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In Port Augusta, an Israeli linguist is helping the Barngarla people reclaim their language

In a bluestone former school building in Port Augusta, now a campus of the University of Adelaide, four generations of Barngarla people sit conference-style around a table. Harry Dare, a local elder, wears a snug beanie pulled down to his eyebrows: a ganoo-ganoo moona, or “warm and sheltered hat”. His sister Patricia sits at the opposite side of the table, long white hair pulled off her face with a comb. A handful of children have been raiding the sugar packets at the tea station but now sit quietly, drawing pictures.

“The word for ‘white’ in Barngarla is yaloo,” announces Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann. “Let’s hope your grandchildren will not need mnemonics because the words will come automatically, but you’re not native speakers so you need to find ways to remember.”

There is something operatic about Zuckermann. In his early 40s, he is larger than most people and speaks more languages (11 fluently, 11 in progress). He also speaks them more loudly, in a rich baritone accompanied by extravagant hand gestures. Usually he wears velvet jackets in jewel colours – emerald green, sapphire blue, ruby red – custom-made by his tailor in Shanghai. Today’s jacket is jet black, each button imprinted with the name “Zuckermann”.

“How will you remember yaloo?” he asks.

“Yahoo.com,” suggests a young woman.

“But why is Yahoo white?”

“Whitefella invented it,” offers her partner.

“Very good. The more pictorial your mnemonic, the easier to remember. And how will you remember yooga, for ‘black’?”

“Yoga,” the woman says.

“But how would you link yoga to ‘black’?” Zuckermann thinks for a moment. “Mahatma Gandhi is a black fellow, I guess. So imagine him doing yoga, and that will help you remember yooga.”

“Yooga is sort of like yura, the word for ‘man’,” observes Harry Dare.

“So if you’ve got a yura doing yoga, then you’ve got yooga,” puns his nephew, and everyone laughs.

Zuckermann is chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide. Born in Tel Aviv, he studied at Oxford and was a research fellow at Cambridge before moving to Australia in 2004, on account of being thunderstruck by Sydney’s beauty: “It was the wow effect! It wows me!” Determined to make a contribution (“I’m not coming here to get single mother benefits”), he observed that the country faced two main problems: bureaucracy and the plight of the Aboriginal people. Vanquishing bureaucracy was beyond him – “I can only swallow the bitter pill” – but as an expert in language revival he sensed an opportunity.

Zuckermann’s language reclamation workshops are great entertainments, featuring multimedia presentations, Google searches, digressions about famous people he has known (“Let’s see, when did I meet Nelson Mandela?”), and frequent visits to Facebook, where he has the maximum 5000 friends. His account reached full capacity five years ago after he released Israelit Safa Yafa, or Israeli – A Beautiful Language, a book that “multiplied the number of my enemies slash admirers by a factor of a million”.

The book’s central thesis is that the modern Hebrew spoken in Israel should be analysed as a reclaimed rather than a Semitic language, and called Israeli instead of Hebrew. Before its revival at the end of the 19th century, Hebrew had not been spoken for around 1750 years, and the native tongues of those who revived it – primarily Yiddish, Russian and Polish – are implicit in its grammar, vocabulary and syntax. It is a contentious thesis that earnt its author hate mail and death threats, as it suggests that the language spoken by modern Israelis is not descended from holy writ but is instead a “beautifully multi-layered and intricately multi-sourced language that one should embrace and celebrate”.

For Zuckermann, diversity is beautiful. This is no abstract aesthetic principle, but a premise of his life’s work. His ninth-floor office at the Unversity of Adelaide’s North Terrace campus is a small shrine to diversity. Its walls are papered with printouts of his favourite words: mamihlapinatapai, “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves”, from Tierra del Fuego’s Yaghan language; nakhur, “a camel who will only give milk if you tickle her nostrils”, from Persian; and tingo, “to take all the objects from your neighbour’s house, one by one, by asking to borrow them, until there is nothing left”, from Rapa Nui’s Pascuense language. The depletion of the world’s languages strikes him as an aesthetic catastrophe. He quotes the late American linguist Kenneth Hale: “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.” It perplexes Zuckermann that others do not share this sense of crisis: “The survival of the Tasmanian Devil is important, but what about the survival of the Palawa languages of Tasmania? Why do people not give money for languages but do give monies to the zoo?”

