreds of languages that were in Australia before 1788 and it is at risk of disappearing the way many others have, she says. "Of the 250 to languages in Australia, there are only 13 that are really being used and transmitted in homes. Due to policies like Stolen Generations, massacres, invasions it was really at the verge of being a language lost.” Dr Smith says that until recently, people weren’t allowed to speak the language, and today there aren’t any people speaking Gamilaraay at home, but there’s a lot of interest in reviving the language. Read more: RNZ

Researchers map ancient language in West Australian outback

December 29th, 2019 by Amid widespread concern about the disappearance of Indigenous languages, the former Catholic mission of Balgo is located in a linguistic melting pot that is thriving after tens of thousands of years. Now, scientists want to map the local "lingua franca" called Kukatja, which is spoken more fluently than English by residents of all ages and across at least seven tribal groups. Ancient connection Within a small study, 14-year-old Anton Whisputt chats to his grandmother Dulcie Nanala about his day at school. This timeless exchange feels particularly ancient given the language they are speaking is many thousands of years old. With nearly half of the world's 6,700 languages at risk of disappearing, this casual chat also has global consequences. Luis Miguel Rojas Berscia is recording the conversation for a research study by the University of Queensland, mapping the Kukatja language. Dr Berscia has come to the township on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert after conducting similar studies with Amazonian tribes in Peru. He believes Balgo could help explain how languages spread around the world. "You have [many different] ethnic groups and they all communicate using Kukatja as a lingua franca, as a contact language, and that is very unique," Dr Berscia said. "You find some of them in the Amazon, in western Africa, and you find some of them also here in Australia so these can tell us a lot about the formation of languages." Read more: ABC

Indigenous language puzzle receives missing piece after freak find buried in old book

September 17th, 2019 by Caroline Hughes, who researches the Ngunnawal language of the Canberra region, made the find during a workshop last week. The words, buried in a book held in Adelaide, were drawn to her attention by a relative she met while tracing her family history. "She mentioned to me in an email last week that she'd found some words in the Adelaide museum," Ms Hughes said. "We were able to make that connection and access that information here in Canberra at the National Library." Today, iconic South Australian sites such as Lake Eyre and the Eyre Peninsula bear Edward Eyre's name. But in the 1830s the explorer also spent time in what is now the Canberra region, where he recorded the local language. "When anthropologists in the 1800s were speaking to our people, they took down words and interpreted what Ngunnawal people were saying," Ms Hughes said. The list, with potentially dozens of previously lost words, will be analysed and compared with existing lexicons. Read more: ABC News

Australia’s Ancient Language Shaped by Sharks

May 15th, 2019 by The tiger shark was having a really bad day. Other sharks and fish were picking on him and he was fed up. After fighting them, he met up with the hammerhead shark and some stingrays at Vanderlin Rocks in the waters of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria to speak of their woes before they set out to find their own places to call home. This forms one of the oldest stories in the world, the tiger shark dreaming. The ‘dreaming’ is what Aboriginal people call their more than 40,000-year-old history and mythology; in this case, the dreaming describes how the Gulf of Carpentaria and rivers were created by the tiger shark. The story has been passed down by word of mouth through generations of the Aboriginal Yanyuwa people, who call themselves ‘li-antha wirriyara’ or ‘people of the salt water’. As we sailed past the rocks and sandstone cliffs of Vanderlin Island, heading towards the mouth of the Wearyan River, dugongs and fish swam by. We were searching beneath the waves for a glimpse of shark fins, following in the path of the tiger shark in this creation story. The tiger shark’s journey was challenging as he forged his way through the Gulf, creating the water holes and rivers in the landscape. He was turned away by many other angry animals who did not want him to live with them. A wallaby even hurled rocks at him when he asked if he could stay with her. But as he swam, the dreaming story explains, the shark helped create the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria that we see today. “Tiger sharks are very important in our dreaming,” said Aboriginal elder Graham Friday, who is a sea ranger here and one of the few remaining speakers of Yanyuwa language. Some people here still believe the tiger shark is their ancestor, and the Yanyuwa are known for their ‘tiger shark language’, as they have so many words for the sea and shark. The Yanyuwa traditionally fish these waters, catching and eating fish, turtle and dugong, but very rarely shark. Their heartlands lie over five main islands and more than 60 smaller, barren sandstone islets of the Sir Edward Pellew Group, which are scattered over 2,100 sq km. Vanderlin Island is the largest and furthest east, 32km from north to south and 13km wide. The 5.5m-long tiger shark, which travels over thousands of kilometres from these coastal waters to the Pacific Ocean each year, would have been a powerful mythological figure. However, today conservationists are concerned about tiger shark numbers, with them currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Read more:

