Mother tongue

2nd place in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.

There is a type of grasshopper in Northern Australia with a bright orange body patterned with cobalt blue splotches. In layman’s English, it’s called Leichhardt’s grasshopper, named after the German explorer who documented them. Its scientific name is petasida ephippigera, denoting the genus it is taxonomised under. In Kundjeyhmi, a dialect spoken in the land it lives on, it is called alyurr. This name also describes species of herbs; specifically, the herbs that the grasshopper eats. It also refers to the lightning spirit who the Bininj people believe brings the rains – rains heralded by the grasshoppers’ presence. Each name this grasshopper has carries a distinct set of meanings, each holding significance for different people. To an English speaker, the name is a reminder of Australia’s colonial past. To a biologist, the name slots the grasshopper into a familiar taxonomy. And to a Kundjeyhmi speaker, the name is imbued with ecological knowledge about where and when to find the grasshopper.  

We live in symbiosis with our languages, learning from them and shaping them with our choices. Language is not an arbitrary assemblage of sounds, but the beating heart of culture, without which it cannot survive. The suppression of language is a tool for cultural genocide. This concept can be explored through Australia’s history of oppressing through language control, the ramifications of which are ongoing, and can only come close to being remedied by fighting back at linguistic oppression. 

Before colonisation, over 250 languages were spoken in Australia, comprising over 800 dialects. These languages are unlike any others in the world. The largest Australian language family is the Pama-Nyungan group, which captures languages spoken across 90% of Australia. The name itself illustrates the breadth of its scope: just as the family stretches from the northeast to southwest of Australia, “pama” and “nyunga” are the words for “man” in the languages of those respective areas. Linguists have pinpointed Queensland as the origin of the Pama-Nyungan language 6000 years ago and traced its spread across Australia as a way of understanding how people migrated. The stories of these people are found in language. 

Indigenous languages also have a wealth of ecological and cultural knowledge woven into them. Phenomena like alyurr, which are common in many Indigenous languages, are called sign metonymies: instances where a single term denotes both an animal and a part of the environment it depends on. Unlike languages like English, which distinguish between past, present, and future in their tense systems, many Indigenous languages only distinguish between past and non-past. This grammatical construction of time is bound to the Dreaming, the Indigenous system of spirituality: the past and ongoing interconnectedness of land, people, and culture. If the Dreaming has always been and will always be, rigid distinctions between present and future aren’t necessary. In Central Australia, systems of kinship are expressed through skin names, deriving from a complex system of connections between generations and families. One’s skin name situates them in their relationships, including who they can and cannot marry. These uses of language are integral to the speakers’ experiences of culture. They teach speakers about the world, the plants and the animals that they hunt and live alongside. They shape speakers’ understanding of time and spirituality. They construct relationships. Culture survives through language. 

Only 40 of those 250 Indigenous languages are still spoken today. This is not to mention the hundreds of dialects, each with their own rich stories of connection between speaker and the land they live in, that have also perished. This devastation of Australia’s languages occurred through two prongs of colonial violence. The first is the decline of the population that spoke them. Between 1788 and 1900, Australia’s Indigenous population was reduced by 90% as the direct consequence of colonisation. Colonisers introduced foreign diseases to Indigenous communities, including venereal diseases introduced through sexual violence, which decimated the population. They committed genocidal massacres to lessen the threat that Indigenous people posed to their acquisition of land and establishment of a European colony. The displacement of Indigenous people from their land and the plants and animals they relied on to survive only further compounded their suffering. A language cannot survive without speakers. Even in cases where the speech community was not totally annihilated, the utility of a language lessens when there are fewer people you can speak it with. If no one outside your small community speaks the same dialect as you, learning another dialect, and even raising children speaking that dialect, is a necessary step to survive. 

The second, more targeted way that Indigenous languages were devastated by colonisation was  through policy. In 1937, the Assimilation Policy was put into effect. This policy formalised the  Stolen Generations, within which Indigenous children with a non-Indigenous parent and fair  enough skin to pass as white were snatched from their families and rehomed in white society.  They were completely separated from the culture that constituted everything they knew, forbidden  from speaking their own languages. Their names were changed. Indigenous people whose skin  was too dark to pass as white were forced onto missions and reservations, where they were  heavily restricted and forced to speak English. They lost access to their ancestral land, often  lumped in with people from entirely different nations. 

There are no words in any language that can describe the devastation and shame of Australia’s Assimilation period. The trauma it caused can never be recovered from. Among the countless cultural casualties of this period were the languages it strangled. Many Indigenous people today do not speak the languages of their ancestors. They are forced to slot the Dreaming into the rigid tense system of English. They have had skin names stolen from them. They know alyurr, the blue spotted harbinger of rain, not by the lightning it portends but by the European man who claims to have discovered it. Oppressing language is violence. It is cultural murder. 

There is likely no way to reverse this damage, but there are two ways we can prevent further degradation of Indigenous Australian languages, and even revitalise them. The first is supporting education of Indigenous people in local languages. Of the 40 languages still being spoken today, only 12 of them are taught in schools. Increasing the number of children raised speaking the language of their ancestors reduces the likelihood that those languages will die. With more fluent speakers, an exponential number of people can learn from them. Even just knowing the local names of plants and animals, for example, grants ecological knowledge even if one isn’t fluent. Education is worth trying. 

The second measure, while less direct, can be taken by all Australians. Embrace the languages that have been uttered here, as the pulse of our land, for thousands of years. Replace coloniser names like ‘Ayers Rock’ with local names like Uluru. Learn how to pronounce the names of Indigenous people, even if they’re names you’re unfamiliar with. Respect that not everyone understands time and tense the way you do. Listen when people explain why grasshoppers are named for lightning. 

We cannot right the wrongs of our past. We can only apologise for them and promise to do better. Language, and words, are our lifeblood. Use them wisely.

This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.