Wednesday, September 28, 2005


When Captain Cook put ashore in what is now called Cooktown in 1770 to carry out repairs on the Endeavour, the local language, Guugu Yimithirr, became the first Australian Aboriginal language to be documented, & also gave, eventually, most of the world’s languages a new word, gungurru, kangaroo. Cook described the speech he heard as “soft & tunable”.

There were around 250 Aboriginal languages – up to 700 dialects - spoken in Australia when the Europeans began their colonisation in the century following Cook’s visit. 55 of those have already gone, & the rate of extinction grows as the elderly die out not having passed on their tongue. (Perhaps not as bad as the death of 85% of the 1200 Brazilian languages that existed pre-colonisation there.) Somewhere between 50 & 100 fluent speakers of Guugu Yimithirr still remain, most elderly & living in the one area. A generation goes by. Will any remain?

Language is power. Language is history. The massacre that was carried out by the Dutch on the other side of Cape York at the time of their discovery of Australia would almost certainly have been forgotten had it not been for the Wik people who passed it down from generation to generation over 400 years.

What is now being put forward, even being taught, is Aboriginal English which is described as a dialect in the sense that Scottish is a dialect of English. Part of its raison d’etre is the claim that if words from different languages continue to be used, then that language cannot be considered as dead. But is Latin a ‘live’ language, simply because we have incorporated words like et cetera & non sequitur into English?

The death of a language becomes almost a Zen koan. If no-one speaks it, how can anyone tell if a language is dead?

1 comment:

Crafty Green Poet said...

I just bought a book about threatened languages - Spoken Here by Mark Abley. Have you read it at all?