Episode 133      24 min 24 sec
Coding cultural riches: Investigating indigenous languages in Australia

Linguist Dr Rachel Nordlinger discusses how Australian Aboriginal languages are researched and how particular indigenous tongues grow at the expense of others as communities migrate. Presented by Jennifer Cook.

"It's very fundamental to Aboriginal belief that language and land are connected, and it is appropriate to speak the language of the land on which you're residing. So it was quite natural that Murrinh-Patha would have become the primary language of the indigenous people living on the mission." -- Dr Rachel Nordlinger





           



Dr Rachel Nordlinger
Dr Rachel Nordlinger

Rachel Nordlinger is a senior lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, where she returned after completing her PhD at Stanford University in 1997.  She has spent the last 20 years recording, documenting and describing a number of Australian Aboriginal languages of the Northern Territory, including Bilinarra, Wambaya and Murrinh-Patha. She has also published on syntactic and morphological theory, and in particularly the challenges posed by the complex grammatical structures of Australian Aboriginal languages.  Rachel is the author of A Grammar of Wambaya (1998, Pacific Linguistics), Constructive case: Evidence from Australian languages (1998), and a co-author (with K Williams-van Klinken and J Hajek) of Tetun Dili: A grammar of an East Timorese languages (2002, Pacific Linguistics).

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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Coding cultural riches: Investigating indigenous languages in Australia

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.  More than a century ago, United States jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said language was the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
But how much more powerful is that language when it is inextricably tied to the landscape, when it is seen as defined by the very place it's spoken, and what happens to a culture and a community when that language changes over time?
Australian Aboriginal language expert Dr Rachel Nordlinger, from Melbourne University's School of Languages and Linguistics, joins us today on Up Close to give us an insight into the unique characteristics of Australian indigenous languages.
Dr Nordlinger, thank you so much for joining us. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Thank you so much for having me. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now Rachel if you could begin by giving us an insight into Australian Aboriginal languages over time.  There seems to be this common view that there's just one dominant Aboriginal language and dialects that flow from that.  But that isn't the case, is it? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
No, that's right.  At the time of English settlement in Australia we estimate that there were about 250 completely distinct Aboriginal languages and then dialects of those, as well.  So if you count total number of varieties, there might have been 800 or 900 different varieties, but at least 250 completely distinct languages. 

JENNIFER COOK
That's a staggering number. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
It is a lot more than people realise, yes. 

JENNIFER COOK
How does that compare to today? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well today many of those languages are no longer spoken, or may be spoken only by a small number of old people, or partially remembered by some people.  So, today, we estimate that if we start with that original figure of let's say 250 distinct languages, perhaps 100 to 120 of those no longer have fluent speakers at all.  Another 80 to 100 of those are in a position where they are spoken by small numbers of people, perhaps just a couple of old people, or half a dozen old people and then there is maybe 20 to 25 that are still in a state of relative health; where they're still being spoken by most members of the community and learned by children. 

JENNIFER COOK
Of course, when colonisation happened, the suppression or abolition of indigenous languages was very much a way of controlling people, wasn’t it? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Yes.  Well certainly in lots of places, of lots of communities, there was very active discouragement of a community speaking their own language.  Even well into the 1960s children were punished for speaking their own languages in schools in various parts of Australia. And so parents, quite naturally, wanted to protect their children from that sort of punishment and so would often try to speak more English with their children at home, in order to make sure their kids were more comfortable in English and wouldn't get in trouble at school.  
All of this discouragement of speaking traditional languages was part of what led to the demise of the languages in various areas, although there were other factors as well. 

