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Language of the Month | Language, Narungga, Wanganeen, Project, Community, Elders, Knowledge, Australia | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
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Pictured L-R: Maryanne Gale, Rob Amery, Lester Irabinna Rigney, Christina Eira, Lesley Wanganeen, Michael Wanganeen. Front row:Alice Wallara Rigney, Kevin O'Loughlin, Phoebe Wanganeen, Chester Schultz.
Pictured L-R: Maryanne Gale, Rob Amery, Lester Irabinna Rigney, Christina Eira, Lesley Wanganeen, Michael Wanganeen. Front row:Alice Wallara Rigney, Kevin O'Loughlin, Phoebe Wanganeen, Chester Schultz.
`Ngadlu wanggadja Narungga wara" (We are speaking Narungga Language)

A comprehensive search incorporating the knowledge of Narungga elders with over 200 sources enshrined in museums and libraries across Australia has yielded around 1000 words and phrases


At a community meeting held on November 30, 2001, Narungga people made speeches in Narungga Language for the first time in many decades.

The historic nature of this event determined that it should be held on Narungga land -Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. The meeting, which will stand as an important landmark in the restoration of the language, was organised by the Narungga Aboriginal Progress Association (NAPA) in order to launch their seven-month old Language Reclamation Project in the general Narungga community.A second presentation will be given
in Adelaide (Kaurna land), to ensure that the project is made available to Narungga people not currently living on their heritage land.

Phoebe Wanganeen, one of the most senior elders of the Narungga nation, had thought that the language would not be spoken again in her lifetime. Being able to formally open this meeting in Language was powerful evidence to her that Narungga culture would be retained and the language restored to its people.A week later, she was invited to open a community festival day - which she was also able to do in Language.

The Narungga people were removed in the 1860s to a small area of Yorke Peninsula now known as Point Pearce, where a mission was set up by the Moravian church.This was largely at the instigation of settler businessmen, for the purpose of `civilization and evangelization of
the Aborigines'.The mission was maintained until it was taken over by the government in 1915,    and continued as an Aboriginal reserve until 1972, when its management was finally relinquished into the hands of its Indigenous residents.

From the beginning of this institutionalisation, the loss of Narungga as an everyday spoken language was rapid.A number of factors contributed to this. Formal education was in English, as were religious activities sanctioned by the mission. Institutionalised people from other Indigenous nations were also brought to live in Point Pearce, resulting in a mix of languages and marriage arrangements very different from that of earlier times. It appears that quite early on, several key Narungga elders made a conscious decision to stop passing on knowledge of both language and culture, as a means of refusing to be fully controlled and owned by the white authorities. (See Mattingley et al (I 992), Survival in our own land, Hodder & Stoughton.) Although some people did work with white researchers to have their language recorded in writing for the future, even this petered out by 1900. The well-known wordlist by Louisa Eglinton, published by Norman Tindale in 1936 (Notes on the Natives of the southern portion of Yorke Peninsula', in Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of South Australia), was no more than a reediting of an earlier list that she and her settler husband had made with James H. Johnson more than thirty years before.

Despite this bleak scenario, Narungga descendants did manage to keep knowledge of the language alive. Elders such as Gladys Elphick, Phoebe Wanganeen, Doris Graham, Eileen Jovic and others maintained the knowledge of around 200 words and a very few idiomatic phrases.

The eighties saw a surge of activity by the community towards reclaiming Narungga Language, and formally teaching it to the children at Point Pearce school.The Eglintons' list was reproduced as part of the 1987 book, Point Pearce: Past and present (by Eileen Wanganeen with the Narungga Community College). In a program coordinated by Lizzie Newchurch, a number of word lists, including the Eglintons' as well as lists drawn up by contemporary members of the community, were collected together and published, along with teaching aids such as photographs and a cassette tape. In theory, the publications of this phase released around 700 words to general access, but in practice the number of words taught did not increase beyond the 200 or so maintained by the elders - and the words remained for the most part as single words, the crucial structures for recombining them into new sentences still lacking. Speaking Narungga at this stage, then, was a matter of interspersing Language words while speaking English.

It is from this base that NAPA commenced their Language Project.The vision of Project Manager Lesley Wanganeen is to restore the language to a level where it can be used independently, for speeches, stories, conversations and written language. She aims to provide resources whereby children can claim their Language heritage, and to make the language available to all Narungga people and their descendants. Michael and Lesley Wanganeen set up a Reference Group comprised of key Narungga people and informed non-Narungga to direct the Project, and employed a linguist,
Christina Eira, as primary researcher. Funding was obtained from Yaitya Warra Wodli Language
Centre, and a base office for the Project provided by the Aboriginal Research Institute (University of South Australia).

In the seven months that the Project has been underway, a comprehensive search incorporating the knowledge of Narungga elders with over 200 sources enshrined in museums and libraries across Australia has yielded around 1000 words and phrases. Perhaps even more importantly, the task now in hand is a careful analysis of all the materials found, to reconstruct the grammar of the language. This then will restore the knowledge of how to use the words, to create sentences, narratives, songs etc.

It is clear by now that a great deal of Language has been left unrecorded and untransmitted. However, the Project is proving to be of very major significance for two reasons.The first is that all the words found will be accessible to use, because for the first time the many discrepancies and errors in the old documents are being reconciled and corrected, by comparison with other words and with related languages. The second is that these sources contain a great deal more grammatical information than it was previously thought. Moreover, it is now possible to fill in some of the grammatical gaps where words were not recorded, by applying the same language patterns that can be seen in the words we do have. What all of this means is that it is becoming possible again, as demonstrated by the speeches of elders at the historic community meeting, to speak Narungga - not just single words, but fluent Language.

Examples of this Language in use decorated the walls at the meeting - pointing out significant sites on Narungga land, describing bush tucker (the production of which is another arm of NAPA's activities), talking about people's activities. During proceedings, Kevin O'Loughlin discussed his family tree, with the Narungga words for all the relationships, and read a Dreaming trail narrative which is in the process of being returned to Language (currently incorporating both Narungga and English).

Where to from here? NAPA Manager Michael Wanganeen says the goal has always been to reinstate Narungga as a fully spoken language. The restoration of Language is crucial to a deep-seated sense of identity for many Narungga people. LesleyWanganeen suggests that the means towards language restoration could include an encyclopaedic dictionary, and an interactive CD-Rom presenting spoken Language. Some are keen to reinstate the names of places on Narungga land, whether at a local or official level.

Others are focussed on establishing Dreaming narratives in Language.The newly- rediscovered family terms are highly valued and will be an early focus, as they demonstrate the uniqueness of Indigenous culture and the relation of Narungga people to each other and to the land. New words will need to be developed, to restore Narungga to its place as a language that can be used in everyday situations in the present. All these tasks and more will be taken up over the coming months and indeed years, as the Narungga language continues to move.

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