Australia day has passed us by for another year. Celebrated not on the day we became a country on the 1st January 1901, but on the day the flag was raised in Sydney Cover by Captain Arthur Phillip on a land declared terra nullius – “nobody’s land” – used describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, despite the hundreds of languages and nations that existed in Australia at that time.
With January 26th having an impact on the original inhabitants (called Invasion Day or Survival Day) and the date meaningless for when we became a nation perhaps the date needs to be changed.
Here are a few of my favourite things from the 26th.
At Warburton in the remote Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia Angelica McLean painted up a number of people in the Australian colours of red,black and yellow and shared it through Facebook.
And then there was Lee Lin Chin in Operation Boomerang, the annual Australia Day campaign to eat more lamb was released online before a tv advertising campaign. It attracted about 650 complaints, most of them by vegans saying it incites hatred against them. I reckon their complaints brought more ridicule than the add promoted hatred. Poor little veganites.
Operation Boomerang was a great name except it was to promote a day using an Indigenous word (or at least an English version of an Indigenous word) on a day that celebrates the arrival of Europeans and the start of colonisation with the dispossession and massacres that came with it. I can understand how some feel it to be an insult on an insult.
I had never heard of the Sydney Based Ethics Centre until in what I consider a bit of irony the former Essendon Coach James Hird did his question and answer session there a few weeks ago.
Last Friday I again heard of the Ethics Centre as they released a video of a speech by journalist Stan Grant.This was part of a debate about whether Australia is really a multicultural safe haven of equal opportunity? Or is racism more prevalent than ever before?
This debate was held during the lat part of 2015 and I wish this is how I first heard of the Ethics Centre. It is one of the most powerful speeches I have heard on racism in Australia. I am not going to paraphrase his comments. You can read about it at the Guardian.
But I do urge you to listen to a magnificent 9 minute speech from Wiradjuri man Stan Grant.
If you want to buy a great book and support a fantastic cause then buy this book. All monies go to support The Purple House which provides a remote dialysis service in central Australia getting people home to country.
I am lucky enough to know this grand old man and my book is on order. Buy it here.
Patrick Tjungurrayi is revered throughout the Western Desert for his strength in Aboriginal Law, feted in the art-world for the originality and power of his paintings, and respected everywhere for his stand against the inadequate health bureaucracy of central Australia. His life illuminates the history, art history, and political history of Australia throughout the twentieth century. This is his story.
Patrick Tjungurrayi has told his story and used his art to raise public and political awareness of a major renal health crisis facing Aboriginal people across Australia. As a dialysis patient himself, who has fought for the provision of adequate health services in remote communities, Patrick’s story illuminates the innovative and effective response to this crisis being driven by an extraordinary Indigenous organisation, the Purple House (Western Desert Dialysis).
How many Indigenous languages exist in Australia? Who knows this shit?!
exclaimed Milly, the receptionist at an Indigenous radio station on ABC’s new program 8MMM, reading out a question on a cultural awareness training form.
Milly, the receptionist in the ABC’s new comedy series 8MMM
Indeed – who does know? As an ice-breaker, I often ask my linguistics students to name an Australian Indigenous language. Some are able to name Warlpiri, Yolngu Matha or Arrente, but most cannot manage the name of a single language. That is astonishing given there are 250 to choose from.
Yet the same students can usually name Native American languages such as Mohawk, Apache, Cherokee and Mohican, largely thanks to classic westerns.
Awareness about Australian Indigenous languages is very low. Most Australians still believe that there is an Aboriginal language and have no idea about the extent of linguistic diversity across the country.
The myth of the single Aboriginal language has allowed for filmmakers’ uncritical use of Djinpa, a Yolngu language of Arnhem Land spoken by David Gulpilil, in films based in other regions of Australia, for example The Tracker (2002) and Australia (2008).
Indigenous words in Australian English
In fact, most people in Australia know more about Indigenous languages than they realise simply because they are speakers of Australian English. One of the earliest words to be adopted by English speakers was kangaroo. The word comes from Guugu Yimidhirr, a language of north Queensland, which was first documented during James Cook’s 1770 mapping expedition.