JENNIFER COOK
It strikes at the heart of what makes language so powerful, why was it seen as such a threat?  Why was it so important that English be overlaid and smother those indigenous languages?  What is it about indigenous languages, and Australian indigenous languages, that makes them so very powerful and so particular to a place? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well there is a lot of ways to answer that question.
So one reason is that language is central to identity and people's identity, so in that sense the language of a community is really central to that community's sense of who they are, how they're different from other communities around them, it gives people a sense of belonging and a sense of connection with their heritage and their ancestors and so on.  So, in that sense, language is really central for people.
In Aboriginal culture, in particular, there is another reason why language is so important and that's because in Aboriginal belief language is inherently connected with the landscape.  So, for many Aboriginal communities, the creation belief involves the ancestors, the original Dreamtime ancestors, moving through the landscape and actually placing languages in different parts of the Australian landscape.
So the original ancestors came through, and they pointed at different parts of the landscape and said this will be Iwaidja and this will be Wambaya and this will be Murrinh-Patha and so on, and what that means is that the language and the landscape are inherently connected.  So if you're a community that lives in that particular part of the landscape, or if that's your traditional territory, then that language of the landscape is associated with you, and that's a very important part of cultural belief. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now, geographically, Australia being such a vast continent and for people overseas it can be almost unfathomable getting through just how vast the desert is, how big those distances are.  Where are languages most diverse on the Australian continent, and where are they least diverse?  What are the reasons for that? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
There's various levels of diversity we can talk about.
Across the continent languages were all quite different, so even communities living near each other would still speak quite distinct languages.  But when we look at historical relationships what we find is that about five-sixths of the continent so pretty much all of the continent, except for very northern and north western parts of Australia, all of those languages we can show to be ultimately related coming from an original language that we, as linguists, call Pama-Nyungan.  That's a language that perhaps was spoken, maybe, 6000 years ago or so.  So this is sort of what we can trace back and see that all of these languages may have derived originally from a single common language.
Then in the northern and north-western parts of the continent we can identify there are about 23 to 25 different language families, so there's much more diversity in that part of the continent than elsewhere.  But that's not to say that everybody in the rest of the continent could have understood each other, because we're talking about historical relationships that go back 6000 years.
It's a bit like the relationship of all the European languages, so where we can see how they were all related to each other back, maybe, 6000 to 8000 years ago in the language that linguists call Indo-European.  But that doesn't mean that if you're a German speaker you can understand French now or whatever. 

JENNIFER COOK
That's very interesting.  So up the top there too, up the top of Australia, of course you had more chance of the migration, you were saying, from Papua New Guinea. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Right. 

JENNIFER COOK
An influx as well, so you had more influence up there. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Yeah, well what we often find is that we get more diversity at the locus of migration.  It seems to be the case and it's generally assumed I think, that people came into Australia through the north, and it's therefore not surprising that it's in the north that we find the greatest linguistic diversity.  Because that would be where the migration came in and there may have well of been a lot of migrations into that area, and then just some people moved across the rest of the continent.  Although, it's hard to know for sure. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now Rachel you have said that these languages are a bit of a spanner in the works, aren't they, in terms of not fitting conventional models of the structures of human languages.  Tell us about that. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well, at one level, all languages are interesting to us, as linguists, because all languages represent a different way of conceptualising the world and talking about the world around us.
But there are many ways in which Aboriginal languages are interesting and, perhaps, challenge some of the theoretical notions that have been developed based, largely, on European languages and the more familiar languages.  So one example in how this can come about is in the type of information that gets encoded in the grammatical structure, so Australian Aboriginal languages are quite known worldwide for having kinship categories, so information about people's relationships to each other, encoded grammatically in the grammatical markers that you need to use when you construct a sentence. 

JENNIFER COOK
Is this what we mean by skin groups?  I've heard that expression. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well there are skin groups, although that… 

JENNIFER COOK
That's something else? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
That's something else.  Skin groups are a way of organising society… 

JENNIFER COOK
Yes and relationships and… 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
It does manage the relationships that people have to each other.
But I'm talking specifically about using your grammar and the markers that you put on verbs and so on, to actually… 

JENNIFER COOK
Oh this is fascinating.

RACHEL NORDLINGER
…encode information about people's relationships.
Australian languages have quite a lot of this, I guess, compared to the world's languages.  So just one example, that I can give you, is if you think about in English we have a grammaticalised contrast between singular - so when we're talking about one person and when we're talking about many people - so if I say he is laughing or she is laughing, that has to mean I am talking about one person.  If I'm talking about more than one person I need to say they are laughing, and that's a distinction that's grammaticalised in lots of ways in English.
If you think about they are laughing; the they, there - the use of they - all it does is tell us that we're talking about more than one person.  It doesn't really tell us anything else about that group and how it's made up.
So in one Australian language called Murrinh-Patha, which is a language that I have worked on for the last few years, we can contrast, because in Murrinh-Patha as well as encoding number, like we do in English with singular and plural and so on, the grammar actually forces you to encode whether or not the people involved in the group are related to each other as siblings or not.
So, for example, if I'm talking about two people laughing, if the two people are not siblings I need to say Dimnginthakampa.  If the two people are siblings, I have to say something quite different, I have to say Pirrimkakampa and that's forced by the grammar in the same way we saw the English distinction between she and they.  In Murrinh-Patha I need to be constantly conscious of whether the group I'm talking about contains siblings or doesn't contain siblings, because I need to use different grammatical forms depending on how that group is made up.
So that's an example of how the grammatical system encodes particular types of information and, in this case, it's information about relationships.  In fact Murrinh-Patha is, at this stage, the only language we're aware of that encodes a sibling category in this way.  It may well reflect the cultural importance of kinship in Aboriginal communities, that they do this. 

