Lessons in native languages

ISRAELI-BORN linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann (pictured) hopes to resurrect some of the dead languages of the Aboriginal people by applying the lessons learnt from the revival of Hebrew.

Prof Zuckermann, who recently became Australia’s first chair of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, estimated that of the 250 known Aboriginal languages, only 15 are still widely spoken.

“That means the other 235 original languages are either sleeping beauties or endangered, either dead or about to die,” the Oxford and Cambridge-educated academic told The AJN.

He said these languages deserved to be revived for “historical justice and social equality”, and even went so far as to suggest that Aborigines’ cultural connection to their language was more important than ties to their land.

“Aboriginal people are compensated for the loss of land. Why don’t they get paid for the loss of language? Is land more important than langue?” he asked.

“I believe in a native tongue title, every language should have a price tag, and the Government should allocate, say, $100 million for each language lost.”

That doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. But Prof Zuckermann said he believed the millions spent reviving languages would also have economic benefits.

“Some of these people have lost their heritage and purpose in life. If you are involved in language resurrection as an Aboriginal person, you actually improve your chance to get a job, for example by learning literacy and computer skills,” he said.

As part of his mission, Prof Zuckermann will spend coming years surveying Aboriginal communities across Australia to determine where there is a desire to revive the indigenous language. He will then advise them on how to go about it.

“It’s something that has to be enacted by the communities themselves,” he stressed. “I can listen, observe, analyse, inspire and advise. But language reclamation ought not to be conducted to but rather with Aboriginal people.”

Describing himself as an “anti-purist”, he said he has analysed the successes and failures of the Hebrew revival, and believed that it was important to “embrace the inevitable hybridity of the emerging language”.

“I’m realistic, I’m not selling them ideologically based myths. On the other hand, I’m very much pro-revival. As seen in Israel, the revival of the ancient tongue, albeit partially successful, is a remarkable achievement.”