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Archives and language revival

While the education programs have a link to our manuscript collections, it is imperative that you consult and work with the local Aboriginal community before starting any language or cultural program as they are the authority. 

Members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that records may contain names and images of people who have passed away. 

What is language revival?

Language revival describes the process of trying to increase the use of a language that has not been used regularly for some time. If people have just recently stopped using their language on a daily basis, or only the children have stopped speaking it, the process of revival might be relatively simple. In places like NSW, however, most Aboriginal people stopped using their languages regularly in their daily lives many years ago, and sadly, a lot of living knowledge has been lost. In these situations revival needs to begin with a process of reclamation. All the Aboriginal languages  of NSW are reclamation languages. Some are being taught in schools and used in communities to varying degrees. Others are only now being reclaimed from various sources.

As there will be gaps in knowledge about a reclamation language it might not be possible for it to be spoken fully again, at least in its original form. If people don't want to try and fill the gaps in the reclaimed language and restore it to daily use, they might be satisfied with an awareness program, where the language has more public uses such as in signs, for speeches, in fixed dialogues like greetings, or a school subject. If, on the other hand, people do want their language to be in everyday use in their community, the process of reclamation needs to look at finding ways to fill the gaps in the language, either by borrowing words and constructions from other languages, or by creating completely new ones.

In all of these contexts, having access to archives can be on enormous help.

What is the role of archives in reclamation?

If people stopped speaking their language long ago it can be difficult for their descendants to reconnect with it. If they are lucky there might be still some old people alive who can remember how to speak the language, or they might only know a few sentences, short phrases or words, or there might be people who can only remember hearing it, but never spoke it themselves. In circumstances like these, archival records can become the main way people have to reconnect with their language.

Of course, having access to audio or video recordings allows people to hear and even see language in use. A few NSW languages are lucky enough to have such recordings held in archives, usually made by a linguist who was trying to document the language while it was still in use. But most don't, and it is often the only early written records that can be accessed, and these can be both very limited and hard to find. Such written records might have been produced by soldiers, missionaries, pastoralists, police magistrates or 'adventurers', and over different decades or even centuries. They might have been field notes made by an author, or collected by writing to people living locally, asking them to 'translate' wordlists. Almost none of them would have been written by somebody who actually spoke the language, or who realised that local Aboriginal people might speak more than one language. For these reasons they need to be treated woth a great deal of caution!

When people have access to archives that contain records of their language it may be possible to extract a lot of useful information that can include words and parts of words, useful phrases and, sometimes, whole sentences, stories or songs. The archival material may also contain hidden clues like methods of creating words in the language or rules about how words are put together to create different meanings. Because this task is complex and specialised it is extremely helpful if someone with training in the structure of Aboriginal languages is involved who can extract the maximum useful information, and who understands the kinds of mistakes that early recorders of Aboriginal languages made.

Group of people looking at manuscripts on a table

Participants of the event 'Marimirang: Elders and Language at the State Library' 

Why do we write it like that?

When people are not used to hearing a language spoken and speak only English themselves, it is very difficult for them to hear sounds that do not occur in English or use it in ways that English does not allow. For example, many NSW languages would allow the following words starting with the different sounds, all meaning different things:

nhurra - with the tip of the tongue between the teeth;

nyurra - with the blade of the tongue flat against the roof of the mouth, and;

ngurra - with the ng sound allowed at the end (but never the start) of English words.

All of these are different to the 'ordinary' English n, which the same language might use, only not at the start of a word. Many untrained English speakers would just not hear these differences and probably write all four sounds the same, using just the one, incorrect n

While this is an issue for people listening to old audio or video recordings of Aboriginal languages today, it was also a major problem for people in the past who wrote down words in Aboriginal languages they couldn't speak themselves. Linguists experienced in the patterns of Aboriginal languages usually know what to expect and can interpret archives based on what is typical for these languages, rather than only on their knowledge of English. Even if they can't tell what is correct, they know when alternative answers might be possible and more information is needed. 

This can be an issue for people who naturally assume the oldest records are the most historically accurate representation of the language. Although archives might represent the earliest record of the language while it was still in daily use, they might also be a record that's full of errors. Apart from the problem of English speakers not being able to recognise the sounds of Aboriginal languages to write them down, we know that almost every different person who made the archives used a different system for the same sounds, and sometimes changed systems. They might not have been all that educated or have had good English literacy either. There are many instances in the archives where the same person has recorded the same word in an Aboriginal language but with different spellings in different places.

These days most communities that have already started along the journey of reclaiming their languages have developed consistent writing systems worked out with the advice of linguists that ensures that sounds and written symbols correspond closely. That way if you can read it, you can be confident of saying it fairly accurately; and of you can understand it, you can write it the same way every time. For these languages, trying to go back to very old spellings is never a good idea!

Why do people stop speaking their language?

People don't just give up speaking their language; they gradually use it less in response to pressure from another socially, economically or politically dominant one. If they stop using their language in their homes and no longer pass it on to their children it can quickly fade away. While the process does not have to be violent, in the history of colonisation it has often involved force.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were pressured onto not speaking their language by missionaries, governments and the wider public. People could have their rations withheld, be denied shelter, or be threatened with the removal of their children if they continued to speak their own language instead of English. Many people tell stories of being beaten as children if they were caught speaking language. People were also forcibly relocated to make way for towns and farms in mixed groups that couldn't always talk to each other and so had to use English to communicate. This oppressive action by non-indigenous people was founded in the mistaken belief that people should only learn one language, Australian languages were inadequate, and that speaking one would somehow 'hold them back'. After generations of persistence, many Indigenous people came to believe these ideas themselves and even today, there can be resisteance to speaking languages within communities.