Epiphany in Épernay: Preserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages

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Words || Wayne Charters

The first language we learn has been called our heart language. When my father went to school in Cowra, on Wiradjuri land, he would have been given physical punishment for speaking Wiradjuri. Thankfully I now own a Wiradjuri dictionary. This is due to the hard work of elders who have preserved and now teach Wiradjuri.

Our heart language is important – in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities there are words that describe things in a way that English fails to grasp. People talk about “The Dreaming” as if it were a myth. The Dreaming is much more and includes law and lore.

This quote is one summary of the feeling about language: 

“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.” 

– Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, Galiwin’ku, North East Arnhem Land (Elcho Island).

The current state of Indigenous Australian languages sees only 13 still being learnt by children. Some of these children in remote parts of Australia will enter school speaking 3 or 4 dialects and very little English. Before 1788 more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages including 800 dialectal varieties were spoken. Roughly another 100 or so are spoken to by older generations, with many of these languages at risk as Elders pass away.

The concept of a heart language was understood by some of the early missionaries who, with the help of elders, translated Bible passages into Indigenous languages. Some of these early passages are in a book held by the Macquarie University Library. The introduction reads: “This volume is issued by the Government of NSW, as a record of the languages of native tribes that are rapidly disappearing from the Coasts of eastern Australia. John Fraser 1892.”

For some time I had been aware that to codify a language, translating the Bible into that language would not only systematically arrange the language but preserve it too. A prime example is the translation of the Bible from the original languages into French by Jean Cauvin. The French are very protective of their language and have an institute devoted to the preservation of the language. This institute has fought long and hard to reject introduced words from computer communications and other languages, sometimes without success.

The French might agree with this quote: 

“Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining one’s language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves. Traditional language is important for maintaining strong cultural connections. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops. To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital.” 

– Brooke Joy, descendant of Boandik people from the Mount Gambier region in South Australia.

Our languages are not dead and there are many people preserving them. ‘This Place Project’ produced by the ABC in partnership with First Languages Australia does just that. Across Australia, places are known for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names. But what do they mean? What’s the story behind them? 

From the name of a town or suburb, to a street or bridge, a creek or a bend in the river, mountain, landmark, outcrop, tree – place names are a starting point for sharing Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures. ‘This Place’ invites Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to create a short video about a place name, and the story behind it. 

Another important resource for the preservation and revival of these languages is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection maintained by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). The collection brings together over 4500 items such as children’s readers, bible translations, dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies, works of imagination and learning kits in 200 languages. The collection’s significance was recognised in 2009 when it was added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

The Bible looms large in the preservation of languages. The Aboriginal Bibles site is a collaboration of Bible Society Australia (BSA), Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia (WBTA) and the Australia Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL).

The French language is a great example of codifying and establishing standards. In English we have the Oxford English Dictionary as our authority. In France they have the French Academy, started in 1635 to eliminate the impurities of the French Language. At the core of the establishment is the translation of the French priest Jean Cauvin’s translation of the Bible into French. Translation of the Bible into languages other than Latin have in turn codified many other languages, in particular our First nations languages.

While different policies of suppression were applied to First Nations Languages across Australia it was the highly educated missionaries who were driven to share their beliefs, who defied government policy by learning the languages where they were posted and then translating parts of the Bible into those languages. These missionaries could see and understand that the heart language of the local people was the best way to understand their beliefs. One example is L.E. Threlkeld who was a missionary around Lake Macquarie in NSW. He learnt the language and not only translated sections of the Bible but appeared in court with the Awakabel people to explain proceedings to them.

In Gunbalanya Northern Territory, they now have a New Testament with a few Old Testament books that took 70 years to translate. It is the mother tongue of the tribe who adopted my wife and her family the Gunwinggu of Western Arnhem Land. The final collaboration included linguists from Charles Darwin University along with Elders and the Anglican Minister in Gunbalanya Lois Nadjamerrick. This translation took so long because it had to be culturally safe as the structure of the Gunwinggu language is very different to and uses expressions not found in English or the original languages of the Bible.

My mobs are by birth the Galari Tribe of the Wiradjuri Nation at Euabalong and by marriage the Kunwinjku Tribe of Western Arnhem Land. Galari is the name of the Lachlan River in Wiradjuri and to highlight the difficulty in preserving the integrity of a First Nations Language, Galari has become Calare as the name of the NSW electorate that started near the Lachlan River but has moved east with boundary changes and now is around Bathurst, Lithgow and Oberon. This highlights the complexity of our languages and the need to systematically make sense of them. 

There are snippets of our languages in place and street names. My father was born in Wombat street Forbes. Yet using street names as a way of preserving language is not specific to Australia. In Ax-en-Provence, France there are street names in French and the local Provençal, also known as Occitan which some people still speak. 

Like Australian Indigenous languages, over 200 years of suppression has seen this language rarely spoken outside homes. Travelling back through France close to the town of Épernay I had my epiphany! If the French, who treasure their language can tolerate the use of both languages then so can our local councils by allowing original Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names to be displayed on streets and places of significance.