Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Sunday, May 26, 2013

History revisited - the destruction of language and how it can really survive

"The strength of any language is determined by its use in daily life"

This last column in my New England Aboriginal language series looks at the process of language destruction and partial revival.

The initial spread of European settlement in New England was quite slow. It took thirty six years for the edge of settlement to reach the Upper Hunter. However, the impact of colonisation spread well beyond the frontier.

The Aborigines had no natural resistance to the diseases that came with the Europeans. The smallpox epidemic of 1789-90 that began in Sydney spread across the North.

Then there was a smaller small pox outbreak in 1828, while other diseases such as venereal disease also spread beyond the frontier.

There is some dispute about the precise scale of impact, but what is clear is that entire groups were wiped out. In the face of catastrophe, previously separate groups were forced together in order to survive. The process of language destruction had begun.

Aboriginal society was given little time to regroup. From 1824, European settlement exploded, driven by the potential returns on wool, a high value product that could support high transport costs. Within thirty years, all of New England had been at least thinly settled.

In the face of progressive white settlement, Aborigines withdrew from some parts of traditional territory to other less settled areas. Aborigines from different groups came to work together in things such as pastoral work.

These processes merged languages. Then later relocations of Aborigines by the Aboriginal Protection Board created in 1888 forced people together from different language groups, so that English became a common language. Further, the use of Aboriginal languages was effectively discouraged as time passed.

The strength of any language is determined by its use in daily life. New England’s Aboriginal languages progressively retreated to vestigial use among older people. The languages seemed dead, although more had survived than most non-Aboriginals realised.

Interest revived in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a renewed interest in Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. Researchers began to pour over word lists, searching for previous records, recording current speakers.

From the second half of the 1980s, Aboriginal people moved to take control of their own languages. In 1986 the Muurbay Aboriginal Language and Culture cooperative was formed to revive and hand down the Gumbaynngir language. Similar revival moves took place in Kamilaroi lands and in the Lower Hunter with Awabakal.

The Roman Catholic Church played an important role in supporting language revival efforts. Steve Morelli, for example, worked with Gumbaynngir elders to run the first Gumnaynngir language course, while John Giacon played an active role in Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaray revival.

Their endeavours were supported by and drew from researchers in certain universities and especially the University of New England and Australian National University. The work of people like Bill Hoddinott, Peter Austin, Amnada Lissarough and Margaret Sharpe are examples.

These endeavours were not without controversy. Why bother, said some? Some Aboriginal people objected on the grounds that the languages were theirs, should not be shared. Other Aboriginal people objected that the new revived languages weren’t real, that they were wrong, not true.

To my mind, these criticisms are invalid. Modern Greek is not the same as Classical Greek, for example. The Aboriginal languages are part of our shared Australian past. Their revival adds to the rich texture of life that we all share.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 22 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

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