Holding Our Tongues – Language Revival

Michele: Holding Our Tongues
Holding our tongues

Hindsight 8 March 2009 – Holding our tongues

“We often think that the ‘tides of history’ have washed away most of the languages in south eastern Australia. But Aboriginal people say those languages are not dead, just sleeping. We hear the stories of three different Aboriginal nations whose languages were declared extinct last century. Incredibly, all those languages are gently being brought back to life… and in a great twist, they’ve been revived using the colonial historical record.

The same colonists who believed they were recording the language of a dying race, or seeking to translate the Bible and thus save souls, are now the main informants for Aboriginal cultural renewal. But language revival requires patience, and the courage to face significant dilemmas. If words are missing, do you make up substitutes? How do you modernise a language that was last spoken in the 1800s? And is this language engineering right or wrong?”


The transcript can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/features/holdingourtongues/transcript.htm

This program “Holding Our Tongues” has now been aired three times in Hindsight on the ABC (8th March 2009, 4th July 2009 and 2nd January 2010). Essentially this project is concerned with “language maintenance and revival [which] is at the heart of Aboriginal cultural identity”. And there is much to interest us as students of Australian Indigenous languages as it details how and why language programs are being developed to revitalise, renew and reclaim languages.

What I found particularly thought-provoking was the tension that can exist between linguists and the Aboriginal community. Furthermore, although it does not actually address the question posed in the first study question of Topic 8 about non-direct data collection, it provides much food for thought about intellectual property and the role of the expert linguist. Of especial significance is the challenge to align academic interests in analysing language with the rights of the Aboriginal people to use their language for everyday communication, and not to have their language frozen in time in “pure form” as it was before the white invasion. It would seem that the agenda of a linguist should be not historical linguistics as such, but what Amery terms the “Formulaic Method”. Please see the article “Phoenix or relic? Documentation of Languages with Revitalization in Mind” that Susan has directed us to in her recent blog on 13th September.

Postscript: A wealth of other topics of interest can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/indigenous/

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