Saturday 28 May 2022

"A passionate revival of a lost language"?

I am wondering how much further people are going to go in an attempt to "preserve", "revive" and "restore" something that has been gone for well over one hundred and fifty years.

There is a piece in this morning's paper about the "revival" of the Kaurna language. For overseas readers - the Kaurna were the people who lived in the area in and around this state's capital city when the first white settlers came. It is estimated that they numbered, at most, around three hundred people. 

Naturally they had their own language, culture and way of life. That has gone. What genuinely remains is nothing more than a few words of the language - and they may not be correct. The Kaurna did not have a written language and, without that, the survival of the spoken language was always going to be at even greater risk.  The Kaurna language did not survive. 

The vocabulary the Kaurna and the white settlers needed in order to communicate did not exist for many ideas and objects in the Kaurna language. The Kaurna simply had not needed the same vocabulary. They certainly did not know what a dictionary was. They did not need one. Their language was not "primitive". It was their everyday language and it served a purpose - until white settlement. Then English took over. 

Some effort was made to learn about the Kaurna language by one of the early French explorers and by church men. The latter naturally wanted to convert the Kaurna people. It wasn't until the 1920s that there was any real academic interest. By then there was thought to be just one native speaker of the language left. His use of the language was documented and recorded. 

Or perhaps I should say "what was thought to be his use of the language".  Whether he simply thought he was doing what the researcher wanted or whether he was lying deliberately we will never know. Certainly people who tried to gather information from other people in other parts of the state were being given deliberately false information about words and what those words might mean. There were matters you did not speak of outside the tribe, even outside just the male members of the tribe - and then only the initiated men. The same is true of efforts to gather information about the Kaurna language. 

The head of Linguistics at the university likes to claim they have managed to preserve around 3000 words and some of the grammar of the language which was spoken at white settlement. I do not believe that. I think they would be fortunate to have 300 words. I also think there would be differences in semantics, pronunciation and grammar. Those differences would likely be so great the speakers then would not understand what now passes for the language. 

I know that will not be a popular view but I think it is a realistic one. The Kaurna language was not "saved" and it is not being "revived". It can't be. Even now, with all the modern technology and methods at our disposal, it would be very difficult to do. What they had back then simply made the task impossible. It means a language and a culture are gone apart from a few remnants and the world is poorer for it. At best what people are doing is trying to create a language.

I am however reminded of the exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things." Perhaps you can - but it doesn't mean that the word in the present and the word in the past mean the same thing.


1 comment:

Holly said...

Totally agree with you. What is more disturbing to me is that some of these attempts are simply "co-opting" something historical so that either guilt is relieved or it now belongs to people who have no claim.

Somewhat akin to white kids wearing Native American costumes at Halloween....

not accurate and certainly not respectful