Lavinia Lovie Richards knows what it is to wake a sleeping language. The last native speaker of Barngarla, elder Moonie Davis, died back in the 1960s.
He took with him a beautiful and complex language and was reportedly the last of his Aboriginal tribe to know songs that called the sharks and dolphins to chase the fish into the shallows, where his people waited to gather them up.
Without the voices of her elders in her ears, Richards, whose people belong to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, never had a chance to become fluent in the language of her community until efforts to revive Barngarla began in earnest in 2012.
This month, Richards found herself thinking about their long journey again when she met young children from an Adelaide kindergarten who were able to ask her – in Barngarla – how she was.
The children had the language to do so thanks to an unusual programme at The Kidz Club Educational Centre where some 30 children, aged three-and-a-half to six years old are introduced to Barngarla alongside French and English.
Her niece, Jenna Richards, also met the children.
“Jenna is much more fluent than I am,” Richards said, explaining that Barngarla people worked with Ghil’ad Zuckermann, professor of linguistics and chair of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, to develop a language video and an alphabet and picture book to help the next generation, including Richards’ own brood of nine grandchildren, learn.
Stuart Blair, a languages and linguistics graduate from Flinders University knows Zuckermann and coordinates the programme of linguistic research and development at Kidz Club. He says visiting the Richards family was life-changing and had a profound effect on everyone involved.
“This friendship is most important at this time in Australia because attitudes are changing and we are seeing now a greater support for reconciliation with the First People, the first owners of this land,” Blair told Al Jazeera. “We have seen much conflict and controversy in all areas of life before these attitudes could change, and we hope through our efforts, our children are going to grow up with a completely different attitude to that of their predecessors.”
For her part, Lavinia Richards says she was thrilled to meet the young students of Barngarla.
The conversation left her convinced that her tribe’s young people needed to be at the forefront of the reclamation of their language. While hearing her language spoken again was a source of joy for the 64-year-old grandmother, it came with a deep sense of grief.
A painful erasure
Richards was only nine years old when she was taken away from her family, her home and her language, and placed in the care of a state institution.
One of the Stolen Generation, Richards was among those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were targeted under an Australian government policy that remained in place until the 1970s and was intended to force Indigenous people to assimilate into white society.
Children like Richards were cut off from their kin and culture, and punished for speaking their traditional language.
Zuckermann, who is also the author of the book Revivalistics, calls such language loss “linguicide”.
Influential South Australian colonisers like politician, financier and newspaper owner Anthony Forster, who lived and worked in the area in the 19th century, believed that eradicating language was key to “civilising” Indigenous people. He was not the only one.
“They understood the power of language, that when you lose your language, you lose your cultural autonomy, your intellectual sovereignty, your spirituality, wellbeing and, metaphorically speaking, your soul,” Zuckermann said.
According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, there were more than 250 languages spoken in Australia prior to 1788 and colonisation. As of 2019, 90 percent were considered endangered.
In 2011, when Zuckermann discovered a written record of Barngarla in the State Library of South Australia, he approached the community to offer his support in reviving the language. They did not hesitate.
“We gathered together,” Richards recalled. “And Ghil’ad was able to support us in the revival using a dictionary written by Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, a German missionary who came to live with the Barngarla people.”
Zuckermann was able to extricate some 3,500 words from the dictionary, which dated back to the 1840s and included printed and handwritten text.
Schürmann was Lutheran and, unlike their Anglican counterparts, Lutheran priests first sought to learn the language of the communities they wanted to convert instead of trying to teach them in English.
For Zuckermann, the dictionary represents a kind of poetic justice – that a tool used by missionaries is what is now helping the Barngarla people reconnect with their own spirituality and culture.
“It’s a kind of symmetric redressal,” he said.
After years of effort, there are now members of the tribe able to teach Barngarla. In 2016, they worked with Zuckermann to create a dictionary app, in which native speakers recorded the correct pronunciations for various words, creating an archive and teaching tool for new generations. Richards herself is still working on expanding her vocabulary. Decades after she found her way back home, learning her language has been another kind of homecoming.
“That’s why for myself having this chance to learn the language was a good thing because that was taken from us – the language, the culture, everything we knew about being an Aboriginal person was removed,” she said. “Learning the language is bringing us together, it is giving us a common goal in sharing and storytelling and for me, that is really good because I had lost all of that – it had been taken away.”
A wider movement
Parallel efforts are unfolding across Australia. In 2021, musician Lou Bennett won a Red Ochre Award from the Australia Council for the Arts recognising her outstanding work and lifetime achievement in Indigenous arts.
A Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung woman, Bennett is completing a research fellowship at the University of Melbourne on community-led language revitalisation projects through music. She is particularly interested in how languages can be regenerated through songs, stories and performances.
Bennett has spent the last year and a half working with the Djinama Yilaga Choir.
The name means “happy ceremony” and the group has written several songs in the Dhurga language, pooling their memories and drawing on the words of their elders to create phrases and lyrics. “It was about finding the common ground to share, and so we kept the melodies really simple, as we have always done when we sing about the law, the country or our family,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who has worked with 20 different languages and sings in about 15 languages, has been learning her own language in part by listening to tapes of her great grandmother, aunts and uncles speaking, an experience she describes as both heartbreaking and enriching.
“The movement we have now [in reclaiming our languages] is wonderful,” she said, adding that Indigenous people across the country have much to learn from each other. “We have been here since time immemorial, so our languages would have been quite similar to each other. When it comes to the sharing of languages to keep good relationships between different tribal groups, that would have happened and that still does happen – the colonial project has been an interruption and that is all it is.”
As the movement to regenerate languages gains momentum, Bennett hopes Australians will turn away from Eurocentric perspectives, or what she playfully dubs “Anglo-sizing” or sizing up to how white Australia speaks. This might mean, for instance, not learning how to pronounce the words in traditional languages, or having them distorted by being forced into the constraints of western linguistic pedagogy.
They are so intricately bound to the land that when taken out of context and away from country, languages can be stripped of the nuance and knowledge they hold.
Bennett uses the example of the word galk/kalk, which in her language Dja Dja Wurrung means bones, but also tree, stick or branch.
“So, there is a connection we have to maintain and strengthen. We have to be mindful and ensure we don’t degrade our languages,” Bennett emphasises. “Our bodies are part of the country, and our languages hold so much of that knowledge.”