Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, photographed by Helen Page
harayu . . .
SO SINGS blind Aboriginal artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who was born on Elcho Island, off Arnhem Land, in one of his haunting songs, Bäpa. His words in the Yolngu language translate as:
Grief has taken hold of me
for my father
when the sun sets. . .
Grief has no doubt taken hold of many Aborigines in the 220 years since the British colonised the continent. The First Australians lost more than their fathers: they lost their lands, their culture and, in most cases, even the languages of their parents.
Dr Rachel Nordlinger, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Melbourne, says an estimated 250 distinct languages and 600 dialects are believed to have been spoken by Aborigines before white occupation of Australia began in 1788.
Yet, Dr Nordlinger says, only 120 survive and perhaps 100 of these are spoken by elderly people and their future is uncertain. Massacres, disease, dislocation from lands and the refusal by church missionaries and white school teachers to allow Aborigines to speak in their own tongues extinguished the rest.
“The languages that are being spoken are still important for their communities and we still need to do lots of work on them,” she says. “Language is crucial to people’s identity and their sense of who they are and their position in the world. For the people of a traditional territory, the language is intimately associated with the landscape and that’s a very important part of cultural belief.”
Dr Nordlinger says language loss is devastating for the communities affected but it also matters at a higher level because each language tells us something different about the way humans think, about the way they conceptualise their world.
When a language is lost so is the knowledge about the land where the people lived: the plants, animals and insects, along with their histories, stories and mythologies.
For 20 years, Dr Nordlinger has been studying Aboriginal languages, visiting communities in northern Australia for weeks at a time and occasionally recording the voices of the last speakers to try to ensure elements of the language are retained. Because Aborigines had no written records, linguists must set out the words phonetically to show how they are pronounced, using English letters and symbols that approximate to the sounds.
“The work might involve just sitting down with the person and beginning by asking what’s the word for tree? What’s the word for child? What’s the word for person, hand, nose?
We start with the words for the objects around us and then build this up into sentences and start to break down the basic grammar. When you develop some understanding of how the language works, you can move on to stories and texts.”
Part of this often intensive labour involves developing dictionaries and grammatical descriptions while also working with the community to decide what words and expressions would be useful for them.
As well, Dr Nordlinger produces materials for the local school — collecting stories for the children to listen to in the traditional language and in English, and developing little picture dictionaries that can be used by teachers.
“It’s really important that we develop writing systems for these languages to record the stories and write the dictionaries and other texts so that information is kept, even if we end up in a situation where there are no longer any speakers.”
During her arts degree at Melbourne, Dr Nordlinger did a course in linguistics and became interested in Aboriginal languages because of the way they differ so markedly in their structure from English and other European languages.
In her honours year, she spent some time with an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory’s Victoria River region and later went on to complete a PhD in linguistics at Stanford University in California.
Much of Dr Nordlinger’s research has been conducted with an isolated but large Aboriginal community at Wadeye, 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin. She says the people there speak Murrinh-Patha, a strong language still learnt by children from their parents and one of the few Aboriginal tongues to have added more speakers since British colonisation.
“Murrinh-Patha now has 2500 to 3000 speakers which, on a global scale, does not sound many but often Australian languages originally may only have had 50 to 200 speakers, so up to 3000 is a very large number. One of the reasons is that Murrinh-Patha has actually taken over the domains of other languages around the Wadeye region that now only have small numbers of elderly speakers. These are highly endangered languages and the people in those communities, instead of speaking their traditional languages, are using Murrinh-Patha.”
Dr Nordlinger says Wadeye began as a Catholic mission at Port Keats in 1935 and, as a result, other groups moved on to the mission. Murrinh-Patha was the language of the area and, because it and landscape were so connected, it was appropriate for outsiders to speak the language of the land on which they resided. In contrast to the language loss occurring around the globe, Wadeye stands out.
Dr Nordlinger has been awarded a new Australian Research Council grant and, with three Melbourne colleagues, will begin investigating the ways children at Wadeye learn the Murrinh-Patha language. Because of its radically different structures from English and other European languages, she says, the study is likely to reveal details about how people acquire language. This will help in developing appropriate educational tools to assist in maintaining the language.
Linguists estimate that over the next 100 years, thousands of languages may simply cease to be spoken.
Dr Nordlinger says 95 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 5 per cent of all the people. These speakers tend to live in small groups, are often marginalised, disempowered and under threat from the dominant global languages, including English. “This means there is a high risk to linguistic diversity around the world and Australia is often considered to be the hot spot for that kind of language endangerment.”