Some Australian Indigenous languages you should know

This is from “The Conversation” an academic newspaper that allows researchers to write about their research for us all to see and be informed.

Some Australian Indigenous languages you should know

Felicity Meakins, The University of Queensland

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”.

Now there are increasing examples of signage that name the language of the region, for example Gathang signs at the Great Lakes campus of TAFE in NSW, and the Wurundjeri Stories Indigenous Signage Trail in Warrandyte State Park in Victoria.

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.

Tindo, Adelaide’s solar-powered buses

Most of the language projects that have been increasing the visibility of Australian languages are instigated by Indigenous-run language centres. Examples include Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi at Adelaide University, The Murrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-op in Nambucca Heads and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages in Melbourne.

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.

The Conversation

Felicity Meakins is ARC Research Fellow (DECRA) in Linguistics at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The chance of a lifetime to save Indigenous languages

By Claire Bowern, Yale University

It is not often that the opportunity comes along to make a real difference, but a new report into Indigenous languages in Australia has the potential to do just that.

Our Land, Our Languages has already been likened to the momentous Mabo decision. But where Mabo helped change our legal and cultural understanding of Indigenous land rights, this report highlights the fiction of a monolingual Australia and calls for recognition of Australia’s Indigenous linguistic diversity.

We have seen many reports on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their lives: “Bringing Them Home”, reports on Aboriginal deaths in custody, education reports, and the Ampe Akelyernemane (“Little Children are Sacred”) report, which sparked the Northern Territory Intervention.

This report is different. Rather than treating Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, or adding yet another layer of bureaucracy onto already micro-managed lives, this report is about finding solutions within communities. Many previous reports have exposed a shameful history of abuse and neglect. This time, we see case after case of people doing the best they can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

The findings should not be another opportunity for white Australia to spend a week of soul searching and brow beating before forgetting yet again about our vow that this time we’ll be different. It’s a chance to see what local communities have been doing and to support those efforts.

What are the recommendations?

The report’s 30 recommendations range from raising the profile of Indigenous languages in the Australian community through increased signage to making it easier for Aboriginal people to get qualifications to teach their own languages. Other recommendations include provisions for sharing language resources between schools, documenting languages under threat, supporting bilingual education early childhood initiatives, and providing archival resources.

Many of the recommendations are straightforward to implement. They are concrete and do not rely on the creation of extensive new infrastructure. Unlike the Northern Territory intervention, there’ll be no need to send in the army this time.

Rather, many of the recommendations focus on capitalising on existing infrastructure and making existing programs more effective. For example, the library of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies is already the country’s de facto national archive for Indigenous materials, but is acutely understaffed and underfunded.

A complex solution

The solutions are not a one-size fits all response either. The Australian linguistic scene is very complex, with languages needing different degrees of support. There is no point in advocating bilingual education or interpreters for communities where the Indigenous languages are not the primary modes of communication. But such language support is desperately needed across the Kriol – and Language – speaking parts of Northern Australia.

In contrast, language reclamation has an important role to play in the areas where the languages have already gone.

Will this “save” languages? It’s hard to say. What we do know, however, is that good language and education programs have knock-on effects far beyond the school. It isn’t rocket science to see that kids who are taught in a language they speak are going to do better than kids who are aren’t.

We have long known that bilingual and culturally relevant education boosts attendance across the board, and that spotty attendance is one of the biggest causes of poor test scores. We have long known about the benefits of speaking more than one language. Those benefits apply, no matter what the race or the language.

Passing the test

These recommendations are not shots in the dark; they are not guesses at a solution. They are the outcomes of a year of interviews and sifting of research which shows what communities have done to help their languages survive. The committee has documented what can be achieved on a shoe-string and in the face of national apathy and often unhelpful or hostile policies.

Let’s make the question no longer one of survival: this is a chance for the languages and their speakers to flourish.

We’ve had more than five years of the Intervention in the Northern Territory, and while many things have changed, it’s not at all clear that much has changed for the better. Now is an excellent time to enact recommendations based on respect, rather than on bullying.

More than 200 years of aggression, assimilation and annihilation has failed, and thankfully so. But it’s done a lot of damage. Australia is a world leader in endangered languages. This is a great chance for us to be world leaders in language reclamation and support instead.

Paul Keating, in his 1992 Redfern Speech, called the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous people “the test which so far we have always failed.”

Twenty years later, we are still failing. But now is an incredible opportunity to do better. Let’s not waste it.

Claire Bowern receives research funding from the National Science Foundation (USA) for work on Australian Indigenous languages. Her submission to the Inquiry can be found here: (; submission 83)

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Weekend Thoughts and Happenings

An 18th birthday cake made and eaten in two waves of kids, teenagers and young adults who washed over my little place in a tidal wave of enthusiasm. My home which I thought I had tidied up no longer is. But it was a fun day nonetheless.

It is interesting watching the kids with poor literacy use the internet. My local phone book is used to check the spelling of remote communities throughout Western Australia as they search the web for photos of people and places they know. Younger kids are given instruction in language by the older kids. They pick it up much faster than when I try to show them in English.

It makes a mockery of the Northern Territory plans to stop bilingual education in remote community schools.

And they are learning: words, spelling, reading. And learning with enthusiasm.

Yet I hear of area educators going to remote schools and saying to the community that unless more kids go to school they will have to close it down.

What they should be doing is offering staff who are willing to stay extended contracts, rather than moving them each term or not confirming contract extensions until the last minute. With continual changes the kids never settle with one teacher and soon stop attending. The education honchos rather than trying to blame the community should be looking at the kids in the community and asking what can they do as educators to make school for attractive and relevant for these indigenous kids.

But it is never the Education Department’s fault.

Anyway, here is some Aboriginal “stuff” that was looked at over the weekend.

Mamu Place (‘Mamu’ means ‘devil’)

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