Tuesday, 3 April 2012

There is a call to make Kaurna

compulsory in all schools on the Adelaide plains. Kaurna? You have never heard of it?
I had but I suspect that most people have not. It is, supposedly, the language of the people who lived here before white settlement.
I say "supposedly" with good reason. It would not have been the language of all the indigenous tribes on the Adelaide plains. It would have been one of many related languages. Along with Pitjatjantjara it may also be one of the best preserved.
I also say "may" with good reason. The Kaurna language before white settlement no longer exists. We do not know what it was like.
For indigenous Australians the Australian landscape required a particular vocabulary. There are also many words for things like family relationships. A meeting between members of two tribes could require a long conversation about relationships in order to find common relationships and precisely what they were. There was no loose usage of the word "cousin" among them.  It is all highly sophisticated.
But indigenous languages also lacked the concepts and the vocabulary to deal with white settlement. This had nothing to do with being "primitive" or "stupid". They simply did not need these things.  Colour is described differently. Mathematical concepts were rare. They did not need to count. (There were words for "one" and "two" and the idea of "three"  or "four" was formed by combinations of these words but the idea of counting from one to ten was foreign to them.) There was no written language.
In order to describe and discuss what they saw when the first settlers arrived they had to either create new words, take on the words of the settlers or gradually lose their language in favour of a new one. All three things happened over time. If time travel occurred and a speaker of the language as it was before white settlement arrived he or she would find there was nobody with whom they could easily hold a conversation. It would be rather like us trying to hold a conversation with a member of a British tribe from say the first or second century.
So why should schools teach Kaurna? There are claims that indigenous students do better and are more motivated when they know something about "their" language. Perhaps. I think it is more likely that the students involved do better and are more motivated because they are getting a great deal of time and individual attention. They are being told they are "important", Learning Kaurna has been only a small part of an overall experiment in education. The results would not be translated to the rest of the population.
It is not like the revival of Welsh and, now, Gaelic or Breton. It is not like ensuring Tibetan survives in order to preserve religious and medical knowledge which is in daily use. Kaurna is not in daily use as a primary language. It would need massive changes in order to be able to be used in the 21st C.
We have lost most aboriginal languages and we will lose more. Only a handful have any chance of survival. Every time we lose a language we lose a way of thinking. We lose unique words and ideas. Of the languages which remain we will also lose ways of thinking. Languages have to change to remain alive. We cannot "preserve Kaurna". Language does not work like that.


jeanfromcornwall said...

Interesting that you refer to languages of the gaelic group. Welsh and the Scottish gaelic never died out and were kept by many of the most westerly peoples as their first language - this in the face of the persecution of schoolchildren who used them.
I can't tell you much about Breton, but Cornish, to which it is closely related, died out completely as a spoken language, but there was always a body of literature, so it didn't really need reconstructing, especially with close relatives in the live languages to refer to. It is now being revived as a spoken language - taught in a few schools and evening classes, and used by some people in the pub, just for the fun of it.
This is quite different from trying to reconstruct a language that belonged to a way of life that is no longer in existence.

catdownunder said...

Yes, I almost mentioned Cornish too! I have an interest in Gaelic (my paternal great-grandmother spoke it) so it seemed an obvious example. There are many other languages struggling for survival but the Gaelic and Welsh will probably survive now because people are much more aware of the need for them to do something about it. Other languages may not be that lucky and a lot of languages with a very small number of speakers will probably die very quickly.

the fly in the web said...

Breton survives and is doing well - but trying to reconstruct a language makes no sense at all.