One Israeli's Mission to Revive Aboriginal Language Down Under

How does a Jewish Israeli who wants to help Australian Aboriginal people undo the injustice done by English colonizers go about revitalizing the Barngarla language?

Ghil’ad Zuckermann
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
An Aboriginal elder, Max Eulo, performing a smoking ceremony in Sydney, 2013.
An Aboriginal elder, Max Eulo, performing a smoking ceremony in Sydney, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Ghil’ad Zuckermann

I fell in love at first sight with Australia in 2001, when I was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Sydney. At the time, I was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, while on sabbatical from the University of Cambridge in England. I returned to Cambridge, but decided to look for an academic position in Australia. When I arrived in Melbourne in 2004, I asked myself how I might contribute to the Australian society that was hosting me so graciously.

I identified two pressing issues facing Australian society: the exasperating bureaucracy (there are democracies, and then there are aristocracies; Australia was founded as a bureaucracy, and today is a professionalized one); and the injustice done to the Aboriginal people.

I said to myself: How could an Israeli professor effect a reduction of the Australian bureaucracy?!? I decided to invest my efforts in the Aboriginal issue.

If I were a dentist, I would have tried to improve dental health among the Aboriginal people. If I were a psychologist, I would try to help them break their addiction to alcohol or smoking. But I am a linguist specializing in the revival of Hebrew and the emergence of the Israeli language, a hybrid language based on Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages spoken by revivalists/reclaimers.

So, I found a fascinating niche, in totally virgin soil: reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration of the Aboriginal languages.

Aboriginal people have lived on the Australian continent for at least 51,000 years. As far as we know, they are the most ancient group of Homo sapiens sapiens (I analyze “sapiens sapiens” etymythologically: as the animals who not only know, but also know that they know) to have left Africa, the cradle of humankind. Currently, the Aboriginal people constitute approximately 3 percent of the country’s population: about 700,000 out of a total of nearly 24 million people.

The situation of the Aboriginal tongues is dismal. I know of at least 330 different Aboriginal languages, but only 4 percent (13 languages) are “healthy,” meaning that they are spoken natively by the children. The remaining 96 percent have either by now become what I call “Sleeping Beauty” tongues or are on the verge of imminent extinction. Nevertheless, the reclamation of languages in Australia began only in recent years. Is Australia a “lucky country,” as journalist Donald Horne described it 50 years ago? Linguistically speaking, definitely not.

Why revitalize Aboriginal languages? I can offer three reasons:

The first is ethical/moral: Aboriginal languages are worthy of reviving, out of a desire for historic social justice. They deserve to be reclaimed in order to right the wrong of the past. The English colonizers consciously wiped out these languages, in a process that I call “linguicide” – language killing. I personally know hundreds of Aboriginal people who were “stolen” from their parents when they were kids.

Incidentally, as opposed to the common wisdom, the language spoken in Israel, “Israeli,” did not kill Yiddish. In fact, Yiddish survives beneath Israeli grammar and vocabulary. Israeli is not retsakh yidish (Israeli for “murder of Yiddish”), but rather Yidish redt zikh (Yiddish for “Yiddish speaks itself [beneath Israeli]”) .

I believe in Native Tongue Title, which would be an extension of “Native Title” ־ the recognition in Australian law that indigenous people have rights to and interests in their land that derive from their traditional laws and customs.

I therefore propose that the Australian government grant financial compensation for the loss of languages. The financial support ought to cover efforts to resuscitate a lost language. Language is much more important than land. Loss of language leads to loss of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and heritage. Linguicide is, in my opinion, a loss of the “soul.”

The second reason for Aboriginal language revival is aesthetic: Diversity is beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Just as it is fun to embrace koalas (in the hope that they have had their nails cut short) or to photograph baby rhinos and elephants, so, too, it’s fun to listen to a plethora of languages and to learn odd and unique words.

For example, I love the word mamihlapinatapai, in the Yaghan language, spoken in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The word is very precise and to the point in its meaning. Any attempt to translate it cannot be performed in fewer words than the following: “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.” Despite the fact that any word in a language is translatable, there is a difference, at least aesthetically, between saying “mamihlapinatapai,” and saying “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.”

As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Aboriginal protesters hold banners and chant slogans during a protest outside a government office building in Sydney, Australia, July 6, 2015. Credit: Reuters

The third reason for Aboriginal language revival is utilitarian: Language reclamation empowers individuals who have lost their heritage and at times also a reason to live. This empowerment can save a government millions of dollars that would otherwise need to be invested in mental health and incarceration, not to mention the various cognitive and health benefits of bilingualism.

Reviving Barngala

How does a Jewish Israeli help Aboriginal people undo the injustice done by English colonizers and reclaim the Barngarla language? By means of a dictionary written in 1844 by a Lutheran German! This is, then, a patently cosmopolitan enterprise.

Barngarla, the language I have been reclaiming for the past few years, was spoken until 50 years ago in the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann lived in Port Lincoln, and in 1844, 172 years ago, he composed the Barngarla-English dictionary in order to convert the Aboriginal people to Christianity.