According to Zuckermann’s most recent figures, only 13 of the 330 Aboriginal languages spoken when Australia was colonised remain “alive and kicking”, by which he means spoken by children. In a recent paper for the journal Australian Aboriginal Studies, Zuckermann and his co-authors, Shiori Shakuto Neoh from the Australian National University and Giovanni Matteo Quer from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, make the case for Native Tongue Title, a statute-based ex gratia compensation scheme. Aboriginal languages were lost due to what Zuckermann calls “the white fellow”; it is up to the white fellow to provide redress. Controversially, he believes that the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land, because “the land is still there, the language is not”.

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive but profoundly interlinked. Daryn McKenny, a founder of the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre in New South Wales, has said that “our languages are as diverse as our people are themselves, they are a true expression of one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, they connect us to the land and to the stars like no other, but most of all they guide us and they heal us”. In her 1993 Boyer lecture, the Aboriginal linguist Jeanie Bell explained that “our languages are the voices of the land, and we are the carriers of the language”. Zuckermann acknowledges this with his own version of the Aboriginal flag, in which the yellow of the sun is replaced by the pink of langue, or tongue, lying between the black of the people and the red of the land: “because language is in fact the mouth of both the land and the people in many Aboriginal spiritualities”.

Once spoken throughout South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, the Barngarla language died out in the 1960s. After locating a Barngarla dictionary from 1844, compiled by a Lutheran missionary, Zuckermann saw that the language could be reclaimed. But he would not go further without the approval of its traditional owners: “This is a rule. It’s their language. I am a facilitator.” He made contact with the Barngarla Council, and in 2012 five of its members came to see him in Adelaide.

“I have this kind of idea,” he told them. “Not a dream but a possible dream. Your beautiful language is no longer spoken, and I have this idea maybe it is possible to reclaim it.” They listened carefully, and then, “to my great surprise and my great happiness, they told me, ‘We have been waiting for you for 50 years.’”

Patricia Dare was a small child when she was taken to the Plymouth Brethren–run Umeewarra Mission in Port Augusta. A softly spoken woman, she remembers “talking language” as a girl, before being fostered to an English couple who were “really nice, treated us as if we were their own children”, but “didn’t want us to speak language, I supposed because they didn’t know what we were talking about. So we gradually forgot it, and it sort of felt strange, you know?”

In a 2013 article for the Australian, Dare’s nephew Stephen Atkinson describes the parallel story of his mother, Maureen, who arrived at Umeewarra Mission aged eight. Forbidden to speak Barngarla, she was no longer “able to put a sentence together” by the time she left. (Children, with their neuroplasticity, are not only great learners but also great forgetters.) Some years later, on a visit to the mission, she overheard the missionaries speaking to the children in indigenous languages. They acknowledged that they had previously done the wrong thing and were now “promoting the speaking of language on the mission in later years, even against government policy”.

Atkinson attributes his mother’s language loss to “ignorance and misunderstanding on behalf of the missionaries”, and to the “arrogance or possibly misled naivety” of the government. When publicising the issue, Zuckermann prefers the term “linguicide”. He emphasises that this was not haphazard but a deliberate process of colonisation, and he cites the comments of 19th-century financier and politician Anthony Forster as typical of the mindset of the time. Forster claimed:

The natives would be sooner civilised if their language was extinct. The children taught would afterwards mix only with whites, where their own language would be of no use – the use of their language would preserve their prejudices and debasement, and their language was not sufficient to express the ideas of civilized life.

But the greatest loss has occurred over the past 50 years, due largely to government assimilation policy and the legacy of the Stolen Generations. At the Native Welfare Conference of Federal and State Ministers in 1961, the goals of assimilation policy were articulated: “All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs as other Australians.”

The effect was catastrophic for indigenous languages. Some members of the Stolen Generations retained snippets of their mother tongue, which they passed down to their children divested of meaning. One workshop participant recalls being called gooni by his mother; it is Zuckermann who informs him that gooni means “third-born male child”.

When he speaks to the Barngarla people, Zuckermann avoids the word “linguicide” because “dead can be offensive to some people”. Instead, acknowledging a “non sequitur within my discourses”, he refers to their language as a “Sleeping Beauty”.

But this too can be controversial. “It never went to sleep,” says Scotty Murray, visiting from Coober Pedy. “They got forced not to talk it. Come on!”

“You’re right,” says Zuckermann. “I said ‘went to sleep’ because some people do not like the word ‘dead’ when talking about language, but usually when talking to the government I use the word ‘killed’.”

