In April, the NSW Government released Ochre, a new framework for Aboriginal policy in NSW. This accepted a recommendation from the Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs that Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests should be trialled initially in one location each for five Aboriginal language groups: Gamilaraay; Gumbaynggirr; Bundjalung; Paarkintji/Barkindji; and Wiradjuri. Three of the five language groups and both the coastal languages are centered in the broader New England. All three Northern language groups have modern relevance to Armidale.
Beneath this simple recommendation lies a remarkable story of loss and now partial recovery. That recovery would not have been possible without the work of scholars especially from the University of New England but also the ANU, nor would it have been possible without the dedication of a relatively small number of Aboriginal elders across the broader New England who fought to revive their language.
I thought that I might explore a little of that story over my next few columns. It’s too complicated to explain in just five hundred words. In this column, I want to introduce you to Aboriginal languages.
In 1788 there were perhaps 250 Aboriginal language groups in Australia incorporating perhaps 700 dialects. The precise distinction between language and dialect can be a difficult one and has become a very real issue among some Aboriginal people who object to their language being classified as a dialect of another. From my perspective, the question of the relationship between languages and between languages and dialects should be seen as a technical one.
In considering languages, we need to make a clear distinction between language and political or territorial boundaries. The broad language groups often covered substantial geographic areas. There were a variety of shifting territorial and political boundaries within each language group. Just speaking the same or a related language did not make for everlasting friendship!
Within this 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. For a long time, one New England language, Anaiwan, found on the southern New England Tablelands, was seen as distinct, not related to other Aboriginal languages. It took the pioneering work of linguist Terry Crowley to show that Anaiwan was in fact related to adjoining languages.
All the Pama-Nyungan languages have relatively free word order, allowing all possible ordering of subject, verb, object. Verbs and nouns have markers added to indicate who does what to whom, when and how. New words are formed by adding other meaningful segments.
This can make for very long words, really sentences in themselves. The combination of this with the free word order makes for great variety. In my next column, I will tell you about the New England languages themselves. In the meantime, if you would like to listen to a New England language, follow this link - http://www.yuwaalaraay.org/stories.html.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 May 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013
The other columns in this series are: