In the Jiliwirri register of Warlpiri language, if you wanted to communicate the phrase, “I am sitting on the ground,” you would need to say, “the man is standing in the sky.”
Jiliwirri is spoken among initiates in parts of Warlpiri country, Northern Territory. In this register, communication goes back to front: to speak it, one must replace each word or idea with its opposite.
It’s a system that amazes Dr Nicholas Evans, who is Professor at the Department of Linguistics, and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the ANU. Professor Evans has dedicated much of his career to the study of complex systems such as Jiliwirri, which, purely by existing, overturns many of the conceptual certainties a native English speaker might take for granted.
“Take the problem of antonymy,” Professor Evans wrote in an article on Indigenous languages earlier this year, entitled ‘Listening Here’. “Giving ‘up’ as the opposite of ‘down’ or ‘tall’ as the opposite of ‘short’ are trivial. But most semantic textbooks remain mute on the question of where antonymic oppositions stop… What is the opposite of mother— father, or child? Or worse, of ‘red kangaroo’, or ‘countryman’, or ‘(s)he’?” he adds.
Professor Evans’ article draws on the work of American linguist Dr Kenneth Hale, one of the first Westerners to study Warlpiri language. His work showed that the study of antonymy in Jiliwirri is unique among all the world’s registers.
“Registers like Jiliwirri show how what monumental intellectual achievements have been achieved by indigenous Australian cultures, with their deep and thoughtful interest in language – breakthroughs in linguistic analysis that in some cases have not been achieved even in written philosophical traditions with long histories of investigating abstract questions of analysis,” Professor Evans explains.
Warlpiri is one of hundreds of Indigenous languages spoken across Australia.
But the extraordinary nature of multilingualism in Aboriginal society offers more than just intellectual conundrums for linguists to ponder over.
“What does it mean to have hundreds of languages across the continent?” asks Professor Evans. “It’s an interesting fact for linguists but it’s also a deeper fact that the people who can speak for a locality are the people of that locality,” he adds.
The existence of multiple languages in Australia can facilitate local-level consultation with Indigenous communities. People who speak their native tongue have a deeper understanding of the specific issues that their community faces. This gives them a license to talk about their localities in a way outsiders cannot.
Unfortunately, federal government has little time for Indigenous voices. Last year, Canberra rejected a proposal for the creation of an Indigenous representative assembly that had been put forward by the Referendum Council, a government appointed body tasked with advising on Indigenous issues. The dismissal undid months of consultation between Indigenous groups across the country, effectively bringing the debate on constitutional recognition back to square one. It made the government’s position on Indigenous engagement all too obvious.
“[Ignoring Indigenous bodies] is like cutting off your ear,” Professor Evans says. “They were never perfect, but they were there.”
Disregard for Indigenous issues is an enduring feature of Australia’s colonial past. Today, racist and imperialist discourse continues to dictate the way mainstream Australian talks about Aboriginality.
“Lots of people think Aboriginal languages are primitive, or that they’re no basis for the modern world,” Professor Evans says.
Yet any student of Aboriginal language will know that this is far from the truth. Many Aboriginal languages are characterised by complex relationships between sounds and concepts, which are beautifully and philosophically ambiguous. Single words can express what would take a whole sentence in English.
“In the Dalabon language for instance, the noun root ‘malk’ can mean ‘place, country,’ but also ‘season, weather’ as well as ‘place in a system’, e.g. one’s ‘skin’ in the overarching system of kin relations, or the point on a net where the support sticks are fixed,” writes Professor Evans. “Build a verb around it and you can get a single word like ngûrrahmalkwonawoniyan, which can be translated either as ‘let’s listen, let’s attend carefully to this country, this path’ or ‘let’s think about where to go next.’”
The richness of Australia’s linguistic landscape has suffered from ongoing colonialist attitudes towards Aboriginal people. Monolingualist bias in non-Indigenous Australian culture is the biggest threat to Indigenous languages today.
“If people accept that it’s normal to be multilingual…then languages will be well-maintained,” Professor Evans explains. “But if people say you’ve got to choose – and do you want to choose a dark, tribal past, or the shining modern world? – and if pressure is put on parents [to be raise their child to be monolingual], then that’s all pushing people in a direction they don’t need to go in,” he adds.
The politicisation of Indigenous languages is causing them to disappear at a rapid rate, as fewer and fewer parents pass their language on to younger generations. An estimated 90 per cent of Australia’s Indigenous languages are critically endangered.
This has far-reaching consequences for all Australians. True reconciliation is not possible if no efforts are made to engage with Indigenous communities on their own terms. And making the effort to learn indigenous languages, and the concepts they express, establishes a basis for mutual understanding and respect that informs all future interactions.
But language is also a marker of identity and belonging to a particular community. Thousands of years of cultural knowledge is embedded within language – when this dies, that knowledge risks being lost forever.
“The best way to see it is to turn around and imagine that you are the last speaker of English,” Professor Evans explains. “Just think of everything that is there in the English language: all the books you’ve ever read, all the songs you’ve ever sung or heard, all the knowledge and ideas that you have access to thanks to your knowledge of English,” he adds. “And then imagine that that was deleted.”
“A language is like a vast library,” says Professor Evans. “There are many books in that library that can only be read by knowing that language.”
Losing a fluency in the language of one’s own community displaces individuals from their land, their culture, and their ancestry.
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have something to learn from this connection, says Professor Evans.
“We think of reconciliation as being between two groups of people: Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” says Professor Evans. “But coming with that is also reconciliation between non-Indigenous people and the environment we live in. We [Non-Indigenous Australians] still are strangers in the land,” he adds.
A change of attitude within mainstream Australian culture is required to overcome these failings.
“Our national project of reconciliation is a good thing, but it ultimately will go most deeply when it’s based on admiration for the other group,” says Professor Evans.
“We should be caring about this,” he adds. “How we deal with the relation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is maybe the single most important question for Australia’s destiny.”
Indigenous voices have attempted to engage with non-Indigenous Australia for a long time. For true reconciliation to occur, non-Indigenous Australia has to start ‘listening here’.
By Student Correspondant Dot Mason