Explainer: how Tasmania’s Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani

July 19th, 2018 by Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples. Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names. Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing. In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals. Read more: The Conversation

Gurrumul and Indigenous languages offer windows into Australia’s past and present

July 6th, 2018 by There’s a scene towards the end of the film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Daniel Williams screening in cinemas now, that stays with me. Set in a record store, somewhere in the United States, we hear innocuous guitar strumming in the background as people obliviously browse albums. Then vocals. In an instant, everyone stops, puts down the album they’re holding, and stares at something we can’t see. It’s like they don't know what’s drawing them, but one by one they walk to the back of the store. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, Australia, is performing live in a language we can probably assume none of them have ever heard. He has them transfixed. The film and accompanying album Djarramirri — Child of the Rainbow were released in April, almost a year after Gurrumul’s death. The film has remained unchanged from when the artist approved it three days before his tragic death at age 46 last July. The film is filled with incredible music and awkward moments. But, it’s an awkwardness that tells a story about working across vastly different cultures and languages. It is also about the enormous pressure facing people like Gurrumul, who live in two worlds and code-switch constantly. It’s an awkwardness we need to see. Read more: Green Left Weekly

How AI is helping preserve Indigenous languages

May 31st, 2018 by Australia's Indigenous population is rich in linguistic diversity, with over 300 languages spoken across different communities. Some of the languages can be as distinct as Japanese is to German. But many are at risk of becoming extinct because they are not widely accessible and have little presence in the digital space. Professor Janet Wiles is a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, known as CoEDL, which has been working to transcribe and preserve endangered languages. She says one of the biggest barriers to documenting languages is transcription. "How transcription is done at the moment is linguists select small parts of the audio that might be unique words, unique situations or interesting parts of grammar, and they listen to the audio and they transcribe it," she told SBS News. The CoEDL has been researching 130 languages spoken across Australia and neighbouring countries like Indonesia. Their work involves going into communities and documenting huge amounts of audio. So far, they have recorded almost 50,000 hours. Transcribing the audio using traditional methods is estimated to take two million hours, making it a painstaking and near impossible task. Knowing time is against them, Professor Wiles and her colleague Ben Foley turned to artificial intelligence. Read more: SBS News

Bringing back Languages from Scraps of Paper

May 29th, 2018 by In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. Mrs Bates (1859-1951) was something of an eccentric – wearing full Edwardian outfits even when living in small tents in Aboriginal camps – and she remains a controversial figure. But she was one of the few Europeans of the era who lived closely with Indigenous Australians and recorded their culture. Importantly, the responses to her questionnaire, preserved in 21,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescript, are immeasurably valuable; in some cases recording all we have left of many Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion. THE VALUE OF THE BATES PAPERS The papers are important not only for a general understanding of the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Aboriginal communities can not only reconnect to their languages through the papers, they can in some cases trace their named relatives. Some of the words listed have also been used in Native Title claims, establishing continuity of the language over time. But these papers aren’t just hugely valuable to interested linguistic researchers – even biologists trawl through them to understand the local plants and wildlife named in different Indigenous languages throughout. However, until now, they’ve been largely inaccessible. The pages themselves have been spread across three libraries in different states and territories – the Barr Smith Library in Adelaide, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Battye Library in Perth. Some have been published with English translations, but this work has not been linked back to the primary records in a way that is now possible with digital technology. Read more: University of Melbourne