Welcome back: the recovery of Australia’s Indigenous languages

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

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