Waking the Sleeping Indigenous Languages.

Helen Davidson reports for the Guardian that “while the vast number of Indigenous languages are considered endangered, there are many that have a good chance of survival if they are nurtured”:

The world of mobile apps and online research tools are making languages, their history and their context more accessible to non-Indigenous Australians who wish to better understand and interact with the oldest continuing culture in the world.

Last year Charles Darwin University launched a searchable online dictionary of Yolngu Matha – the languages spoken across much of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Its success has prompted Garde to begin work on a similar project for Bininj Kunwok. A key concern, he says, is to make sure the language is controlled by the community to ensure they retain ownership over a significant part of their culture. The same concerns are held about language programs in mainstream education, outside the control of community groups and caretakers of traditional knowledge.

In March Canberra’s Australian National University launched the Austkin database of Indigenous kinship terms and skin names, which seeks to preserve those still heard every day in communities, as well as create a database of terms in languages which are essentially extinct except for mentions in historical archives.

There’s lots more good stuff at the link (“Some of the children who learn Gumbaynggirr through the centre are ‘right into it’ but others are more focused on learning swearwords, he says, laughing”), including a nice map of “the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia”; thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    According to Nicholas Evans’ grammar, the number of speakers of Bininj Gunwok is increasing.
    Part of this is at the expense of other Australian languages, though. Bininj Gunwok is a local lingua franca – which demonstrates that a language needn’t be simple and creole-like to be a lingua franca, if anyone ever thought it did:

    Abanyawoihwarrgahmarneganjginjeng = “I cooked the wrong meat for them again.”

  2. The Horton map is a wonderful work of scholarship. However, it does not always indicate the languages spoken by the indigenous groups. For example in the South West corner of Australia, there is the Noongar (or Nyungar) language spoken by various tribes or clans. The tribes/clans are shown on the Horton map without indication that they speak the same language. To ascertain the Noongar language area, you need to look at other maps, eg. the one on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyungar_language.

    Incidentally, The Pama-Nyungan language family is named after its northernmost (Pama) and south-westernmost representatives (Noongar).

    In Western Australia there is currently a huge interest in the Noongar language. Government conducts “welcome to country” as a matter of course. Place names are signposted in English and Noongar, there are TV and radio shows, and courses in schools and technical colleges. Batchelor Press has published a number of books and posters: an example is http://batchelorpress.com/sites/default/files/Getting%20Started%20with%20NoongarV7_1.jpg.

  3. John Cowan says

    As long as a language is still vibrant there is no question who owns it: the whole community. But when that’s not the case any more it becomes a question or rather a series of questions: The women or the men? The young or the old? The L1-speakers or the L2-speakers? The traditionalists or the modernizers? (Or as Mr. Germ’s Choice has it, the greekjews or the jewgreeks?)


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