Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.

Stan Grant’s account in The Guardian of his relationship with the Wiradjuri language jolted me back forty years to the language work I did as a Masters student at the Australian National University. For my major assignment, I was handed a box full of field notes and audio tapes collected by the American linguist Ken Hale. The box was marked ‘Wambaya, Barkly Tablelands’. My job was to write a grammar of the Wambaya language, which I was told was on the verge of extinction.

‘Jolt’ is an apt word: Stan Grant’s article left me feeling unsettled about my own relationship with Indigenous languages in general, and about the nature of the work I did four decades ago. I’ll come back to this later.

More generally, it made me reflect on how non-Indigenous Australians might respond to Grant’s argument. The comments following the article give us at least a preliminary answer.

I counted 121 actual comments, with 53 ‘removed by a moderator because’ they ‘didn’t abide by our community standards’ By way of comparison, an article on housing affordability with 123 comments had only two removed.

I roughly categorised the 121 unremoved comments as follows: About half were facetious, trivial, or off the point; some of these presented good arguments about the link between language and culture but didn’t address Stan’s argument.

On the positive side, about a quarter supported the thrust of the article or praised the quality of the writing, while the nay vote was represented by thirteen percent who rejected Stan’s argument without being rude about it.

Finally, there were half a dozen people who scolded Stan for ignoring his British heritage, two who argued that although they weren’t Indigenous their pain was equally valid, and seven who were personally insulting to the writer.

The verdict? My suspicion, based on the wording of the comments, is that opinion on Stan Grant’s article falls into two distinct camps, with attitudes pretty well entrenched on both sides. Let’s guess that half of the 53 removed responses opposed the article (and the other half were irrelevant insults or ravings): My tally is that only a minority of an admittedly small and imperfect sample are sympathetic to Stan’s views.

This is hardly surprising given the vast gulf of understanding about Australian language issues among non-Indigenous Australians. I count myself among the ignorant despite the fact that I know a little more than the man on the Toorak tram or the 440 bus to Leichhardt.

My acquaintance with these languages began at seminars at The University of London given by the celebrated linguist Bob Dixon. I had been trained to analyse the grammar, sound systems and vocabulary of exotic languages and, boy, these Australian languages were fine specimens: Weird ‘genders’, sets of consonants I’d never seen elsewhere, and sentence grammar that was ‘ergative’, i.e. not observing the ‘normal’ subject-object distinction. A year later in Canberra I’d had further training and I was let loose on Wambaya.

I am still tremendously grateful for that chance that I was given to boost my knowledge and skills as a linguist. What bothers me in hindsight is that the only human connection I had with the speakers of Wambaya was the scrapy voice of an old man saying words and sentences onto a reel to reel tape in some spot in the Barkly Tablelands that I could not begin to imagine. I did no fieldwork. I was a young white linguist in a hurry.

As I moved up the academic career ladder, I advocated for the teaching of – or about – Australian languages in my university, but all attempts failed. The lack of support from the Indigenous side was especially puzzling; language just didn’t seem to be a priority. It was around this time that I began to use the metaphor of the sliding door to characterise my experience with Indigenous life on campus: The door opened enough to give me a glimpse, but closed too quickly for me to see what was really going on.

Years later, I found myself with an entire Indigenous education centre in my management portfolio as a Pro-Vice Chancellor. The sliding door began to stay open longer, especially during the very long meetings that I spent with Indigenous colleagues thrashing out submissions for funding. I was warmly welcomed when I decided to work in the centre for a day a week rather than in the stress-filled senior management area where I belonged.

My best memory is being taken by a Wiradjuri senior colleague to a huge annual picnic on the outskirts of Sydney, where I witnessed the amazing depth and diversity of the Indigenous community of the region. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast with listening to that recorded voice decades earlier.

I’m happy to report that Wambaya had 89 speakers according to the 2006 Census – not exactly a big crowd, but at least the language is not extinct. Stan Grant would no doubt be very pleased.

Stuart Campbell is a former Professor of Linguistics and Pro-Vice Chancellor. Nowadays, he writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

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5 thoughts on “Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.”

  1. Nicely put post on one of the world’s most mysterious and ancient cultural phenomena: the indigenous people of Australia. Time it was exposed and investigated on the world stage, not just buried within the day-to-day social concerns of Oz!

  2. A nice view on one of the world’s most mysterious and ancient cultural phenomena: the indigenous people of Australia. Time the subject was aired more on the world stage, rather than just being confined to social politics in Oz…

    1. It’s a really hard issue here in Australia. I know a bit about it as I said in the article, but the more I learn, the less I know!

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