issue 191 - January 1989
The loss of
Tribal people are sometimes thought to use primitive languages.
Not so, explains Barry Blake. Aborigines, for example, have complex forms
of verbal communication that make English seem crude and inflexible.
A few years ago an old Aboriginal woman named Lardie Moonlight died in Boulia, a small town in western Queensland. Her death rated a few lines in the papers, but the full significance of her passing went unreported. Lardie was the last fluent speaker of the Kalkadoon language, a language of such versatility and ingenuity that it stands as a monument to human intellectual development.
It is a commonly-held belief in Australia that the Aborigines have no real language, just a few words and no grammar. Even many educated Australians think that the Aboriginal languages are primitive.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Aborigines, like all human groups, had highly articulated languages. Indeed, no native language is primitive. All express the complex experiences of their speakers. All have large vocabularies and sets of rules for putting words together in sentences.
The death of Lardie Moonlight was not an isolated event. Every year, on average, the last speaker of yet another Australian language dies and a unique intellectual instrument passes from use as a living language, at best recorded in the barest outline. There were hundreds of different languages spoken on the Australian continent when the Europeans began to take over in the late eighteenth century. More than half of them have now perished and only a score or more will survive into the next century.
Kalkadoon illustrates the kind of sophistication in language which we are losing. It had, for example, a vocabulary rich in terms for animals and their anatomy and for plants and their parts. It was also much more sophisticated than English in the words it used to describe kinship relationships. When we use the term 'uncle' for example, the listener cannot tell from this whether we mean our father's brother or our mother's brother. Aborigines always distinguish the two. In the Kalkadoon language the mother's brother is bubi and the father's brother is pitarda.
There are many other distinctions which the Aborigines make which we do not - an illustration of the fact that the world does not come pre-packed into nameable entities waiting for each language to pin its names on. In fact different groups of people see the world in different ways and develop words for their concepts. In English, for example, we use the word 'hole' relatively loosely. It doesn't matter whether this is a hole in a piece of fabric or a hole in the ground. It might come as a surprise to find that the Kalkadoons would use two different words in these circumstances - a kili in fabric but a ndia in the ground. But when you think about it there is an important difference. One is a hole in a two-dimensional surface, the other is three-dimensional.
The words which different societies use for any object also indicate the way that they see it. Take the word 'policeman'. In English this derives from the Latin politia, meaning administration and carries the idea of policing or administering an agreed form of government - protecting the state against the excesses of individuals. The Kalkadoon had rather a different perspective. Their word for policeman was kanimainjit - 'someone who ties people up'.
Any language must accommodate new concepts. The Kalkadoon did not have words for European artifacts and ideas but they soon came up with new words as the need arose. Sometimes they used their word formation system to do this. Thus for policeman kanimai means to tie up and the suffix -njit indicates someone who is doing this. They might alternatively borrow an English word as they did for bulaki meaning bullock. Or they might extend the meaning of an existing word. The Kalkadoons, for instance, used their word kajabi 'kite hawk' to cover 'aeroplane'.
The Kalkadoon language and Aboriginal languages generally also make heavy use of suffixes. And these offer the possibilities of extra nuances which are unavailable in English.
Kalkadoon is not the work of an individual nor is it the conscious product of any group. Rather it is the collective unconscious creation of generations. And it is not the only marvel to perish in this continent. Scores of Australian languages have died with their last fluent speakers. With each is lost a distinctive system of concepts, a system for encoding and encapsulating experience, and a literature of songs and stories that contain elements that go back for thousands of years.
Some aspects of a culture can be displayed relatively easily. Bark paintings are art example. But language, because of its complexity and its technicalities cannot easily be revealed to a wide audience. So few will ever be in a position to appreciate the magnitude of what has been lost.
Barry Blake is Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
He is the author of Australian Aboriginal Languages (Angus and Robertson).