This article has been reproduced from the FATSIL newsletter Voice of the Land, vol 12.
Draft guide offers pointers to research and recording
Dr Eve Fesl
With the aim of helping people carry out language research in their own communities, the Queensland South-East Region 1 Committee asked Dr. Eve Fesl to prepare a guide for language workers to follow.
The Draft of a Community Guide for the Recovery, Research and Development of Queensland's Indigenous Languages covers a range of topics including; Boundaries; The causes of language loss; Phonetics; and Effective Procedures for research and recording. This subject matter is relevant for language work all over Australia. The first extract reproduced here contains the introduction and discussion of "Languages" and "Dialects". As the document is in draft form, Dr. Fesl would welcome feedback, and can be contacted by Fax on 07 3888 5227.
When the British first invaded our shores, it is estimated that nearly 250 distinct Australian languages, with up to 800 dialects were being spoken in this country. Most of our people spoke several languages, thus enabling them to maintain exchange routes around the coast and through the centre of Australia. For example, songs from North Queensland were known by people in Central Australia, and words of the languages from one part of the continent could be found on the opposite side of Australia.
A number of words became common to most languages. The name 'yarraman' which means "horse", can be found in many languages, also similar names for about 200 other things are known across the continent. 'Binung', which means "ear", will be known to most of you. The list of these words that are found in many languages is included as Appendix 1 to this document.
Because the missionaries (for evangelical purposed), and the pastoralists and others (for mainly slavery purposes), wanted to communicate, but found our languages too difficult for most of them to learn, they set out systemically to prohibit their use and force our people to speak English only. Many of the older people in our community can remember some of the harsh penalties handed out to them as children, if they were speaking their own language. The result of these deliberate acts and policies has meant that a number of the languages no longer exist as they were not passed on to children. Many speakers died in the attempts at genocide of our people.
Some languages where the speakers lived far from British "settlement", managed to survive and we can hear them being spoken today. However, even they are endangered by the onslaught of English-language television and the fact that children are being educated through English language only, or through primary school transition programs, which cease when children go to high school.
All of our languages need URGENT work done on them, some to record them before the people with knowledge leave us, others to establish language teaching programs so that our children can learn their language in the home and community environment - as these are the environments in which language and culture can blend together. In Indigenous communities with their own schools, it is important that the language of the area be used in the school.
Researching written materials is equally urgent where this is needed, as materials become old and faded, therefore difficult to read, or they become lost or destroyed.
Some of our old people are frightened of white people and will not speak to white linguists, so it is important that we learn to do the recording work ourselves, after all, we and our children will be the ones to benefit through having a knowledge of this important part of our heritage, and the worldview that our languages express.
The TAFE course in Cairns is empowering language workers to do their own work - this is a positive step forward. There will, however, be many people unable to take up the opportunity to study in Cairns. It is hoped that this guide will be useful for them in carrying out work in their own community.
"Languages" and "Dialects"
These two words were mentioned in the introduction and often the word "dialect" has been used for our languages by early white writers, who seemed reluctant to accord our languages the status of "language". So, what really is the difference? A simple explanation is that a dialect is a way of speaking a language, the over-riding name given to a group of dialects. For instance, Americans speak the English language differently to Australians and people from say, Oxford in England. The language we all speak is English, but there is the dialect of American English, Australian English and Oxford English. All of these have a number of differences in pronunciation and some words, for instance, Americans usually refer to a "boot" of a car as the "trunk", and whilst we refer to "durex", as a type of sticky take, the English have this word for condoms, so sometimes it can be a bit embarrassing. Different pronunciation, uses of different words and meanings, can be referred to as "DIALECTAL DIFFERENCE". You will come across this tem when reading documents on language.
Each of our language has dialects. This may account for slight differences you may find in sounds and words in the language you are recording. The difference could be just the way a particular speaker says something, or it could be a word from another group that the speaker has mixed up, or the word has been "borrowed" into the language. The rule to help you in this is:
Always record every form, write down where the speaker grew up.
Who he/she lived amongst whilst growing up,
And WHERE the language information came from.
If possible, ask other speakers about the word (sentence or phrase) and make a written note of what they say.
If you follow this rule, you will find it useful later on, if you find further information which can help you sort out the difference in dialects.