Because Schürmann was a missionary, not a linguist, his dictionary is not professional, in today’s terms. Therefore, it is up to me to carry out reconstruction, for example, by means of comparing Barngarla to Aboriginal languages that are “genetically” close to Barngarla – for instance, Adnyamathanha, literally “rock people,” spoken on the Flinders ranges in South Australia. Think of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was very fond of using Arabic and Aramaic in order to coin new words, in Israeli. Aramaic is very close to Hebrew.

I run workshops in which I teach the Aboriginal people the language of their ancestors. We write poems, learn new expressions, invent new words, learn by heart the Barngarla “Welcome to Country” – several sentences that Barngarla people use in order to open official events in the Eyre Peninsula. We go about planning to transform what I call the “landscape,” the linguistic landscape of the region, for instance, by translating signs from English to Barngarla.

Bibi and barak

The Barngarla people and I have coined various neologisms, new words. For example, gabiwa, an abbreviation of gagabibiwaribirga, is “computer.” Gaga means “head,” bibi means “egg,” or “shell.” Gagabibi, then, means “brain” (the egg that is inside the head). Waribirga means “lightning,” or, in Israeli, barak, which has an association of electricity. The “computer” in Barngarla is, then, an “electric brain” – a lightning-fast head-egg.

What lessons may be drawn from the revival of Hebrew in the Promised Land that would benefit the revival of Aboriginal languages in the “Lucky Country”? There are many.

Linguistic revival, for example, is impossible without cross-fertilization, cross-pollination, grafting with the mother tongues of the reclaimers/revivalists. Therefore, the revivalists of the Aboriginal languages have to be realistic, rather than puristic. Another example: Some linguistic elements are more revivable than others. Therefore, the revivalists of the Aboriginal languages should focus their efforts where they might better succeed: for instance, on basic vocabulary or verb conjugation, rather than on sounds (phonetics, phonology) or meaning (semantics, pragmatics).

Moreover, the Hebrew revivalists had several advantages: for example, a heritage of reading and writing. Jews continued to read the Mishna and Bible throughout the generations. Conversely, like the majority of languages in the world today, until recently, the Aboriginal languages lacked a written alphabet. Furthermore, there is the matter of prestige. Hebrew – as opposed to Yiddish, for example – is seen as prestigious, whereas Aboriginal languages are not considered as prestigious as English, the language of the colonizers.

Exclusivity: Jews from all over the world had only one unifying language: Hebrew (and to a lesser degree Aramaic). As noted, Aboriginal people had 330 distinct languages.

Nationhood: Jews were interested in establishing a state. It is rare to find an Aboriginal person who holds such aspiration seriously.

Lack of ownership: Every individual has the right to learn and to speak Hebrew. Juxtapose this with the Aboriginal case, in which ownership of language is possible even without knowing or using the language. If one would like to learn an Aboriginal language, one has to ask for permission from the custodians of the language, even if the latter do not even speak the language. Furthermore, some Aboriginal people do not feel the need to revive their language, because it already belongs to them regardless of use.

Absence of taboo: One interesting phenomenon in the Aboriginal culture is that when someone dies, it is not permissible to use words that are reminiscent of his/her name. In Israeli there is no such tradition.

Lack of geographic dependence: Hebrew can be revived everywhere, whereas some Aboriginal people would not permit revival of their language on any land other than the one where the language belongs. Aboriginal people often believe in a trinity of specific land-specific language-specific heritage. The language is the mouth not only of the person but also of a specific region.

That said, the revival of Aboriginal languages shows signs very similar to the revival of Hebrew. Every successfully reclaimed language, regardless of whether or not it is written or only oral, is expected to end up as a hybrid.

For one, as Israeli sounds and intonation drew from the Yiddish, so, too, do the phonetics and phonology of the Barngarla language that I am reviving draw from Australian English, which is the mother tongue of most of the Aboriginal people who take part in the various workshops that I conduct.

Israeli syntax draws from the languages of Europe. In biblical Hebrew, it was verb-subject-object, but in Israeli it is subject-verb-object, replicating Yiddish and Standard Average European. Similarly, the order of the elements of a sentence in reclaimed Kaurna is subject-verb-object, as in English, and not subject-object-verb as in ancient Kaurna.

The vocabulary contains many calques (loan translations) such as ma nishma (the question “What’s up” – literally, “What’s heard” in Israeli), from the Yiddish vos hert zikh and parallel expressions in Polish, Russian and Romanian. Consider yertabiritti, in Kaurna, whose original meaning is “cricket” (the insect). Today, its meaning extends in reclaimed Kaurna to the team sport known as “cricket.” A serendipitous homophone with the insect cricket.

My work with the Aboriginal people is voluntary. The satisfaction I derive it is immense. Many of them would like to visit Israel, get to know more Israelis, and learn the Israeli language.

Prof. Ghil`ad Zuckermann, D.Phil. (Oxford), is an Israeli polyglot, linguist and founder of Revivalistics. Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, he is author of “Israeli – A Beautiful Language” (Am Oved).