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook.  Our guest today is Dr Rachel Nordlinger, from Melbourne University's School of Languages and Linguistics, and we're discussing Australian indigenous languages.
Now Rachel you've spent a lot of time with the indigenous people of Wadeye, which is an isolated community southwest of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory.  Could you tell us a little bit more about this language that they speak there, and the fact that its influence has taken over other languages in the area and the implications of that? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Sure.  The language of the Wadeye region is called Murrinh-Patha.  It's still a very, very strong language, it's still learned by children as their first language in the community, it is the main language of the whole Wadeye community.
It's an interesting language in the Australian context.  It's one of the few languages that, perhaps, may well have increased its speakers since English colonisation, as opposed to other Australian Aboriginal languages, or many others, that have decreased in their numbers of speakers.
So it now has about approximately 2500 to 3000 speakers, which on a global scale doesn't sound like a lot of speakers, but given that many Australian languages originally may have only had 50 to 200 speakers, we're talking about very small groups.  So, in an Australian context, 2500 to 3000 speakers is a large number, a lot higher than Murrinh-Patha may have been in terms of speaker numbers before English colonisation.
One of the reasons for that is that Murrinh-Patha has actually taken over a number of the domains of other languages of the region.  So there are various other languages spoken around the Wadeye region, languages like Marri Ngarr and Magati Ge and Marri Tjevin, those languages now only have very small numbers of elderly speakers, so they're highly endangered languages, and those communities instead of speaking their traditional heritage languages are now speaking Murrinh-Patha.
So what we find in this region of Australia is language loss and endangerment of many of those languages, but it's not because the speakers have switched to English, or a variety of English, which is what we find in other parts of Australia, or speakers switching to Creole which is a new language based on English.  It's not because of that.  It's actually because the communities have switched to Murrinh-Patha, so another traditional language. 

JENNIFER COOK
Is this out of a respect for the land? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well one of the reasons is that Wadeye was set up as a Catholic mission, Port Keats Mission, in 1935 and as a result of that a number of different communities moved into the mission area and lived there.
Murrinh-Patha is the language of the area where the mission was established and, as I mentioned earlier, it's very fundamental to Aboriginal belief that language and land are connected, and it is appropriate to speak the language of the land on which you're residing.
So it was quite natural that Murrinh-Patha would have become the primary language of the indigenous people living on the mission, and for that reason people would have spoken more Murrinh-Patha than the other languages and overtime the children become more comfortable in Murrinh-Patha. 

JENNIFER COOK
So Rachel what would someone walking into the Wadeye community, what would they find there? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well there's about 2500 people who live in the community, the large majority of whom are indigenous people.  Many of them can speak English.  Children often can't speak very much English at all.  They don't really come across English until they get to school, in any systematic way, except for watching the footy on TV and things like that.
Adults have some English, but they're much more comfortable in Murrinh-Patha.  They're definitely second language speakers of English.  The people who work in the shop and the post office and the council and so on tend to be non-indigenous people, so they are all English speakers, so most people will use English just in those contexts and then Murrinh-Patha everywhere else in their lives.
So as a visitor into the community you can easily get by in the shop and the post office and the council office, it's often a lot harder to have in-depth conversations with people outside of those situations because they're often not as comfortable in English as they are in Murrinh-Patha. 

