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Australian Aboriginals and other cultures could re-learn their mother tongues

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Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann (L) pictured with members of the Barngarla tribe in South Australia, helped to revive their native language, lost by 1960 under Christian missionaries. (Photo: Supplied)

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Modern Israel is the world’s only successful case of a society that brought back a dead language – Hebrew.

Many languages once significant in human history have died out – Ancient Egyptian, Powhatan, the language of Pocahontas, Latin etc. There are 7,000 languages in the world today and many are dying. In Australia for example, Aboriginal people spoke 400-600 languages before European contact since 1788. But today however, only a dozen are spoken by children partly due to linguicide by European Australians.

Recently however, a secular Jew, Ghil’ad Zuckermann worked with an 1844 dictionary initially used by German Lutheran missionaries to Christianize (colonize) the Barngarla tribe and he used the same tool to revive their dead language and decolonize them – this a major game-changer!

Linguist Ken Hale likened language loss to the bombing of a museum like say the Louvre, home to Mona Lisa: “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art”, he said.

A museum is a repository of a society – just like its languages, which have unique ways of expressing concepts that evolved specific to a culture. So, with the loss of a language, there is a concurrent loss of culture.

In Kuuk Thaayorre, an Australian language, speakers do not use the words “left” or “right”, but instead use cardinal directions (north, south, east). Similar phenomena are common around the world and preserve cultural memory:

German has unique words like Ohrwurm, “earworm”, referring to a song stuck in your head that you’re always humming. 

In French and Spanish, the verbs “savoir” and “saber” respectively mean “to know something”. But “connaître” and “conocer” mean “to know someone”. This distinction does not exist in English.

Revivalistics

Professor Zuckermann is a Professor of Linguistics and Chair of Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He was awarded doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He works tirelessly in the actual field rather than solely with scholars. He defines revivalistics as the field of language reclamation.

His new book is divided into two parts, one reflecting his journey from analyzing Modern Hebrew – which he calls ‘Israeli’ since he describes it as being a completely different language in a category of itself ‘revived language’ – but that’s another story!

The second part is about reclaiming “Dreaming, Sleeping Beauties” in Australia and beyond.

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-yiddish-influenced-modern-hebrew-yes-you-read-it-correct/

Why revive  

Zuckermann suggests that language revival has far-reaching effects beyond linguistics alone. He claims that it reduces delinquency, drunkenness, depression and suicide – common social issues among Aborigines today. Knowing the language of your ancestors instills a sense of pride and identity, and makes you more mentally fortified for the trials of life: Just like Israelis speaking the revived language of their ancestors. Studies have confirmed that there are cognitive and medical advantages to being multilingual. Zuckermann knows of an individual who had been in multiple run-ins with the law and a substance abuse problem, but after 2 years of learning his language, turned his life around.

Cultural tourism is another theater for revival – tourism provides an avenue for performance of the Haka (a Maori war) or buskers playing bagpipes in the Scottish Highlands. 

In the Sydney 2000 Olympics; Ngunnawal was used in the opening ceremony. Kaurna has been used in welcoming people to the Adelaide Festival of Arts since 1998, WOMADelaide (World Music Adelaide) and the Adelaide Language Festival – established by Zuckermann himself. 

The Barngarla in South Australia lost its native language by 1960. Their traditional lands were the Eyre Peninsula. Being a coastal community in Cape York, contact with European whalers and traders since the 19th century means that there was violent conflict accelerating language loss. Their traditional lands cover 17,500 square miles (45,000 sq. km) – roughly twice the size of Israel.

When I asked Zuckermann “Why can’t the Barngarla simply learn a related living neighboring language instead?”, he retorted: “It’s like telling Scottish to learn Russian. Do you think they’d be happy to use Russian lexical terms for ‘kilt’ and ‘bagpipe’?”

“Similarly, Barngarla would like to reconnect with their own language, rather than, say the neighboring Pitjantjatjara.