“They didn’t kill it, they just buried it,” Murray replies. “They buried it and tried to hide it from us.”

Burying is a useful metaphor: among other things, language reclamation is a great process of excavation. A key artefact in Barngarla reclamation is the 1844 dictionary, compiled by the Lutheran missionary Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann. Born near Hanover in 1815, Schürmann was schooled in Latin, English, Greek and Hebrew before being posted to Adelaide. A passionate advocate for Aboriginal people, he claimed it was “bad enough that a great part of the colonists are inimical to the natives; it is worse that the law, as it stands at present, does not extend its protection to them, but it is too bad when the press lends its influence to their destruction”. In 1850, he founded a school at Wallala, near Port Lincoln, offering instruction in Barngarla. When the school lost its funding, its students were sent to school in Poonindie. There, in a precursor to assimilation policy, they were no longer instructed in their native tongue.

Shortly after arriving in South Australia, Schürmann and his colleague Christian Teichelmann compiled a dictionary of the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains, which has formed the basis of a Kaurna reclamation hosted by the University of Adelaide’s Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi. In 1844, Schürmann produced A Vocabulary of the Parnkalla [Barngarla] Language, Spoken by the Natives Inhabiting the Western Shores of Spencer’s Gulf.

The dictionary is crucial to the Barngarla reclamation project but requires its own work of excavation. Zuckermann likens his reconstructive work to that of a detective: painstakingly piecing the language together, comparing it to related tongues and making accommodations for how Schürmann, with his own language background, might have understood its structure. Like Israeli, the reclaimed tongue is by nature a hybrid, bearing Zuckermann’s imprint as well as Schürmann’s.

Zuckermann concedes that “one day in the future a scholar might detect Israeli impact on neo-Barngarla”, and he hopes to train a Barngarla linguist to lead the project. One possible candidate is Stephen Atkinson. Tall and charismatic, Atkinson refined his own communication abilities while working in security: “Your job’s a lot easier if you can just talk to people.” A key player in the reclamation project, he muses that “Ghil‘ad is doing a great thing, but he speaks with an accent as it is, so hopefully we’re not speaking with a Jewish accent but speaking Barngarla.”

The process might be easier if there were still elders who were fluent in the language, but for Zuckermann this would pose its own problems of “linguistic hygiene”. He explains, “With the Tiwi language, spoken north of Darwin, the elders look at the youngsters who rape and slaughter the language, so to speak, and say, ‘You’re such an idiot.’ The result is that these youngsters turn to English. ‘Give us authenticity or give us death’ usually results in death.” To revive a language, Zuckermann believes you must embrace impurity: “You cannot be anal. Some linguists are not willing to relinquish their principles, and might consider this process a bit laissez-faire. This is the difference between a documentary linguist and a revival linguist. If you have Asperger’s, you can still be a documentary linguist. But you cannot be a revival linguist.”

Funded by the federal government’s Indigenous Languages Support program, the Barngarla workshops are held in Port Augusta, Whyalla and Port Lincoln several times a year. They operate as impromptu language academies: their purpose is not only instruction but also collective decision-making. One of the challenges of reviving a dormant language is finding words for a new world. The word for “brain” was recorded in the 1844 dictionary as gaga-bibi, or “head-egg”. To create the word for “computer”, workshop participants simply added “electricity”, or waribirga, forming gagabibiwaribirga, abbreviated to gabiwa. (This construction is based on the Māori rorohiko, also “brain-lightning”, and amounts to a calque, or translation of individual components of a borrowed expression.) The internet is irbiyarnoo, combining irbi, or “information”, with yarnoo, or “net”.

The Barngarla were traditionally a coastal people known for “singing to the sharks”, an art that died out with its final practitioner in the 1960s. In bays across the Eyre Peninsula, the men sang from the cliffs as the women danced on the beach, luring sharks and dolphins towards the shore, and driving fish into the shallows. Three words for “shark” remain in the dictionary – gadalyili, goonya and walgara – but their individual shades of meaning have been lost. “Sometimes in language revival, we have five or six words for the same thing,” Zuckermann explains, “so we decide to particularise.”

The workshop participants try out each word.

“We say goonya for ‘whitefella’,” Harry Dare observes, and the repartee starts flying.

“Because of whiting!”

“No, it’s white pointers!”

