The Murrinhpatha language spoken by the Northern Territory Wadeye community has a linguistic peculiarity. Whenever a sentence is spoken that mentions a group of people, that sentence must specify whether the people to whom the speaker is referring are siblings or not. The language thus forces the speaker to constantly consider their relationship to people around them.
Were it not for the work of the Research Unit for Indigenous Language, this knowledge might be lost forever. Established in 2013, the Unit investigates language acquisition, grammar structures, and even the development of new languages or language structures due to the intermingling of English and Indigenous language. One of the Unit's key missions is to work alongside Indigenous communities to strengthen the prevalence of Indigenous languages spoken within them, and assist in the development of learning materials to support the perseveration and practice of these languages for future generations.
Now, thanks to a multi-million dollar bequest from the estate of Mr Duncan Elphinstone McBryde Leary, the unit will be able to continue and expand its work.
The Unit's Director, Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger, said in a statement that "the Leary bequest has been an extraordinary gift to RUIL. It is the largest gift for Aboriginal language research ever received by an Australian University and provides RUIL with enough regular funding that we can continue our existing research and outreach activities in perpetuity."
Indeed, the importance of preserving and maintaining Indigenous language due to its relationship to Indigenous culture cannot be understated. In the same way that words in English such as 'marriage' or 'graduation' are intertwined with a shared cultural understanding that goes far beyond an individual word, words within Indigenous languages defy direct translation due to their situation within an entire cultural experience. In Associate Professor Nordlinger's words, "language is central to culture, identity, and belonging. For Indigenous people there is a very strong connection between language and knowledge and world view…This means that when we lose languages we lose much more than the language, we lose knowledge and history and wisdom and stories and songs as well, and this is part of what it makes so distressing for communities."
Prior to British settlement, there were in excess of 250 Indigenous languages across Australia. While approximately 120 of these are still spoken across Australia, only 18 are being learned and spoken as a first language in the daily life of communities, and many of these have a diminishing number of speakers. The threat of language extinction means that we are in danger of losing the information inherent to the language, as well as the culture that is inextricably linked to that language. For Indigenous peoples to lose this heritage, as well as this way of seeing the world, would be quite literally an unspeakable shame. As such, the importance of the Unit's work, especially in its collaboration with Indigenous communities to preserve and pass on these languages, is vital to ensure that Indigenous understandings of the land, and Indigenous stories and histories are not lost.
One of the other missions of the Unit is to educate the broader public on Indigenous languages as well as the imperative to preserve them. This is facilitated through public lectures and social media. The RUIL has a twitter handle of @indiglang and will often tweet photos of Australian flora and fauna alongside the words for it in various Indigenous languages. Such work illustrates the breadth of Indigenous languages, and also provides insight into the complexity of RUIL's task.
Gifts such as the Leary Bequest extend RUIL's capacity to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by Indigenous linguistic complexity. Assoc. Professor explained: "We are just so grateful for Duncan Leary's foresight and generosity. This will have a substantial impact on Indigenous language research and the ways in which we are able to support Indigenous communities to maintain their linguistic heritage."
Looking ahead, and while in no way underplaying the significance of the Leary Bequest, Assoc. Professor Nordlinger stressed that "even a modest donation can make a difference in this field and to the work undertaken by the Unit." One of the apps created by the Unit in response to community requests, for instance, focuses on birds, trees and ecological knowledge, teaching children to learn about their environment in the language that is associated with those concepts. This app is available in the Arrernte, Kaytetye, Mawng and Pertame languages in addition to several others from Western Victoria. Given that this was developed for approximately $3000, it is not only large donations that have a meaningful impact. Many of us, Assoc. Professor Nordlinger believes, can contribute to the preservation of these important languages.
More information about the Unit can be found on the Research Unit for Indigenous Language website.
Title Image: Participants in the Language Acquisition in Murrinhpatha Project (LAMP). Left to right: siblings Eugene, Samuel and Estelle