Language Matters - John von Sturmer PDF Print E-mail
English Teaching Poster in Pormpuraaw Kindergarden, 2008
English Teaching Poster in Pormpuraaw Kindergarden, 2008
This is the first in a series of four articles by John von Sturmer that will explore different aspects of language including strategies for language maintenance, issues of language learning, and the pleasures of speaking language. John is a writer and artist who has lived and worked all over Australia.


Yes, language matters. A society that is incapable of valuing the languages of its citizenry is a dangerous, stupid society. To ignore the languages of people is to ignore and to devalue the people who speak them. In contemporary Australian society Aboriginal languages are not only ignored but they are seen as ‘holding people back’. This is the same thing as saying that to be Aboriginal is to be ‘held back’. In other words, to be Aboriginal, and worse, to be Aboriginal and speaking an Aboriginal language, is to be in a disadvantaged, backward position. As a matter of course. These old ways of thinking are alive and well. Those who think that way are on a mission. Convert. No, not to Christianity but to something else. Though on a crusade, I am not sure that even if pushed they would be able to identify it.

It seems to me that they are guilty of a confusion. They’re in a muddle. Instead of thinking what it is to be a full and proper person, what makes us complete and rich as human beings, they bet everything on one
card: what is needed to enter the labour market; in other words, to get a job. Being prepared for life and being prepared to get a job are not the same thing, though the population in general is asked to consider that they are. One thing is for certain: the job is not life itself. A job may be important but if it asks us to surrender important aspects of our identity and things that make us feel alive, rich, full of pleasure, competent, which connect us with the past, that allow us to ‘speak’ our experiences and connect us to where we are, the place we live, the people we live with .

There is something absurd, silly even, in trying to write about languages – especially languages that are spoken only. Wouldn’t it make sense just to speak them?

Spoken languages require others, you can’t do it on your own. You need someone to speak to, someone who can listen, pay attention, someone who is capable of understanding and responding. Someone who can speak back. It doesn’t have to be the same language. It is an error of people who come from a single-language background to think that everything must move toward a single language, and that it is ‘logical’ that one day we will all speak the one language.

Other errors are made in trying to turn languages into written languages – as if the reality of language is in the writing (and therefore reading) of language, not in the speaking. It’s as if languages are just waiting to be written down or to develop a writing system. This is indeed a silly way of thinking – but it does encourage a view that spoken languages are backward, or somehow lacking. This is not a view I share.
Something strange happens when a language is written down. Somehow it no longer belongs to you. It is separated from you. Now what happens when that separate thing seems more real, more important, more ‘correct’ than you, the speaker? Do you own the language any more, or has it turned into something which is somehow outside your grasp?

It is hard to talk and to think about such things. Writing makes language a thing. It is no longer an aspect of the person, it is a thing in itself. Written language I think of as a machine. It creates and it is used by systems of administration. Administrations stand over people; and language itself is made to stand over people. Language is spoken as it is spoken; the moment you begin to write language you are subject to correction: correct spelling, correct grammar, correct words, correct sentences, correct or proper subject matter, and staying on the topic. In cultures which have a tradition of writing we
have law turned into written codes; we have records that stand separate from people’s memories; the past is no longer people, the old people, it is the written word; the living – living people – begin to be dominated by a past that they themselves do not write.

Yes, through writing one can begin to develop a literature. Literature is a strange invention and needs to be thought about hard. It creates what we might call a private relationship to language. In fact, a culture can be written in other ways other than on pieces of paper or in books. History, stories, can be written onto the landscape – through story places, as they are known in Cape York Peninsula, awu and aak nganyty; or as they are called in Western Arhnem Land, djang; or tjukurrpa in much of Central Australia and the Western Desert. Stories, history, life itself are written onto or into people’s bodies, represented on paintings, inserted into dances, ceremonies, songs, sacred objects. With written languages the sacred tends to end up in books. ‘Holy Writ’, we call it. History is removed from people and transferred to the book. History is no longer spoken or told, it is read. The challenge to history – the task of ‘keeping things straight’ – shifts to the written word, not to what people say. Or if people say things, the written word is said to be more reliable, more trustworthy. The truth then is no longer inside people, it is somewhere else, outside them. People who write things down have to be careful not to treat what they have written as the truth, merely what someone has told them. This has to be remembered at all times: the word comes from someone.

We also need to be clear that writing a language down does not preserve it, it merely writes it down – and
then not all aspects of it. Writing does not tell us how it sounds. It does not tell us how it feels in the mouth. Of course a language can be recorded. We can even have videos showing people speaking. But unless there are people who understand what is being said even these recordings have limited value. They become curiosities. Certainly they cannot be said to preserve the language.

The best way to preserve a language is to have people speak it to people who understand it. It follows that the best way to preserve languages is to reward and to encourage the people who speak them, and to reward and to encourage the people prepared to listen, capable of listening and of ‘hearing’. Hearing is not just being able to hear but being able to understand. Without an environment in which languages are ‘heard’ – that is, understood – we cannot talk about languages being preserved. They are only preserved if they live.

If they are preserved - as a thing - they are dead. A language is not a thing, it is a social practice.

Recently (in October 2008) I was in Pormpuraaw in western Cape York Peninsula. I first went there in 1969, 40 years ago. Despite a history of extreme cultural neglect, Pormpuraaw remains an active site of multiple language use. Things have changed. For example, nearly everyone speaks standard English. Years ago people spoke what they called ‘broken English’. Up the coast at Aurukun people spoke standard English and there was a high level of literacy. Many people who once lived at Aurukun have now moved to Pormpuraaw – so that Wik Mungkan (the ‘official’ language of Aurukun) is now widely spoken. It risks replacing the more local Kugu languages (Kugu-Mu’inh, Kugu-Ugbanh, Kugu Muminh, Kugu-Uwanh, and Wik Iyanh, the language of the northern island people). On the other hand Thaa’yorre (the language of Pormpuraaw itself and to the south) is still active – and during my visit I noted speakers of Pakanh, Olkolo and what I shall call eastern Mungkanh, or Iyanyi.

What gave me the greatest pleasure was to hear young people insisting on speaking to me ‘in language’. Women in particular spoke their own languages routinely, unselfconsciously. But then there were the young men who took conscious delight in showing off their knowledge: ‘This is how we say it in Thaa’yorre; this is how we say it in Kugu; this is how we say it in Wik-Mungkan’. This is an old tradition. I recognised it. In earlier times one of the older men – Stingaree Barney was a noted proponent – would stand in the middle of the village giving impromptu demonstrations of the different ways of speaking, singing, dancing; working, yes, again, from south to north. Stingaree’s performances could be guaranteed to be tinged with irony, if not outright mockery. They were prodigious.

It is gratifying – if also saddening – to know that something of this tradition remains.