Zuckermann believes that this will help right the wrongs of the past. In fact, when Zuckermann first approached them in 2011, elders said “we have been waiting for you for 50 years.”

Westerners used technology for colonization such as ships, weapons and ‘black cars’ – which kidnapped mixed-race children and put them in foster homes in order to forcibly assimilate them. 

Today ironically, technology helps them reconnect with their cultural autonomy and sovereignty. Zuckermann has prepared a special app with a user-friendly, accessible Dictionary that can be used even by non-scholars.

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* Barngarla is an interesting language. For example, their word for tree ‘wardlada’ also means ‘communication’

Barngarla also has dual plurals :

Yoora “man”

Yooralbili “2 men”

Yoorari “men”

Yoorailyarana “heaps of men”

Revived Hebrew also has a “dual” plural:

Shaa “hour”

Shaatayim “2 hours”

Shaot “hours”

* Pertaining to coastal culture:

Wada – whale

Namana – Southern right whale

Ganggaroo – an untranslatable concept. When someone spots a whale, he/she cries this word for attention. They sing for whales and sharks to chase the fish in towards them.

* New words had to be coined, just like with Modern Hebrew:

irbiyarnoo – internet – from  irbi ‘information’ + yarnoo ‘net’

gabiwa – computer (shortened from gaga-bibi [brain (head-egg) + waribirga (lighning)]

ganoo ganoo moona – beanie (warm sheltered hat)

NOTE: Swear words were not added to the project by request of community elders! Even though this is important for many of us when learning a new language!

Language planning is not a new concept: Turkish removed foreign loanwords and inserted lexicon from an older version of the language in order to ‘purify’ it. We have artificial languages like Esperanto that have native speakers, fictional languages like Klingon in Star Trek and Dothraki in Game of Thrones which have active communities and cult followings.  

The process of language evolution can have artificial input because we know how to modify it.

Zuckermann argues that Yiddish influenced Modern Hebrew because many Jews lived in Europe for 2000 years and picked up European sounds and grammar. Aboriginal Australians like Barngala however, lost their language only 60 years ago and Aboriginal English has elements of Aboriginal languages which will make revival less complicated phonetically. The speakers’ accent change, new concepts and phrases that have emerged will probably be less prominent than that in the timespan between Classical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew. 

Still, just like Yiddish influenced Modern Hebrew, Revived Barngala will have much English influence.

On Youtube, Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann demonstrated the variations of Warraidya, the bangarla root word for emu. The Emu is an important cultural icon to the coastal tribe in South Australia. (Photo: Supplied)

Future 

A culture that lives in its own language thrives:

Scotland uses Gaelic in official mottos for schools and establishments, Americans and Europeans use Latin or Greek. In prayer, Sanskrit and Coptic are still used by Hindus and Orthodox Christians, etc. None of these cultures speak their ethnic languages in the majority but are still aware of them, just as Jews once were while speaking diaspora languages.

Who knows, maybe one day kids will study in Barngarla medium schools or use it for rituals like weddings and funerals; it could reach an equilibrium whereby 20% will be fluent like Irish/Welsh today. From a revivalistic perspective, it is up to the community itself to determine what they do from here on.

Maybe the insights could be applied beyond when say, Scottish, Cherokees or Hawaiians one day turn to Barngarla to assist them with their own language resurrection: Just as Hebrew revival inspired Barngarla revival.

Zuckermann’s volume ends with a plea from Jenna Richards: 

“Personally, I found the experience of learning our language liberating and went home feeling very overwhelmed because we were finally going to learn our “own” language, it gave me a sense of identity and I think if the whole family learnt our language then we would all feel totally different about ourselves and each other cause it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life.”

Evelyn Walker adds: “Our ancestors are happy.”

https://www.amazon.com/Revivalistics-Genesis-Language-Reclamation-Australia-ebook/dp/B085YD5331

Avi Kumar is a historian of Sri Lankan descent who lives in New York.

He has a unique spin on current affairs.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

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