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Should we learn to speak “Australian”?

February 16, 2010

Linguists argue about the specifics, but by some counts there were hundreds of Australian aboriginal languages and there remain dozens spoken today. But these languages are dying out. The 2001 census reported that only four aboriginal languages had 2000+ speakers, and that most aboriginal languages are endangered. Badimaya was said to have three speakers, Thalanyji had six and Wagiman eleven.

A 2005 government report lamented the decline of aboriginal languages, and came up with 51 recommendations about spending money, writing reports, drawing funky flow-charts and having committees.

They totally failed to come to terms with the simple fact that languages have network qualities so that they are only functionally useful when there is a critical mass of other speakers. Unless a language is functionally useful it is unlikely to survive long-term. That is why the vast majority of languages on earth have disappeared, and that is why most aboriginal languages will die out.

I don’t believe it is possible to save most aboriginal languages, and it may not be possible to save any (except in history books). But I’d like to suggest one controversial approach…

We should pick one aboriginal language and promote is as the language “Australian”.

Schools could offer a few lessons of Australian (including basic words like hello, thanks, 1-2-3, my name is…), people curious about aboriginal culture or languages would have an obvious langauge to study, speakers would have a larger pool of people from around the country to converse with, and we may be able to reach critical mass so that the language becomes functional.

For leftie-anthropologists and linguistic purists this will seem like sacrilege, as they continue to dream of a quirky utopia where each group of 100 people pass down their obsolete language while singing kum-ba-ya and milking a Bolivian yak. But back in reality, I think the only way to save any aboriginal language is to try and increase the real-world appeal of learning the language — and that requires building networks of more than 2000 people who can understand the language. Theoretically we could aim to save several languages, but I think by dividing our efforts we are making it more difficult to build critical mass and we’re decreasing the incentive for non-aboriginals to recognise and learn the language.

Another response to this idea would be to ask “why bother”? Languages come and go, and clearly the most useful language at the moment is English so it is in the best interests of aboriginal people to concentrate on English and integrate into modern Australian society. It’s true that learning English must be a priority in education for all Australians, but I think languages have cultural value and provide a sense of belonging to a cultural group. We quite rightly refer to the “anglosphere” and identify that linguistic group with a culture. We recognise that some minorities are proud to remember elements of their original culture’s language. It is no coincidence that many language courses around the world are bundled together as “language and culture” courses. Indeed… along with food & religion, language is one of the key ways to define and distinguish between cultures.

Saving an aboriginal language not only provides aboriginal Australians with a functional and continuing language, but it also provides non-aboriginal Australians with an obvious way to understand and reach out to aboriginal culture… by learning some of the language and recognising it as part of our country. We may already say that we respect aboriginal languages, but by not even knowing how many there are or what they’re called or how to say “hello” we have no meaningful appreciation of, or engagement with, that element of aboriginal culture. A single languages provides an opportunity for real engagement. Perhaps in the future most Australians will know how to say “Hello” in Australian, just as most Kiwis knows the Maori greeting “Kia Ora”.

(btw, “hello” in Pitjantjatjara is “Wai palya”)

There is, of course, the problem of deciding which language should become the Australian language. One promising option is to develop an official combined version of the many Western Desert Languages, including Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Pintupi and others. Many of these languages are mutually understandable and there are already over 5000 current speakers, mostly around the SA/NT border.

It could also be possible to include Warlpiri (spoken by about 3000 people near Alice Springs), which is also a member of the SoutWest sub-section of the Pama-Ngungan language family. Also Arrernte (spoken by about 2000 people near Alice Springs) is apparently quite similar to Pitjantjatjara.

In addition, it is important that the writing system for Australia is simple and easy to use, such as the wonderfully phonetic spelling for Bahasa Malayasia/Indonesia. By making learning easier, this will encourage greater literacy. (An example of Pitjantjatjara writing).

Developing the combined language won’t be easy. It is much easier to try and offend nobody and talk about saving all the languages and slowly watch as they all die out.

But for people who like the idea of a continuing aboriginal language & culture, we should not balk at the idea of language consolidation. Indeed… it is a process that has occurred all around the world as societies shifted from being fragmented and agrarian into larger civilisations. Mandarin Chinese is slowly taking over from various other “dialects” in China. The same applies with Jakarta-based Bahasa Indonesia. This language evolution has had the dual benefits of increasing the size of the language network and also of creating a common bond between the speakers. There is no reason we should object to the same sort of aboriginal unity and cultural consolidation in Australia. The alternative may be no active aboriginal language at all.

  1. February 18, 2010 at 5:42 am

    As I see it we have two options:

    1. Abandon Aboriginal languages as anything but a historic curiosity and concertrate on teaching all the few thousand speakers of the various languages English, or
    2. Pick ONE (merge a few to create one) and start teaching it to everyone who will listen, including, most importantly, white people.

    I can’t see any option other than number two that won’t result in Aboriginal languages being purely of historic interest, and any third option that I can think of simply results in young people spending excess time learning useless knowledge. As it currently stands Latin and Greek are almost definitely more useful than any Aboriginal language to the vast majority of people, but it would be seen as absurd to require learning them in school.

    Perhaps some University’s linguistics department could take up the challange of deciding on an “official” Aboriginal language.

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