There is much goodwill in the room, and the constant hum of comedy, but the goonya is never far away. The goonya, after all, is the reason these people have to relearn their ancestors’ tongue. Towards lunchtime, Zuckermann projects a picture of a boab tree onto the wall: “In Barngarla, the word for ‘tree’ is the same as the word for ‘communicate’: wadlada. Do you know what type of tree this is?”

“Jail tree,” Atkinson says. “The white man used them as makeshift jails for Aboriginal people and locked up our men. Hollowed them out and had bars there to stop us getting out.”

“That’s disturbing,” says Zuckermann. He searches for “prison tree” on Google and reads from a 1931 newspaper article: “The bottle tree known as Hillgrove lockup, situated on the King River 25 miles from Wyndham, is a tree with a history. When blacks were bad, in the ’90s, this tree was used as a prison.”

“When blacks were bad,” repeats Harry Dare.

“Is that why they planted half a dozen of them out Elizabeth way?” jokes Scotty Murray.

Zuckermann runs an image search and projects the result on the wall. It is a large, squat boab tree, covered with pockmarks and graffiti, still bearing green leaves. A tourist in a khaki hat grins from the hollow in its centre.

There is a collective sigh in the room that I will not soon forget.

On 16 May this year, three days after the Abbott government unveiled the federal budget, Education Minister Christopher Pyne launched Zuckermann’s inaugural Adelaide Language Festival in Bonython Hall at the University of Adelaide. The event was typically diverse. Beneath the heraldic shields, a group of Uyghur dancers waited to perform, clad in sequinned aquamarines and beaded caps. A Vietnamese singer stood beside them, in blue jeans and a plain white jumper. Young police with soft faces hovered at the aisles; a security detail lurked at the back. In the audience, private-school students in blazers sat alongside retirees and linguistics students.

As Pyne delivered his keynote address, a group of student protesters maintained a loud barrage of socialist anthems. Directly in front of me, a blond, bearded man appeared to be conducting them, his body vibrating with revolutionary fervour. Two nights earlier, Pyne had reassured the presenter of ABC’s 7.30 program, Sarah Ferguson, that he didn’t “feel flustered”, and today he maintained a stoical grin, his increasing pink the only sign of fluster. (Occasionally he allowed himself a dig at the protesters: “I don’t think this group would be winning any prizes on The Voice competition.”) In the reverberant, cathedral-like hall, neither party was especially comprehensible, but each pressed on with joyless resolve. The odd snippet of Pyne’s speech was audible, as he announced a “national revival of language education”, highlighting the need to “overcome the ‘monolingual mindset’” and to shake students “out of their complacency”.

Despite such commendable objectives, the federal budget cut $9.5 million from the Indigenous Languages Support program (ILS) over four years. Established under a different name in 1991 and administered by the Ministry for the Arts, ILS invests over $9 million each year in programs to maintain and revive indigenous languages. The 2012 Our Land, Our Languages report of the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs recommends that “the Commonwealth government include in the Closing the Gap framework acknowledgement of the fundamental role and importance of Indigenous languages in preserving heritage and improving outcomes for Indigenous people”. Between 2011 and 2012, ILS invested in 75 activities across Australia, supporting more than 200 indigenous languages. In March this year, the report from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ National Indigenous Languages Survey 2 noted that at least 30 languages were used more widely due to community-based language programs.

“NEEDED,” Zuckermann posted on Facebook. “Aboriginal language revivalists who are willing to disguise as school chaplains.”

How successful can language revival hope to be?

“I am a native speaker of Israeli,” says Zuckermann, “so if you believe that I speak coherently, then it proves that it is possible to speak a reclaimed language that did not exist 130 years ago.”

But Israeli had two factors working in its favour: significant critical mass – compared to the 120 participants of the Barngarla workshops – and the movement to sovereignty. “When you reclaim a language in order to get a state, it gives you a huge advantage,” Zuckermann concedes. He sees his role as providing an opportunity to the Barngarla people: “If they wish to go the full monty – that is, for their children to speak natively – it can be done, but it requires huge dedication. No footy on Sunday. No materialism.”

Several participants express impatience at the rate of learning. “At the moment, it’s going along too slow,” says Harry Dare. “We understand that Ghil‘ad’s a full-time professor down in Adelaide, and we understand that there’s not much time that he can deliver to us. But it would be great if there was someone that was here in Port Augusta.” He holds high hopes for the comprehensive “user-friendly” dictionary Zuckermann is preparing, because “then we can kind of teach ourselves”. Stephen Atkinson observes that “I don’t have grandchildren at the moment, but hopefully when I do, they’ll be immersed in the Barngarla reclamation and they’ll be speaking the language fluently, and carrying on where Mum left off at eight years old.”

