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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

The Habitat of Australia’s Aboriginal Languages: Past, Present and Future edited by Gerhard Leitner and Ian G Malcolm, 389 pp, Mouton de Gruyte, Berlin, New York, 2006, ISBN 9783110190793 (hbk), $137.00.

Ecological metaphors have become trendy in linguistics of late, as the complexity and inter-relatedness of botanic systems neatly parallels that of human societies and their languages. The Habitat of Australia’s Aboriginal Languages engages the metaphor of ecological habitats to investigate the most significant changes to the Australian language landscape since European invasion. The papers in this volume cluster around three key aspects of habitat disturbance: traditional languages and how they have adapted, contact languages and how they have evolved, and how languages have come to operate in education and the law.

Harold Koch provides a very useful overview for those wanting an insight into the unique constellations of structural features (ergativity, ‘kintax’, pronominal ex-/inclusivity, complex verb morphology, unique semantic distinctions and metaphor) that have continued to captivate Australianist linguists from historical, descriptive and typological persuasions.

Michael Christie takes us into the ‘habitat’ of Yolngu languages, with a particular focus on activities designed to situate health and education services more firmly in a Yolngu perspective. For example, Christie describes how Yolngu educational theorists and practitioners such as Raymattja Marika-Mununggiritj and Mandawuy Yunupingu have drawn upon the concept of ganma, a confluence of salt and fresh water, to elaborate their approach to ‘both ways’ education. This aims to develop Yolngu people who can live successfully in just such a place ‘where Balanda and Yolngu meet’ (Yunupingu 1991: 101 cited in Christie). While ganma represents the process, garma is the context, the site for this to happen. Garma is the name of a ceremony and the site on which it is performed: ‘a place where people know they are welcome if they treat the place, its owners, its history and its visitors with respect’ (p. 73). It also entails all the preparatory and organisational work necessary to conduct the final performance properly, and here the Yolngu have found a road-map for how pedagogical and curriculum planning can be properly done. One is left with the overwhelming sense of how much intellectual and practical work Yolngu people have undertaken to articulate their own culture in order to reconcile with and accommodate the systems, institutions and language of the recent European arrivals. And one is haunted by questions of how well this has been reciprocated.

Michael Walsh’s contribution to the volume begins by outlining some of the problems with assessing language vitality in the Australian context using scales, censuses and other statistical means. By way of contrast, in attempting to describe the status of the Murrinhpatha language (presently spoken in the Wadeye community in the Northern Territory), Walsh provides a detailed historical account of the language in its broader language ecology. This approach gives a richness to our understanding of its relative strength that is hard to distil into a numerical scale. He briefly tackles some of the reasons that may contribute to language loss, and whether language loss necessarily entails a loss of cultural knowledge or practises. This is followed by some observations on how new Aboriginal languages (Kriols and mixed languages) have found a place in the language ecology of many Aboriginal communities, and how traditional Aboriginal languages are being used in new, often cyber, spaces. His sweep through the language landscape would have been incomplete without a word to those languages currently being woken from their slumber, and to that end there are a number of good references here for those seeking inspiration in this area. Walsh is optimistic about the future, particularly in regard to two new opportunities for Aboriginal people to carry out university-based training and research into their languages. One of these (the Language Endangerment Program at Monash) is now defunct.

This sad fact is politically contextualised by Graham McKay’s chapter, an historical overview of policy initiatives aimed, directly and indirectly, at the maintenance of Indigenous languages. His illuminating account situates language policy relating to Indigenous languages at the nexus of attitudes to both Indigenous people (exclusion, assimilation, integration, etc), and linguistic diversity (including migrant languages). McKay examines both significant national initiatives, such as the National Policy on Languages, and state and territory based policy that have largely been generated out of education departments and the legal system, and often had an indirect focus on Indigenous languages. He catalogues their relative legacies, and from this there is much to reflect on about the role and efficacy of ad hoc, government-directed language planning to date, given the continual decline in speaker numbers (of most traditional languages) also clearly described in the chapter.

