Languages and Boundaries PDF Print E-mail

This is the second in a series of extracts from the draft of "A Community Guide for the Recovery, Research and Development of Queensland's Indigenous Languages."
Dr Eve Fesl

Some memories may be fading fast, and when they leave us, their knowledge will be lost forever. It is important for you to persuade those who are fortunate enough to have knowledge of your language, to pass it on.

Languages and Boundaries

IT is important to note that language boundaries cross State boundaries and also ATSIC boundaries, therefore, people in other States and other regions may also be doing some recording or work on your language. If your language is one that crosses those borders, try to find out if someone else is doing some recording, and if this is so, contact them to pool your information - this may save you both considerable time and money. FATSIL will be able to help you find out this information.

The languages of those people who had land which the pastoralists and others wanted, were the first to be threatened by invasion. The removal policies which were legislated by the Queensland Government in 1897, were to reap havoc amongst our people, splitting up language speakers and imposing prohibitions on speaking with various penalties. (In Queensland) the languages of Southern Queensland suffered considerably, whilst some of those in the far North in the rainforests, fared a little better, due to their distance and inaccessibility.

A number of non-Indigenous people have in the past attempted to write down our languages.

Some of their work is good and is very helpful. Others made many mistakes and their work should be treated with caution. If possible, check some of the materials with the language known by speakers in your community - you will soon learn whose work is useful and whose is to be avoided.

Languages which border one another can be quite similar to their neighbours, and may often "borrow" words from their neighbours, but the further away a language is from another, then usually the difference is greater. If you find the same or similar words in two neighbouring languages, then this is not unusual for any languages in the world.

It is difficult to draw language boundaries as lines on a map - languages at the border areas tend to be fuzzy, as speakers merge, inter-marry and learn each other's language. Rather than attempt this task, the map within this Guide shows the languages within each region funded by ATSIC. The spelling adopted here is that used by the speakers. You will often find many different spellings for one language - it is advisable to be able to recognise them when you are searching documents for information on your language. Some books listed in an Appendix to this document will be useful in this regard.

Causes of language loss

Language loss can be caused by a number of factors which can occur at the same time, or independently.

  • The worst is the passing away of language speakers, particularly where whole language groups were massacred or died through illness about the same time;
  • In the past, being forced to speak only English and being punished for speaking one's own language occurred right across Australia, this stopped people with knowledge passing it on when they wanted to, but it stopped many from doing so when they left the institutions, because they wanted to protect their children from being punished as they had been for speaking language;
  • The fact of having to live on missions and reserves with speakers of other languages caused those who had only a few numbers of speakers, in order to become part of the community into which they were forced, to learn and use the languages with more speakers and to use them more often than their own - this lack of use resulted in children growing up without knowledge of their parents' languages;
  • Another way in which language loss occurs is when someone" puts them down" by calling them "rubbish languages" and so on, so that people become embarrassed to speak in public for fear of being pointed at or laughed at - this contributes to lack of language use;
  • Of those who remain with knowledge of language, some are very old and fragile. Some memories may be fading fast, and when they leave us, their knowledge will be lost forever. It is important for you to persuade those who are fortunate enough to have knowledge of your language, to pass it on. A language belongs to a whole group of people, not one or two individuals - had we not been invaded we would all be able to speak our languages.
  • In those areas where language is still spoken, the greatest threat is to our youth via English-language television. Like a nerve gas, it makes us happy, entertains us, at the same time it destroys the nerve cells of our language and culture - if you are in such an area, balance the amount of television your children watch, with long discussion in language. 

As the document is in draft form, Dr Fesl would welcome feedback, and can be contacted by fax on
(07) 3888 5227.

Postal Address: 29 Fountain Rd Burpengary Qld 4505