Another possible scenario is what American scholar Jeffrey Shandler terms “post-vernacular” language use, analogous to the role of Yiddish in the US. This might take the form of ensuring familiarity with several dozen words, erecting bilingual signs in Barngarla country, and performing Welcome to Country and other rituals in Barngarla. In his book Adventures in Yiddishland, Shandler explains that

in semiotic terms, the [post-vernacular] language’s primary level of signification – that is, its instrumental value as a vehicle for communicating information, opinions, feelings, ideas – is narrowing in scope. At the same time its secondary, or meta-level of signification – the symbolic value invested in the language apart from the semantic value of any given utterance in it – is expanding.

Language can have many meanings beyond the semantic. It offers not only connection to the group but also connection to one’s ancestors. To strip a people of both land and language, as we have done, amounts to a double displacement, from within and without. “I personally would not say my ancestors are happy,” says Zuckermann, “but I know that when an Aboriginal person says this, it is a sign of empowerment.” He is disparaging of armchair linguists who “believe the point of language revival is to speak the language, when the point is actually to improve the wellbeing of those who participate in the language reclamation and their associates”.

Strong research links the use of indigenous language to better physical and mental health, higher incidence of paid employment and school attendance, and reduced likelihood of substance abuse, police arrest and violence. In a 2007 study on Aboriginal language knowledge in the Canadian province of British Columbia, researchers uncovered a clear correlation between youth suicide and lack of conversational knowledge in the native language. Zuckermann is particularly interested in the effects of language reclamation on mental health. He cites the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, in which 31% of respondents aged 15 and over had experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the four weeks leading up to the interview – a rate 2.5 times greater than for non-indigenous Australians.

But how much conversational knowledge is enough to improve wellbeing? Would a post-vernacular language be enough? There have not yet been longitudinal studies performed on language reclamation’s effects on mental health, but the wellbeing in this classroom is palpable.

“I love the concept of this,” says Harry Dare, “but I actually really enjoy the process too. This is probably the highlight of my month, or whenever Ghil‘ad comes up. It’s very important to us, as a group.”

At the end of the day’s workshop, we head out to the Umeewarra Mission, which operated from 1937 to 1995 and housed more than 480 members of the Stolen Generations. Now termite-ridden and overgrown with weeds, it comprises a group of corrugated iron buildings, surrounded by cyclone fencing. The Aboriginal Lands Trust has declared the mission “derelict” and earmarked it for demolition.

Lavene Ngatokoura, the chairwoman of the Umeewarra Nguraritja Committee, considers the mission “a vital place for our social and cultural wellbeing” and has spearheaded local protests against the demolition. “The relevant authorities haven’t come to us as the Barngarla people, as the traditional owners of this country, to do something in our own land,” Atkinson observes. Lawyers are seeking an injunction against the demolition.

We arrive in time for a psychedelic sunset. The group wanders quietly through the site.

“Remember the trampolines there?”

“And we used to play footy on that oval over there.”

“They really shouldn’t knock it down,” says Scotty Murray. “They should at least make a memorial out of it, to remember what that mob did. Wasn’t it a federal government thing? Federal government should clean it up then, the state as well.”

“They said sorry,” observes Harry Dare, laconically.

Out the back of the mission is a burnt-out car, upside down, with tyres removed and contents strewn on the ground. Behind it, the Flinders Ranges lie low and purple on the horizon.

Can culture be salvaged, when it has been so relentlessly destroyed?

“I’d love for a language centre to be here,” says Harry. “It would be great, and not just for Barngarla. We want to attract the other groups in, to help us to help them to maintain their language too.”

He stares through the cyclone fence, past the asbestos warnings. “I know what I’d like to see in the language centre. A crèche for the kids. A kitchen so we could feed the children while they’re here, and the adults, of course. Probably makes sense also to have a little painting studio, because we have a lot of artists.”

The Barngarla word for “memory” is ngandyarnidi, from the word ngandya, which means “dear”, “sweet” or “pretty”. The mission offers a complicated cocktail of memory and possibly requires a different word. Patricia Dare confesses that she visits the mission sometimes with her daughter. “Just to cruise around and sticky-beak, you know? How can I describe it? It’s still home, you know? But it’s not home.”


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