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Aboriginal words worth remembering

Ailsa Piper |  21 January 2014

Woman's silhoutte cast on a red rock wallI wish there was a word for what I'm feeling. It's a kind of emotional malnutrition, an emptiness brought on by the lack of vision I perceive in those who would lead us into the future. Such a word should exist in the Australian idiom. We've needed it before.

Other languages provide words for culturally specific sensations.

The Inuit speak of itsuarpok — the feeling of anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone is coming. In French they talk of depaysement — the unsettling sensation that comes from not being in one's home country. A personal favourite is the German word zerrissenheit, which literally means broken-to-pieces-hood.

I'm fifth generation Australian, but I don't have a word to describe my queasiness about short-sighted policy-makers. Maybe there are words for such feelings in Yamatji, or Eora, or Noongar, but most of us wouldn't know, because we don't speak these languages. In the late 18th century, there were over 350 Indigenous languages in Australia. At the start of the 21st, fewer than 150 remain in daily use, and most of those are endangered.

This was a place with more linguistic individuation than Europe, before our boat-people ancestors arrived, but they didn't take the time to learn its words or hear its stories. Colonisers and evangelists do this over and over, insisting they know what is best.

Recently, I heard the tale of a European media executive who decided developing African countries would provide a lucrative market for his empire. A remote village was chosen to pilot his project. For the first few days the villagers were mesmerised by a television, and all their work ground to a halt. But one morning the executive found the screen deserted and the villagers going about their normal work.

'What has happened?' he asked

'We've seen it all,' came the reply.

'But you have access to over 20 channels, transmitting 24 hours a day. You can't have seen it all.'

An elder shrugged: 'We have our own storyteller.'

'But he can't possibly know all the stories on television.'

'Ah, but our storyteller knows our story, in our words.'

We tell stories solely in the words of Milton and Shakespeare, or Pepsi and Nike, at cost to ourselves. English is beautiful but also ruthless. It morphs, changes and conquers because it must do that to survive. In that march to victory, the loss of cultural specificity is profound. It's the sacrificing of identity, because that is what language is.

But all is not lost.

In Geraldton on the coast of WA, there's a beautiful centre for learning Yamatji, and it's possible, given time and communal desire, that local kids might grow up speaking two tongues — Indigenous and settlers'.

Meantime, there's more hope.

Late last year a news report told how linguistics professor Dr Michael Walsh was browsing the stacks at Sydney's Mitchell Library when he randomly pulled down a box containing two notebooks. Walsh had stumbled across a colonial guide to a lost Aboriginal language.

He instigated a research project, trolling through 14km of manuscripts in search of mentions of lost or endangered languages. Much of the material recorded harsh ironies — many who'd noted words or phrases were colonialists, intent on taking Aboriginal land to settle and open it to pastoralism.

But Walsh remains hopeful, as he takes recovered languages back to communities. People report that once they regain language, they also regain identity; with that comes improvement. He spoke of people who'd been dysfunctional, in trouble with police, with alcohol, and not able to work. They said it was language that brought them back to themselves.

So. Hope.

We are still losing many Australian languages, but I have to hold onto hope — surely one of the most beautiful words in English.

Interestingly, it doesn't exist in Yamatji.

That's right. No word for hope.

There is, however, the word wirla.

In Geraldton I learned that wirla is the word for a bad feeling in the gut — the kind of feeling you get when you see a person and know something isn't right. It's exactly the word I need to describe my current queasiness. Let's remember it.

Ailsa Piper headshotAilsa Piper has worked as a writer, theatre director, teacher, actor, broadcaster and speaker and was co-winner of the inaugural Patrick White Playwright's Award for her theatre script Small Mercies. In 2012 ABC Radio aired Ailsa's episode of Poetica, Bell Shakespeare produced an adaptation of Duchess of Malfi, co-written by her, and her first book, Sinning Across Spain, was published.


Ailsa Piper

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Submitted comments

Recently I read a book review about the poet Emily Dickinson and resolved to order the book from my local bookstore. It's called "Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings" - a beautiful volume devoted to her scribblings of precious words on backs of envelopes. Words were paramount to Dickinson. So, too, words are paramount to the culture of our Indigenous peoples. So let's hold on to hope and overcome wirla.

Pam 21 January 2014

What of the work of Abbot Bernard Rooney of New Norcia and his published work on aboriginal language?

Iggy 22 January 2014

Ailsa has a wonderful way with her own words, and continues to remind us that opening ourselves to hearing the 'voices' of others through their languages and cultures can also transform us.

Maria George 22 January 2014

I'm sure Dr Michael Walsh's work deserves credit, but it would have been nice to see some recognition that many other fine linguists have worked in this field, in the case of my brother, Gavan Breen, for some fifty years now. In that time Gavan has recorded, described, taught and written some ten books about the moribund and semi moribund languages of Australia's aboriginal people.