Early drawing of a kangaroo done by Arthur Bowes Smyth in 1788. State Library of New South Wales
Australian English is dotted with words from Indigenous languages. For example, dingo, wombat and boomerang all come from languages in the Sydney area.
Many of these words hitch-hiked their way across Australia via the English-based pidgin (a simplified version of a language), which the Sydney people and the non-Indigenous colonists used to communicate with each other from 1788 onwards. The pidgin was a scaled-back version of English and later expanded to form Kriol, which is spoken across northern Australia.
A Coke can from Darwin Bob Gosford/Crikey
This pidgin also acquired new words from other languages as it spread across Australia. For example, Yagara, a language of the Brisbane region, bequeathed bung (broken) to Pidgin and ultimately Australian English.
The semantics of many of these words have changed since they were borrowed into English. A great example is the Gurindji word budju, which means vagina but is now used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike in parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland to mean something quite different!
It was originally adopted in English to refer to a spunky woman and has since come to mean any attractive person (in fact, spunk was originally a vulgar term for semen in English).
Coke was clearly unaware of the origins of budju when it brought out a localised version of Coke cans in Darwin during its “Share a Coke” promotion.
Australian languages and visibility
It is surprising that most of us are not able to name an Australian language given that at least 40 languages are spoken on an everyday basis around the country. Some of the better-known languages are Arrente, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri in Central Australia, Kriol, Murrinh-patha in Wadeye, and Yolngu and Gunwinyguan languages in Arnhem Land.
Other languages are less well known but are quietly thriving such as Anindilyakwa on Groote Eylandt, Maung on Goulburn Island and Kuuk Thaayorre in Cape York.
All of these languages suffer from a lack of visibility, but some have become better known because Indigenous organisations have been increasing our awareness of them.
For example, one of the reasons that many Australians have heard of Warlpiri is due to the popularity of Bush Mechanics in the early 2000s, which was filmed in Warlpiri.
The profile of Yolngu Matha was also raised with the release of Ten Canoes in 2006. It is one of the first feature films to make extensive use of an Australian language.
The use of language in the performing arts and media has done a lot to raise the profile of Indigenous languages. Gumbayngirr, a NSW language, enjoyed a moment in the spotlight in 2009 when singer-songwriter Emma Donovan released Ngarraanga (Remember), which went on to win Donovan Best Female Artist and Best R&B Single at the 2009 BUMP Awards.
Well-known lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson has also done much to promote his language, Guguu Yimithirr, in political commentary.
Get to know the language of your local area
The visibility of Australian languages in public space is on the rise. In many parts of the country, signage now greets the visitor. For example, “Welcome to Ngunnawal” signs can be found at entry points into the ACT and surrounds.
Signage is powerful. In the past it was common for interpretive signage in national parks and other public spaces to display statements such as “this word is from Aboriginal”.
Probably the Australian capital that has done the most to increase awareness of their local language is Adelaide. As well as the extensive use of Kaurna place names in signage, the solar-powered buses have been called Tindo, which is the Kaurna word for sun. Nowadays it is hard to miss the fact that Adelaide is located on Kaurna country.
The State Library of Queensland and NSW also offer excellent resources and links for learning about other Indigenous languages on the east coast of Australia.
For Indigenous people wanting to reconnect with their languages or non-Indigenous language-learning enthusiasts, many universities now offer Indigenous-led language learning and awareness courses and activities. For example, Charles Darwin University provides courses in Yolngu Matha.
Pitjantjatjara can be learnt at the University of South Australia. Other languages offered through universities are Kaurna at the University of Adelaide and Gamilaraay at the University of Sydney.
It is important that we know that Australia is a nation of over 250 Australian Indigenous languages, not just one. It is also important that all Australians are able to name some of these, particularly the ones in our local areas. Increasing the visibility and awareness of Indigenous languages will help our nation understand the rich cultural pluralism that existed before the arrival of Europeans and continues today.