Sunday, May 08, 2011

New England Aboriginal life - process of language destruction

Note to readers: This is the fifth in a continuing series introducing readers to past and present Aboriginal life in New England. Those who are interested can find a full list of posts by either clicking New England Aboriginal life or, if you want, to read in date order from one up, click on Introducing New England Aboriginal life.

This is the third post on Aboriginal language in my New England Aboriginal life series. The first post, New England Aboriginal life - introducing language, was as the name says. Then my next post, New England Aboriginal life - sounds of Gamilaraay, was included to allow you to hear one New England language brought back from the edge of extinction.

This post, an excerpt from a paper given in Armidale in July 2010, deals with the process of language destruction.  But first, a video tribute to the languages spoken for thousands of years by Australia's first people. From the CD 'Balance', by Bruce Watson, featuring Bruce with Tracey Roberts on piano and Gavan McCarthy on bass. See

Every language lost is a way of seeing the world lost. Many Aboriginal people refer to these languages not as lost but 'sleeping', and are working hard to maintain and re-awaken languages.

In considering the languages spoken at the time of European colonisation, we cannot assume that the languages spoken in 1788 were the same as those spoken earlier, nor can we assume that language distribution was the same in geographic terms. There have been substantial changes in language even in the last few hundred years, while we know that territorial boundaries shifted with time.

A key feature of the more recent shifts has been the collapse of languages marked by many dialects into a smaller number of dialects or even a single language. Some languages just vanished. The language revival movement of recent years, something that I will discuss a little later, has necessarily focused on broader commonalities.

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 beyond the frontier.

The smallpox epidemic of 1789-90 that began in Sydney, and probably also that of 1828, appears to have had a devastating effect on at least some populations, while other diseases such as venereal disease also spread beyond the frontier. Previously separate groups were forced together in order to survive.

European settlement exploded from 1824, 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, later Welfare, 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 work of Professor Peter Austin, an Australian linguist who played a major role in the description and documentation of the Gamilaraay language, provides a framework for further considering the way these various forces interacted upon New England’s Aboriginal languages.

In a 2006 lecture on the survival of languages, Professor Austin suggested that the strength or weakness of a language could be determined by a very small number of linked parameters[1]. I say linked because the variables interact, creating interacting causal patterns.

The intergenerational transfer of language, the extent to which children were learning the language from their parents, was the first variable. Once Aboriginal children stopped learning and using the language with their parents, language decline became inevitable. This explains why discouragement of language use was so important; it weakened generational transfer.

The second parameter was the percentage of speakers among the total population. No matter how small the group speaking the language, the language would survive if it was the dominant tongue. Again, we can see how the disruption created by colonisation worked against language survival; the arrival of new settlers speaking another language, the mixing of groups, progressively turned the Aboriginal languages in any area into minority tongues.

This fed into a third parameter in language survival, domains and functions of use, the contexts and situations in which the language is regularly used. At the time of colonisation, each language occupied the whole field other than communication with neighbours where both languages might be used. Further, there were also different varieties of language, ceremonial and religious, that survived because they were linked to social structures.

The arrival of the Europeans disrupted this. Aborigines and Europeans needed to communicate. To do this, they needed some form of common language.

As settlement spread, creoles (mixtures of Aboriginal and English) emerged as Aborigines and settlers learned to communicate with each other. European concepts and words were adopted into local languages to explain new things. Examples in Gamilaraay include wajiin, ‘white woman’, from “white gin” and ganijibal, ‘policeman’, from “constable”. In the Gamilaraay case, words were generally restructured to meet the forms of the local language[2].

Some Europeans did learn to speak the local Aboriginal languages. Edward Ogilvie, for example, was ten years old when his family settled in 1826 at Merton on what was then the edge of European settlement in the Upper Hunter[3] He learned to speak the local tongue, probably a variant of Gamilaraay, as a child. In 1840 he and his brother took up land along the Clarence River. Again Ogilvie learned to speak the language, the local Bandjalung dialect, and was apparently a fluent speaker.

Despite examples like Ogilvie, the great variety in Aboriginal languages worked against widespread adoption, as did speed of European settlement and the emergence of creoles.

Professor Austin’s fourth parameter in language survival, attitudes and language ideology, also played a role. The term “language ideology” is a modern one and needs to be used with care because current attitudes can blind. There was no language ideology as such in the early period. However, attitudes and language ideology were still important on both sides of the frontier and were to become more so later in the period.

To at least some Europeans[4], acquisition of English was central to the civilisation of the Aborigines. The complex changing attitudes towards the Aborigines and the way this played out in official policy is beyond the scope of this paper. The key point for our purposes is that the speaking of Aboriginal languages came to be effectively discouraged.

Somewhat similar attitudes played out in the Aboriginal communities themselves. The links between language and ceremonial and religious life, the importance of what came to be called in English the dreaming, meant that certain language was barred to outsiders. This meant that such language was generally not recorded by European observers. As traditional life was disrupted and inter-generational transfer reduced, much language was lost.

The pattern of loss varied greatly across New England. Aboriginal people themselves retained far more language, as well as knowledge of their own history, than European observers realised. In my own case, for example, I was as a member of Isabel McByde’s pioneering Australian pre-history group in 1966. I did not know that Bandalung had survived as a living language until I read Malcolm Calley’s 1959 PhD thesis on Banjalang social organisation as part of my work[5].

Language survival was greatest among the big population language groups on the North Coast. This was partly a matter of population size, but also links to the presence of what we might call refuge areas, places that allowed concentrations of Aboriginal people to live togther with relatively less disruption than occurred inland[6].

Concluding my discussion on the process of language destruction, the factors that Professor Austin pointed to in considering language decline are just as important in considering language revival. We cannot turn the clock back. If New England’s Aboriginal languages are to survive or re-appear as living languages, then it will be because they come back into use across domains and are then passed between generations.

I make this point for a number of reasons. The first is that there is a view that language re-generation is in some ways artificial. I do not accept that view: language is a key expression of culture. However, if it is to grow it cannot be treated as a museum piece, frozen into its past. It has to evolve to meet new needs.

There is nothing necessarily wrong in preserving a language for use on ceremonial occasions. However, it cannot then be counted as as a living language. A living language is a changing language, one learned by a variety of people for a variety of purposes.

In later posts I will talk in more detail about language survival, about those who recorded the languages and the emergence of the language revival movement seeking to bring languages back to the life.

[1] Peter K Austin, Survival of Languages, Lecture 3, 3 February 2006, Twenty First Annual Darwin College Lecture Serries 2005. Accessed on-line 21 August 2009

[2] Peter K Austin, Article MS5040, Languages of the World: Gamilaraay, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics Ell2, p4, accessed on-line 19 August 2009.

[3] George Farwell, Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty (Angus & Robertson; Sydney 1983).

[4] This point needs to be checked for historical accuracy. See Jim Fletcher Clean, Clad and Courteous

[5] M J C Calley, Bandjalang Social Organisation. PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1959.

[6] Michael O’Rourke advised this conclusion is consistent with his own detailed study of the Kamilaroi. O’Rouke personal communication.


Le Loup said...

Amazing, incredible. What a shame.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LL and thanks. I am going to reword the post a little to bring the survival and revival element out more clearly.