Barry Breen 22 January 2014

Kim Scott and Alexis Wright are weaving in indigenous language into their wonderful novels. Also worth mentioning Kim Scott and his colleagues ongoing initiative - the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories reclamation and revitalisation project in the south-western coastal region of Western Australia. This has included the publication of Noongar language books written and illustrated by Noongar people. This is a great project in the reclamation of a critically endangered language at the grass roots level ands we are all enriched by it.

Arnold Zable 22 January 2014

I wouldn't normally respond to comments, as I feel I have had my say and the piece should stand or fall on its merits, but I wanted to thank those of you who have drawn attention to all the other wonderful work being done in this area. Space limits meant my piece was only ever going to be a provocation. Thanks to Eureka Street for providing a forum for this work to be acknowledged - and hopefully taken further.

Ailsa Piper 22 January 2014

A considerable dose of wirla in the ether, particularly as we await our leaders 'keynote speech ' at Davos . I endorse earlier comment re Ailsa's facility with words - a reminder that I should be prompted to study an indigenous language , rather than the more usual European option. Thanks.

Peter Curtin 22 January 2014

Interesting article Ailsa. On another angle how much does Eureka Street get for advertising Dan Murphys in the middle of it? I hated seeing it there.

Marianne Payten 22 January 2014

Thank you for reminding me the importance of language. I have been encouraged in recent years of the improved recognition of our indigenous brothers & sisters Still a long way to go. I think focusing on their many languages is another step to better understanding & acceptance Thanks Ailsa

Barrie Lum 22 January 2014

Dear Ailsa, Your words raise something of my own concerns for own land and its people. Many aboriginal people have lost connection with their spiritual roots although others are opening us up to a rich culture , spirit filled and creative. In Dance, Music, Drama and Playwriting and now the wonderful films being made, and directed by aboriginal artist and directors. I believe Australia is now a multi faith/ culture people needing some assistance to return to the spirit of our pioneers, our poets, our writers and our ancestors who brought with them a faith and respect for our fellow human beings. Keep up your writing and sharing , Ailsa. People like yourself have insight and words to express something of what is happening. I think we need a few prophets of HOPE. Helen

Helen Barnes 22 January 2014

As ever, your words ring so true, and the thread of hope is so important. Thanks, Ailsa. This chimes with something I'm writing at the moment - more Australians can name the cat that circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders than the Aboriginal man who was also on that voyage - the first Australian to make the trip around our land.

Sue Murray 22 January 2014

This little old blackfella could not agree more. I don't speak language (Wiradjuri) but I do feel a hole where it should be. As soon as the grandkids wake-up I will be able to do a search of all of my Language materials in the room where they are sleeping to see what word may be around to fit.

Allan Barnes 23 January 2014

Dear ailsa, Thank you for putting into words what I am feeling about so much that our current government is doing. I share your concern about the effect of deprivation of language for a people group.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson 23 January 2014

Ailsa - Wirla - indeed. Recently in communication with Frank BAARDA at Yuendumu - on more-or-less the same queasiness feelings you outline - the government-forced (in the 21st century!!) ending of bi-lingual programs in traditional communities - first the local language (to know oneself in country) - later the English (to position oneself in the national discourse)! By denying the first there is no other! I watched Steve JAMPIJIMPA present the Five Pillars of Yapa Wisdom (Warlpiri). He traced five circles in the soil - naming them 1. Kuruwarri - the law; 2. Ngurra - the land (and respect for); 3. Purlapa - ceremony [dance, performance]; 4. Jaru - language; and 5. Walaja - family, skin. He drew lines linking each outer circle to the central circle. All of them must be strong for the community/culture - to be strong. Any weakness in one negatively affects all. At the same time - Flinders academic Christine NICHOLLS has begun an important conversation on The Conversation. She was formerly Principal at Lajamanu! And one of my teachers 30 years ago. Now your essay! Thank-you!

Jim KABLE 25 January 2014

What interesting sentiments expressed here... I too experience wirla... No word for hope may mean yamatji people are just super practical and don't spend their time on a hopin' and a prayin'... just a thought...

Val 25 January 2014

Not all that long ago the Australian Government held a Parliamentary Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities: http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=atsia/languages/index.htm Their excellent report is now gathering dust. As for great words, the Portuguese have the word 'Saudades' and Spanish has 'añoranzas'. Wikipedia has 'Saudades" as being virtually untranslatable. Well, the Australian Warlpiri language has an almost identical equivalent to 'Saudades'... 'yirraru'.

Frank Baarda 26 January 2014

Lovely article with some lovely words, but I was googling to try and find the word we used for mate/cousin in Meekatharra. Sounded like "koodr". Yamatji or Nyungar?

Robert Bannister 21 July 2014

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