Features Australia

Pearls of wisdom

Can the reintroduction of indigenous languages save dysfunctional communities?

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

Our language is like a pearl inside a shell. The shell is like the people that carry the language. If our language is taken away, then that would be like a pearl that is gone. We would be like an empty oyster shell.’

These are the words of Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, a member of the Galiwin’ku community of East Arnhem Land, quoted in a Parliamentary reference paper on the preservation of indigenous language and they raise a difficult issue for our friends at the ABC. If Mr Dhurrkay is right then what is the ABC doing letting all those empty shells turn up, with monotonous regularity, on their talk shows to tell us all about the richness of indigenous culture?

In the week before Christmas, the Weekend Australian published an article by Luke Slattery titled ‘In First People’s words, a fresh sense of inclusion, about the importance of preventing the extinction of indigenous languages.

Emma Wynne took up the same theme on ABC Radio Perth, in a piece called ‘Tongue Fu: Noongar Language is fighting back’. She talked about about the work of Kylie Bracknell who has dubbed the Bruce Lee film ‘Fists of Fury’ into the Noongar language.

Linguists the world over are unanimous in arguing that language is an essential part of cultural identity. The Australian parliamentary libraries are awash with reports confirming this and it makes intuitive sense.  If someone who spoke no English appeared on television pontificating about what it means to be a fair dinkum Aussie, we might reasonably hold a certain degree of scepticism but, when someone appears on The Drum or Q + A claiming to tell us about the oldest living culture in the world, no one bothers to ask whether or not they can have an intelligent conversation in Noongar or Pitjantjatjara, or any of the other languages that have survived following the arrival of the Europeans.

The indigenous activist lobby and their ABC acolytes cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim, on the one hand, that they need money to restore and support indigenous languages as without the ability to communicate in ‘language’, their culture is lost, and then on the other hand have people who speak no indigenous language at all tell us what it means to be  Aboriginal.


The Parliamentary reference paper also quotes Mr Lance Box from the Yipirinya School Council who said: ‘In the Warlpiri, we have a word called ngurra-kurlu, which is a term that speaks of the interrelatedness of five essential elements: land, law, language, kinship and ceremony. You cannot isolate any of these elements. … If you take people away from country, they cannot conduct ceremony, and if they do not conduct ceremony, they cannot teach strong language. Ceremony is the cradle to grave, a delivery place for education for Indigenous people. If you do not have ceremony and you do not have language, then your kinship breaks down. Then law breaks down and the whole thing falls apart.’

This profound insight explains why the problems in remote Aboriginal settlements can be so intractable. The loss of a community language exacerbates the problems caused by the fatal impact of the arrival of Europeans. Yet those who argue that wider use of indigenous languages will help to restore respect for traditional methods of social control are, at best, wildly optimistic. More probably they are dead wrong.

The difficulty lies in reconciling tradition and modernity. Traditional Aboriginal societies, like the tribal cultures of PNG, did not believe that death could be a result of natural causes. Whenever someone died it was due to sorcery and a dying man would often utter the name of the person who had ‘pointed a bone’ at him. It was then up to his relatives to avenge his death or negotiate compensation. Clearly, such a practice is unacceptable today but it raises the thorny issue of which parts of traditional culture are to be sustained, which are to be rejected and who decides.

In 2007, Louis, Nowra wrote Bad Dreaming, his controversial account of misogynist violence and routine child rape in central Australia, in which he argued that this violence was endemic in traditional indigenous communities. Not surprisingly, his essay created a storm in the commentariat. In discussing his book in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Protecting a cultural right to abuse,’ Elizabeth Farrelly wrote, ‘White liberalism habitually sees all criticism of indigenous culture as right-wing racism. This effects a self-censorship that is profoundly racist’. Those on the political left however attacked Nowra and argued that the problems in Aboriginal societies are not due to the pre-contact culture but to the shock of dispossession.

Those who believe that bringing indigenous languages into remote communities will help to restore traditional values have to recognise that not all aspects of traditional society are acceptable today. Do we return to the ritual defloration of pubescent, and in some cases pre-pubescent, females? Do we expect men to sit around the campfire while women are sent out to forage for food and, if they fail to find enough food, what is the condign punishment? This is hard enough to resolve but there is an even bigger problem for those who think that reintroducing precolonial languages to Aboriginal cultures will help to restore traditional indigenous values.

There are between six and seven thousand languages in use in the world today, they are disappearing at the rate of one a fortnight and the rate of language loss is accelerating. Of those languages less than 200 have a written literature which will survive if the spoken form becomes extinct. Just as Spanish and Portuguese are replacing traditional languages in South America, so English is replacing traditional languages throughout the former British colonies.

Hebrew and Catalan are among the few languages brought back from the point of extinction and they both had a long tradition of written literature which kept them on life support until the political circumstances changed to support their revival.

Dr Donne, in perhaps the most famous sermon ever written, said ‘every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls It tolls for thee’.

Surely, this idea applies equally to languages as an indisputable expression of our common humanity.

The Noongar language is spoken by only two per cent of Noongar people and it is possible the message they will obtain when watching a Kung Fu movie is that kicking the shit out of one another is an appropriate method of dispute resolution. The sad truth is that we know as much about healing traditional communities destroyed by dispossession as medieval physicians knew about preventing plagues.

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