JENNIFER COOK
It sounds like a linguist's heaven. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
It is, it's lovely actually.  The other communities I've worked with around Australia, in the past, have always been working in situations where the language is no longer actively spoken and I'm working with just a handful of older people, who are the only people who speak the language, and so the only context in which I hear the traditional language is when we actually sit down and decide we're going to do some work.
So it's been lovely for me to have the other experience, of being in a place where I just hear the language spoken all around me all the time and I can't even have a conversation with the children without having to try and practice my Murrinh-Patha.  It's definitely a unique experience for me, in that respect. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now just how endangered are Australian indigenous languages, Rachel? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well many languages no longer have fluent speakers, probably another 100 or so that are spoken just by small numbers of people.  There is a lot of language endangerment on a world scale.  There are estimations that over the next 100 years many thousands of languages around the world may well stop being spoken.
An interesting statistic, just on a global scale, is that 95 per cent of the population of the world speak five per cent of the world's languages.  So that, in reverse, means that 95 per cent of the world's languages are spoken by only five per cent of the population and that population tends to be small groups, often marginalised, often disempowered and you know under threat from bigger global languages
So there's a lot of risk to linguistic diversity around the world and Australia is often considered to be a hot spot for that language endangerment. 

JENNIFER COOK
Why does it matter, this linguistic diversity? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Linguistic diversity matters for all sorts of reasons.  One reason that it matters is for the people involved.  Language is really crucial to people's identity and their sense of who they are and their position in the world and their belonging and their relationship with their heritage.  So language loss is really devastating for the communities involved so at that level it really matters.
But it also matters at a higher level, each language around the world tells us something different about the way human beings think, about the way they conceptualise the world around them, the way they talk about it, and so many of the languages around the world that are highly endangered we still know very little and sometimes nothing about.
So when those languages go, we also lose all that understanding and information about what humans can do, what it means to be human, what they think, how they talk about the world around them, and we also lose a lot of information.  So encoded in all of these languages is knowledge about the landscape in which those people live; the plants, the seasons, the animals, the insects.  So much knowledge that's very specific to those people and those cultures and those regions and all of that gets lost as well when languages go, as well as histories and stories and mythologies and everything that we do with language.
So it's quite devastating at many levels, I think, when linguistic diversity disappears. 

JENNIFER COOK
Devastating when it disappears, but your work is helping to preserve it.  So tell us how do you do that? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Well you do it in a very painstaking way.  It's pretty much as you would imagine; I start by going up to the community, find people who are interested in working with me and really, often, we have to start at the very beginning if there isn't much that's been recorded on the language before.
So that might involve just sitting there and beginning with what's the word for tree?  What's the word for child?  What's the word for person, hand, nose?  You know we just start working through the words around us and then you build up into sentences and start to breakdown the basic grammar, and develop a bit of an understanding of how the language works, and then you can move onto stories and texts and things that then provide much more interesting language.
So we do it bit by bit.  Part of it also involves developing dictionaries and grammatical descriptions, and also working with the community to work out what would be useful for them as well.  So I've been involved in not just developing dictionaries and grammatical descriptions, but also materials for the school; perhaps collecting stories for children to listen to in the traditional language and in English; developing little picture dictionaries that can be used in schools; and anything else that the community feels would be useful for them. 

JENNIFER COOK
An important part of your work is the actual documentation of the languages.  Why is that so crucial? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Traditionally Australian Aboriginal languages weren't written.  There were no traditional writing systems and so what that means is that they are transmitted purely orally, which means that when people stop speaking them we lose all knowledge of the language.
So it's really important, just for records, that we develop writing systems for these languages and write them down, so that we can record the stories and write the dictionaries and things, so that information is kept even if we end up in a situation where there are no longer any speakers

JENNIFER COOK
What does that mean for future generations?  Does it change the way the language is taught, is absorbed, moves forward? 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
The answers to some of those questions remain to be seen.  But certainly it makes it a lot easier to teach the language in schools, so when we have situations where children perhaps aren't growing up learning the traditional language as their first language, but they're still able to run language and culture programs at school that will teach them how to read and write the traditional language.
But also in bilingual education, some schools around the northern parts of Australia that run bilingual education programs and then it's very important to have materials in the traditional language so that children can be learning maths and literacy and all the various other parts of education through their traditional language as well. 

JENNIFER COOK
Rachel, thank you so much for speaking with us on Up Close today about Australian indigenous languages and giving us that insight into culture and community, as well as grammatical difference and uniqueness.  Thank you so much. 

RACHEL NORDLINGER
Thank you, thanks for having me. 

JENNIFER COOK
You've been listening to Up Close, and I've been speaking to Dr Rachel Nordlinger about the complex nature of Australian Aboriginal languages.
This episode of Up Close is supported by the Melbourne Festival of Ideas 2011.  For more information visit ideas.unimelb.edu.au.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.
Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on February 24, 2011 and our producers were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  I'm Jennifer Cook, and until next time, good bye. 

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close. For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.


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