One of the main “characters” in Dixon’s book is Chloe Grant, his main informant for the first language he studies, Dyirbal. She is introduced in Chapter 2 (pp. 24 ff.):

We asked about Chloe Grant. “Oh yes, Chloe’d know a good bit too. Been with the whites a fair amount, but she was brought up by the tribe[…]

…And there was Yabbon: a white-painted wooden house set on blocks about two feet off the ground, with a water-tank and windmill off to the right. The yard was fenced and bare, except for a few clumps of grass and weed among which the dogs—and a goat—ran.

Chloe invited us up to sit on a wooden bench and chairs on the front verandah. We said what a nice house it was.

“Yes,” she agreed, “used to be white people live here until two months ago. But I’m a poor widow since my husband pass away, and I’ve got these three girl to bring up.[…] So old Ormy Butler he let me live here. But now he say he want me to move. I’m not going.” Chloe’s voice moved up an octave as she almost sang the last word. “I’ve got nowhere to go.” Then without any pause and in a matter-of-fact tone: “Yes, what can I do for you?”

I explained, stammered, that I’d come from England to learn something about the original language of Murray Upper and that Les had said Chloe might help us. What I really wanted was stories, just telling a traditional tale, or something about her early life, talking into the microphone for five or ten minutes.

“I don’t think I can help you there.” There was a pause, while Chloe fiddled with her cigarette. “There were two languages on the Murray, not just one.”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Oh yes. The other side of the river that was Jirrbal and this side was Girramay

“Were they very different?” I asked.

“Oh, long way. Jirrbal call ‘water’ bana but Girramay say gamu. And ‘fire’, that’s buni over there but this side they call yugu.”

It’s the start of a long and productive relationship. Dixon says “Black-haired, bespectacled, of medium height, Chloe exuded a vivacity and intelligence that made it hard for me to keep up.” She reminds me of my late, beloved Aunt Bettie, to whom I was a surrogate son; she even looks like her (there are pictures of many of the informants in this well-designed book). Later on, describing another visit (the year is 1963), he says (pp. 73 ff.):

Although Chloe had had a Girramay mother and an Irish father, she had been brought up in the Jirrbalngan camp at Bellenden. She’d been born about the turn of the century, and tribal life had continued pretty well intact until 1913, when the government had stepped in and taken many of the people away to settlements. After that, aspects of traditional life had continued in secret.

Chloe had a quick and active mind, and had taken note of everything that went on around her, absorbing all that was recounted around the camp-fire of traditional legends and beliefs.[…]

Chloe had the energy of someone half her age. She would be up at six in the morning, get Ernie off to work and the girls to school, clean and tidy the house, and be ready and waiting for us by nine o’clock. At first, when she yielded to our persuasion to tell traditional stories, Chloe apologized for each one, saying it was not true, just silly. This was the legacy from a century of psychological brainwashing by the whites—telling the Aborigines that they had no proper language, and reviling their customs. We assured Chloe that Jirrbal and Girramay myths were similar to many European stories and legends (including much of the Old Testament) which no one took as literally true.

At the beginning, whenever Chloe translated a sentence into Jirrbal she’d apologize that it was “back-to-front”. I had to stress that each language had a distinctive word order, and that there was nothing sacred about the order of English. Jirrbal grammar and means of expression were every bit as valid and proper as those of every other language. Every language is a bit different from every other one, that’s all.

We found the same sentiments all over North Queensland. Because of what white people had said to them, Aborigines were ashamed of their languages and legends, and they were at first wary of talking to us simply because they thought we would laugh at them.[…] It is good to be able to report that things have changed a lot since then. In the late sixties, Aborigines all over Australia had a resurgence of pride in their own heritage, and in their Aboriginality. By and large, they have now stopped trying to become dark-skinned whites.

In a better world, this book would be required reading in all English-language high schools. I can’t think of another book that simultaneously teaches so much about language and basic humanity.


  1. “Chloe apologized for each one, saying it was not true, just silly”.
    This also sounds like a conventional introductory form or politeness form, the way people say “really I don’t have much to offer you, but I have some…..”.
    Of course, the introductory forms of 150 years ago would have been quite different.

  2. Pretty amazing stuff.

  3. It is amazing. Before I read the book, I sort-of-knew about what the languages and the sociological situation were like, but as I read they became more and more real to me. Not many linguists can write readable prose, let alone produce the kind of effects you expect from a novel.

Speak Your Mind