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The Spoken Word Keeping The Aboriginal Language Strong
Christobel Swann is a Conservationist with a difference. She is working as an Aboriginal Linguist in Alice Springs to conserve a part of our national heritage which most Australians are ignorant of - Australian Aboriginal Languages.
In 1788, there were about 250 separate Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia, plus dialects. Today, only two thirds of these languages survive and only 20 of them (eight per cent of the original 250) are still strong enough to have chance of surviving well into the next century.
Christobel Swann still remembers being forbidden to speak her language, Southern Arrernte, when she was growing up in the fifties:
"I remember when I was about ten, we used to come in from the station, and we'd be walking along the street, and people would say " Don't talk that language". Even at school they used to give us a hiding in the playground. And I often used to think why should I speak English? That's not my language!
Today, much has changed. Christobel works in the Language Centre at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs. She and a team of other Aboriginal linguists are the front-line in the battle to "keep the language strong" in Central Australia.
The main language groups in the area are Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri and Arrernte (also known as Aranda or Arunta). The only strong Australian languages left are in the most remote and least urbanised areas of the continent; the Kinberleys, Arnhem Land, Far North Queensland and Central Australia.
In Central Australia, white settlement began comparatively late with the setting up of the Overland Telegraph Station near Alice Springs in the 1860's. Missionaries and pastoralists began moving into the area in the 1880's
The impact of white settlement in the Centre was disastrous for Aboriginal people and their culture, the last major white massacre of Aboriginals in Central Australia took place as recently as 1936 at Coniston Station. Despite the odds, the three major Central Aboriginal language groups have all survived remarkably well. Warlpiri and Arrernte are both estimated to have well over 3,000 fluent speakers. Pitjantjatjara is actually a single dialect of a huge language group known as the Western Desert Language with perhaps 5,000 speakers extending over a vast area of Central Australia.
The Western Desert Language was once spoken over an area embracing one and a quarter million square kilometres, or one sixth of the continent, taking in parts of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Pitjantjatjara, the strongest dialect in the Western Desert dialect chain, is still spoken today in many parts of the Central such as the Mutitjulu community at Uluru, while Arrernte, the language of the Alice Springs area, is still heard every day around the town.
Christobel Swann grew up speaking Pertame, a Southern dialect of Arrernte spoken in the Finke River between Alice Springs and South Australian boarder.
She estimates that there are only fifty or sixty fluent speakers left, most of whom are at least 40 years old.
"I speak the language to my children, but they answer me back in English," she says. "If we were back in our Country now, allot of those young kids would be speaking their own language. Now we're living in town, the only language they are speaking is English."
Christobel knows that if her language is to survive into the next century, then she and older speakers must hand it down to their children's generation.
One answer is bilingual schools such as Yipirinya Primary School in Alice Springs. Local Aboriginal children are first taught in their own language, Arrernte, and are then taught English as their second language.
Christobel and her colleagues at the Institute of Aboriginal Development work with Aboriginal teachers to produce the curriculum material for school children in the local languages.
Christobel says that people's attitude to her language has changed since she started working on the language maintenance project:
"I've got two other people working with me now, and we go out to the communities where Pertame people live, and we record stories and language information from the old people on tape so it will not be lost. I try to involve as many Pertame speakers as possible in working with the language."
Another positive sign is the Central Australian and Media Association (CAAMA) radio and Imparja TV. The CAAMA broadcasts from Alice Springs in all the major local Aboriginal languages.
CAAMA plays an important role in language maintenance throughout Central Australia. Imparja TV is a commercial television station which broadcasts commercial programs such as 'Dynasty', but also broadcasts some programs in local languages (with English subtitles) presenting traditional Dreamtime stories and ceremonies.
The youngest Aboriginal linguist at IAD is Joyce, a seventeen year old Eastern Arrernte speaker who comes from Santa Teresa Mission, West of Alice Springs, where the Catholic Church has established a bilingual school.
Joyce became involved in language work after a friend told her about the IAD Language Centre. It is encouraging for older language speakers to see someone of Joyce's age involved in preserving their language.
The day I visited, Joyce was working on a translation from English into Arrernte for a radio program. She also interprets for older people from her language group who never learnt English but who now have to live in old people's homes in Alice Springs.
The Language Centre has a number of staff who are officially accredited as interpreters and translators for courts and other government work.
Christobel and two of her colleagues created quite a stir when they attended a national interpreters conference in Melbourne last year. The conference was dominated by Italian, Greek, Chinese and other migrant languages.
Christobel says many people at the conference were amazed to discover the existence of officially accredited interpreters for indigenous Australian languages. Perhaps this episode high-lights the general lack of knowledge within the Australian community about this important aspect of Australia's cultural heritage.
Aboriginal critics claim that governments in Australia have been energetically promoting migrant languages and now Asian languages, whilst neglecting Australian Languages.
One of the most common misconceptions by white people about Aboriginal languages is that they are somehow 'primitive'. In fact, the gramatial systems in many Aboriginal languages are usually far more complex than English.
Aboriginal grammar has often been compared with that of classical Latin or Greek, where the meaning of a word is altered by a complex system of endings added to the end of the word.
An extreme instance of this phenomenon from the Tiwi language spoken on Bathurst and Melville Islands, is the single word "neremenhthinepirnai" which could be translated into English as 'I kept on hitting you'.
Many Australians refer to Aboriginal languages as 'dialects', thinking that they are all dialects of one all-embracing Aboriginal Language. In fact, all of the original 250 languages were mutually incomprehensible ; as different from each other as say French and German.
Aboriginal society does however provide frequent examples of spectacular bilingualism, with some people speaking several languages and dialects.
Christobel Swann grew up on a station with people from many different language groups, so she speaks Pijantjatjara, Western Arrernte, Eastern Arrernte, Luritja and English, and she is by no means exceptional.
The vocabulary of any language reflects the cultural interests of the social group which speaks it. Thus in many Aboriginal languages, there is a far greater number of words in everyday use to describe kinship terms and aspects of the natural world.
Conversely, some languages such as Pitjantjatjara have no need for words for numerals beyond the number three. Sometimes Aboriginal vocabulary can be highly diversified in specialised areas such as parts of animals, noises, seed types, the various stages of development between grub and beetle, the colours of the sky, types of lightning and other natural phenomena.
The Yindiny language spoken south of Cairns has some highly specialised terms for noises. Some examples are ganga, "the sound of someone approaching (feet on ground)"; yuyurungul "the shushing noise of a snake sliding through the grass"; dugur, "a reverberating noise"; and nyangi "any annoying noise".
The anthropologist D.Rose has said that "the greatest body of knowledge concerning tropical and arid environments exists in the minds of Aboriginal people".
Irreplaceable knowledge about the pharmaceutical and nutritional properties of a multitude of plant and animal species lies encoded within the structure of the surviving Australian Languages.
When the linguist Dorothy Tunbridge set out to make a study of Adnyamathanha, an Aboriginal language spoken in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, she ended up writing a book on the zoology of the area called Flinders Ranges Mammals.
She found the local Aboriginal people still retained species names within their language for animals which had become extinct a century ago and of which had never been recorded.