Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Aboriginal languages and the return of Kamilaroi

Another early Saturday morning, another blank screen. We are moving house next week, again!, and I am gloomily contemplating the impossibility of the task.

Some time ago I set myself the objective of writing 300 words per day on my proposed history of Australia's New England. It sounds so simple, just 300 words per day. I have made some progress, but have I managed 300 words? No, I fear.

I have been bogged down on New England's Aboriginal languages, trying to understand more not just about their distribution, but also their structure. This is not easy. I am bad at languages and simply do not properly understand sounds and the notations representing them. Just as bad is my limited knowledge of grammar. References to dative or locative cases have little meaning beyond faint echoes of the time I tried (and failed) to learn Latin. Four years in fact; I think I passed only only one test, the first!

I do not need to understand all the detail, but I need to know enough to be sure that when I draw from other people's material that I am not making stupid errors. 

As always, I am reading at different levels.

At a first level, I want to be able to write a description of languages and language distribution as it was around 1788, linking this to social and economic structures. 

In 1788 there were perhaps 250 Aboriginal language groups in Australia incorporating perhaps 700 dialects. Within New England there were some thirteen main language groups, perhaps 50 dialects.

With so many languages and dialects as well as the very different sounds, it is not surprising that the expression of things such as group names into English should lead to widely varied spellings and to subsequent confusion about the exact distribution of peoples.

What is clear, is that with so many languages and dialects only a few languages had many thousands of speakers, with numbers tailing away to hundreds in other cases. In some case, contiguous related languages or dialects covered large areas like links in a chain. People easily understood their neighbours because they shared vocabulary and could at least understand structure and pronunciation. As the chain lengthened, language difficulties increased; people at opposite ends might barely understand each other.

Apart from any shared language features, communication among different languages was made easier because many Aborigines were multi-lingual. Marriage partners were commonly exchanged with other groups while groups mingled as well for social, ceremonial and trade occasions. This was to facilitate European expansion within New England because many settlers made use of Aboriginal guides to bring them into new country.

Despite language diversity, all the New England language groups belong to what has come to be called Pama-Nyungan, the dominant language grouping over much of Australia. Coined by the linguist Kenneth Hale from the words pama (person in Cape York) and nyunga (one in south western Australia), Pama-Nyungun languages have commonalities in the structure of words and the way words to relate to each other.

For a period there were suggestions that the Anaiwan or Nganyaywana language on the southern New England Tablelands did not belong to the Pama-Nyungan group because of its apparently aberrant structure. Anaiwan did not have many speakers and became extinct as a language a long time ago, surviving only in word lists. Thanks to the remarkable early detective work of Terry Crowley, it now seems that Anaiwan was in fact related to other New England Pama-Nyungan languages.

Despite these commonalities, we cannot assume that the languages spoken in 1788 were the same in either structure or vocabulary to those spoken earlier, nor can we assume that language distribution was the same in geographic terms. There have been substantial changes in language even in the last few hundred years, while we know that territorial boundaries shifted with time.

While at a first level I am interested in what was and what it means, at a second level I am interested in the history of research into the languages. This forms part of the history of New England thought, while also reflecting changing attitudes to Australia's Aboriginal people.

There is something here that I do not yet understand, the reason why apparent interest in and research into New England's languages apparently peaked in the 1960s, early 1970s. It re-surfaced later, but in the meantime the opportunity to interview old people with their knowledge was lost through death.

This brings me to my third level, the language revival movement. This forms another part of modern New England history. The languages now being promoted and developed are not the same as they were - whole families of dialects have collapsed into single languages, while processes have had to be developed to introduce new words. Yet they are still clearly linked to their past.

At least so far as NSW is concerned, the language revival movement actually began in New England with Kamilaroi. The last living speaker of Kamilaroi died during the 1970s in the research interregnum that I referred to. Yet, despite this, Kamilaroi suddenly emerged in the internet age as the language with (I think) the greatest on-line presence of any Aboriginal language. Today you can hear Kamilaroi spoken on-line, study it at school or attend further education courses in the language. 

Is the language the same as that spoken in 1788? Clearly not, yet it is still Kamilaroi.

The story of the re-emergence of Kamilaroi is quite an inspirational one. It involves past and present researchers who documented the language to some degree, creating dictionaries and grammars and even (fortunately) recording the sound of the language. It involves locals, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, acting at local level.

Three levels of interest in language, three very different stories.

Note to readers:

If you would like to hear Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) spoken or find out more about the revived language click here.

For a description of Kamilaroi click here, for a history of research into Kamilaroi including the early story of the revival movement click here. These two papers by Peter Austin should be read together.

If you would like to find out about New England's large coastal language groups click here.

I should add that some of the descriptions of Aboriginal languages in this post are drawn from Mulvaney John & Kamminga Johan, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999. 


Neil said...

Re moving: what a bummer!

Jim Belshaw said...

It is indeed, Neil. Now I have to be off to do some of the consequentials.

Niar said...

Hi Jim, nice to see you again...
I just know that Aborigin has a rich variety of languages. It sounds so interesting. Perhaps they have to be preserved, because the different of language and culture has a high value which tobe a national identity for the country.
I really impressed with your consistent and effort to write. At first, I always make a target to write at least 2 article per days which contain social cultural and political issues. I hope by writing I always want to study and increase my knowledge. But now, I rather busy with my activity. Hope I can follow you to always keep my writing.
Good luck for you Jim, and enjoy your day..

David Nash said...

"… I do not yet understand, the reason why apparent interest in and research into New England's languages apparently peaked in the 1960s, early 1970s …"
Some light is thrown on this in William McGregor's 'Introduction' (pp.1-34) to the volume he edited, Encountering Aboriginal languages: studies in the history of Australian
(Pacific Linguistics, 2008), and in which Peter Austin's cited history is Chapter 2 (pp.37-58). The New England trend fits somewhat with national trends, and probably worldwide.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Niar, nice to hear from you. I do want to see our Aboriginal history preserved because it is important.Do keep writing; it's hard when your own job involves writing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi David and thanks. I have taken a note of the reference. I also looked at the graph.

In fact, searching around for details of the reference took me on a web journey that added a fair bit to my knowledge!