Language of the Month PDF Print E-mail

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Aretha Briggs and David Wirrpanda
YortaYorta [Victoria]
Yorta Yorta is the language of the people whose ancestral homeland radiates from the junction of the Goulburn and Murray Rivers in North East Victoria.

STRONG family ties and sharing of knowledge across the generations, have enabled the YortaYorta language to survive, in part, to the present day, despite more than one hundred and fifty years of contact with English speakers.

RIGHT: The grandchildren of Geraldine Briggs, Aretha Briggs and David Wirrpanda, are both Yorta Yorta speakers. Aretha teaches the language to students at Worawa College. David learned the language and songs through both formal lessons and directly from his grandmother.

Two Yorta Yorta women, Lois Peeler and Sharon Atkinson, together with Dr. Heather Bowe, from Monash University, worked for several years to compile a comprehensive record of research material, entitled "Yorta Yorta Language Heritage".The contents cover the work done over generations for Yorta Yorta language revival and preservation.

The description of the processes used to compile the book may help others who are thinking of starting such a project. It certainly should offer positive encouragement with such a quality production as the final result.

This article contains excerpts from the text of their work, "YortaYorta Language Heritage".

"The book (Yorta Yorta Language Heritage) provides a summary of existing written records analysed with reference to the spoken resources, and includes some introductory lessons in Yorta Yorta, together with English to Yorta Yorta and Yorta Yorta to English dictionaries. The work was based on material from published sources of the 1800s to the present day, and information available in library archives. The link was then traced between these early records and the language knowledge still part of the Yorta Yorta family heritage.

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Artwork from the book by Clive Atkinson has been reproduced on these pages.
"Prior to the turn of the century, several individuals including pastoralists, government officers, missionaries and teachers, wrote down fragments of the language. We found that most of these early written records provided strong cross-verification for each other.This work was greatly assisted by access to audio tapes of Yorta Yorta people recorded in the 1960s by modern researchers, and by consultation with Yorta Yorta people today.

"The task of cross-comparing the work of different individuals to produce a reliable account of as much of the Yorta Yorta language as possible has been daunting at times, because we are conscious that much of the richness of the Yorta Yorta language has been lost because of the circumstances of our history."

The vocabulary lists and proposed spelling system are presented in a way that each reader can see where the particular information has come from, and how the suggested spelling has come about. The purpose of the spelling system is to provide readers with a way of pronouncing the words as closely as possible to the way they would have been in the past.

As the research has been carried out over so many years, a large number of people were interviewed, and many who contributed were acknowledged in the book.

"The majority of people interviewed were noted as giving one of two comments. "They (the Elders) wouldn't talk the language around us, they'd go away and talk it" or "We never learnt the language, no one taught us." Most people could recall single words, while others could recall complete songs in Yorta Yorta. Still others knew legends in English, or a mixture of YortaYorta and English. Non-Aboriginal people interviewed could readily recall their Yorta Yorta associates and their use of particular words and meanings.

"Some of the descendants could remember songs sung by the Maloga/Cummeragunja Choir. The choir became very well known for their performances in concert tours, and many of their items included singing songs in the language. The choir travelled much of the countryside raising money for many general community projects. The best remembered of the hymns is 'Bura Fera', about Moses parting the waters and drowning Pharaoh's army."

It was sung by Geraldine Briggs in a tape recorded by Janet Mathews in 1967, and can be heard through the Language of the Month internet site.

Below is the translation of Bura Fera (Pharaoh) made by Geraldine Briggs.

Womeriga Moses nyinin wala wala yapunei yeiputj
nowra/narrwa bura fera yumina yala yala
nowra bura fera yumina yala yala nowra bura fera yumina, burro Terra yumina
bura fera yumina yala yala.'

When Moses struck/smote the water The waters came togetherAnd drowned all Pharaoh's army Alleluia!'

The Language Revival Project team believe that their work, although extensive, has only touched the surface of YortaYorta language revival, and see this publication as a springboard for more work of the kind in the future. A CD, "Bura Fera —Yorta Yorta Singers" was produced in 1998 with the assistance of ATSIC and SBS.


If you would like more information, or to order a copy of the "YortaYorta Language Revival" or the CD,
please contact:
YortaYorta Language Revival PO Box 250
Healesville Vic 3777

The book contains a special dedication to Mrs Geraldine Briggs OA, who nurtured the survival of the language over generations, teaching it to her children, grandchildren and extended family. Mrs Briggs' mother, Theresa Clements, grew up on Ulupna Station speaking YortaYorta as her first language.