The revival of Kaurna language in South Australia

Image Source: WOMADelaide

By Simon Delaine | @SimonDelaine1

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages as part of their annual tradition to recognise the significance of languages around the world.

There are an estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world and 40 per cent of these are in danger of disappearing.

The majority of this 40 per cent are Indigenous languages.

Despite Australia having over 300 Indigenous languages, the Australian 2016 Census found that only 10 per cent of Indigenous Australians speak an Indigenous language at home.

While this figure is staggering, it is still considered remarkable, given how quickly the Indigenous population plummeted in the mid-1800s.

Diseases such as smallpox ravaged the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians of the Adelaide plains, bringing the population from several thousand down to around 700 at the time South Australia was colonised in 1836.

The University of Adelaide’s Head of Linguistics Dr Robert Amery said that because of this, Kaurna ceased to be spoken as an everyday language by the early 1860s.

For the past 30 years, efforts to revive the sleeping Kaurna language have been gaining traction.

Kaurna Elder Dr Alitya Wallara Rigney, who died in 2017, became principal of Kaurna Plains School in 1986, where she initiated the teaching of the Kaurna language six years later.

The process of reviving the Kaurna language has involved decades of searching through historical documents, primarily those of German missionaries who recorded the language and translated religious texts around the time of colonisation.

Any information gaps in these documents were then filled by neighbouring Indigenous groups, such as Narungga from the Yorke Peninsula, and Nukunu from Port Augusta.

The process of ‘reawakening’ a language comes with many challenges.

“It’s been an incremental process, as people gradually gain more and more knowledge,” Dr Amery said on ABC radio.

“We’ve got to change a lot of well entrenched habits.

“Kaurna people have been speaking English all their lives… it takes a lot of willpower, a lot of effort, to change that.”

Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP) was formed in 2002 by Karuna Elders Dr Rigney and Dr Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien, along with linguist Dr Amery, to provide direction and research for the Kaurna language.

Working with KWP to produce educational videos and teach the Kaurna language is Jack Kanya Buckskin, a Kaurna and Nurrunga man.

Mr Buckskin found a passion to learn the language after the death of his older sister.

“She told me a lot about our family history and country and just being who we are, and once she passed away I thought there was a massive hole there… she was my bucket of knowledge and now it’s gone, so I needed to refill that bucket somehow,” Mr Buckskin told ABC Radio.

According to Dr Amery, there needs to be better career pathways for those who want to learn and teach the Kaurna language.

“Whilst interest from schools wanting to introduce the Kaurna language program is very, very strong at the moment, we just can’t meet the demand for Kaurna language teachers,” Dr Amery said.

And there are plenty of reasons why we should care; connection to language shapes our whole life.

Kaurna Elder Stephen Goldsmith, who is remembered as being a fighter for Indigenous languages, spoke of the importance of language with ABC Radio.

“A person without knowledge, without history, without culture and his origins, is like a tree without roots, and I think Kaurna people have been wandering around without roots for a long time, which makes us sort of susceptible to different things,” Mr Goldsmith said.

“But if we know who we are, we become strong … it [the Kaurna language] builds that inner strength of knowing who we are.”

Dr Amery said learning one’s own language is an act of identity.

“I’ve seen again and again, that engagement with one’s own language can turn some people’s lives around,” he said.

“It’s important for health and wellbeing.”

Learning the Indigenous language can provide culturally affirming employment and Dr Amery said, with the number of schools in the Kaurna country, that it “could be absolutely huge”.

A list of activities relating to the International Year of Indigenous Languages can be found here.

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