Four chapters focus on what linguists call ‘contact’ languages. These are languages that arise when two groups of people with distinct languages meet. John Harris explains these processes and the associated technical terminology (pidgin, creole, etc) in clear, accessible terms. His chapter is in large part an overview of contact languages that have arisen through interactions with English, but this is given historical context by a brief examination of the evidence of pre-European language contact and the linguistic results. This serves to highlight the relative experience with multilingual communication that Aboriginal people brought to early encounters with Europeans, and is an essential antecedent in the story of the rise and spread of early pidgins and creoles in the period following European arrival. Harris is keen for readers to see contact languages in Australia as not only ‘products of disturbed language ecologies but also instruments of that disturbance’ (p. 132) and thus the recent history of Kriol is presented in this light. Refreshingly, Harris also points out that in the process of contact language development, simplification is not impoverishment, but rather ‘optimisation’, thus turning the discourse of loss that so often accompanies the spread of Kriol on its head. Malcolm and Grote present a summary of features present in the varieties of Aboriginal English spoken around Australia, describing their origins and the present-day functions which sustain their use. The section on geographic, social and stylistic variation is important as it emphasises that fact that Aboriginal English is really a ‘complex continuum of varieties’ (p. 168). This is often overlooked and a homogenous view of Aboriginal Englishes is perpetuated, even by those who quote (but misinterpret) these very authors. Under the section on pragmatics the authors state some often-repeated claims regarding features of Aboriginal interaction, specifically that there is no ‘need or expectation of turn taking’ (p. 161) or obligation to respond. For recent work on this topic, which reveals the situation to be considerably more nuanced than is presented here, I would recommend to the reader Gardner et al (2009), Gardner (2010), and Mushin and Gardner (2009). Farzad Sharifian delves into how kinship categories are reflected in the grammatical systems of various Australian languages. Those not familiar with the author’s theoretical ‘schemas’ approach to cognition to which this data has been applied, will nevertheless find much of interest in terms of how kinship permeates the grammar of many Australian languages. His chapter examines traditional languages on their own terms, but also examines how grammatical encodings of kinship in these languages have been imported into later contact varieties such as Aboriginal English. Gerhard Leitner takes a look at the flipside of language contact: how the development of Australian English (AusE) has been influenced by contact with Aboriginal languages. Beyond commonplace words in AusE that have their origins in Aboriginal languages, Leitner shows how AusE has been influenced by contact with Aborignal people in a broader sense: words such as sorry, country, native, reserve, dreamtime now have a uniquely Australian semantic scope through their use by and about Aboriginal people. Moreover, he considers how the progenitors of semantic expansion have also shifted since contact, from the non-Indigenous coloniser to Aboriginal people themselves.

Appropriately, the final chapters deal with the relevance of Australia’s complex language ecology in two key areas of applied research: education and the law.

Partington and Galloway give a comprehensive account of the many issues that have been discussed over the past 20–30 years in relation to the formal schooling of Aboriginal people. They are specifically concerned with factors that might account for the apparent differences between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal students in school ‘success’. In attempting to scope out the myriad of policy and initiatives in this area, there is unfortunately little room for critical evaluation of these policies and how they may or may not have translated into, among other things, educational empowerment. However, in mapping the chaos the chapter serves as a companion piece to the contribution of Ian Malcolm and Patricia Königsberg who take the reader deeper into specific educational issues. The authors bring much-needed rigour to the ways in which outcomes and objectives for Indigenous people have been defined in the educational sphere. In other words, who controls what is in ‘the gap’. They point out that educational authorities have largely defined Indigenous success in terms of equal attainment on ‘outcomes common to the mainstream’ (p. 276): the gap is thus defined as what non-Indigenous students do that Indigenous students do not, rather than as the distance to the educational goals each group has set for itself (an approach that would give equal energy to goals relating to the development of multilingual and inter-cultural competence often articulated by Aboriginal people as of equal importance). This has resulted in a biased testing regime that is based on ‘monocultural and monodialectal’ benchmarks, and thus takes no account of Indigenous students’ ‘foundational linguistic competence’ (p. 277). The idea of a ‘gap’ is therefore redefined by the authors as one of expectations. This is a very useful contribution to the growing number of international and national critiques of ‘gap talk’ (eg Lingard et al 2012), and will continue to be relevant beyond the Australian Government’s current use of the term.

Some of the most important academic and practical work on language issues in Australia has centred on the way non-native speakers of Australian English fare in our legal system. Diana Eades elaborates some of the key linguistic issues for speakers of Aboriginal English attempting to navigate the legal system, and for a justice system tasked with providing ‘equality before the law’. Her presentation takes us through a number of case examples, including the two earliest cases in which linguistic evidence became part of the defence, and more recent cases where the language issues centre on misunderstandings arising out of features of the interview process. She also describes the very practical work that has been done to educate legal professionals (eg with the publication of a handbook) about the ways in which miscommunication can and does arise. Eades also demonstrates that work focusing on language issues can take us only so far, for the ‘participation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system cannot be separated from socio-political issues involved in race relations in Australia’ (p. 321).

Rob Amery presents a history of Aboriginal languages in the tertiary sector, where they have been present in two senses: as the object of research, and as the subject matter for language courses. In Amery’s account Aboriginal languages have been more significant in the former sense than the latter, but receive equal treatment here. Amery gives a run-down of the sub-disciplines within linguistics that have been applied to Aboriginal languages. His account compliments that of Koch in providing reference to research beyond the descriptive and comparative linguistic traditions. Importantly, this chapter also chronicles the history of teaching of Aboriginal languages at the tertiary level, so that we may record what attempts have been made, what great things have been achieved, and may be still but for more favourable policy (particularly regarding class sizes) and funding environments.

Terry Ngarritjan-Kessaris and Linda Ford, who contribute the concluding chapter, reflect on each paper in the volume and provide an Aboriginal perspective on the central theme of the book: namely the change to their language habitat since colonisation. They share many personal anecdotes and perspectives which give vivid expression to the ideas raised throughout the volume. As well as articulating their own experiences, they refer to the increasing scrutiny given to Indigenous-related research by Indigenous academics. Of all the habitat ‘disturbance’ described in this volume this is surely the most needed and welcome. As soon as our highest academic institutions succeed in entwining Indigenous thought and scholarship within their own limited micro-climates we may be truly optimistic about the future diversity of Australia’s language habitat as a whole.


Gardner, R 2010, ‘Question and answer sequences in Garrwa talk’, Australian Journal of Linguistics 30: 423–445.

Gardner, R, R Fitzgerald and I Mushin 2009, ‘The underlying orderliness in turn-taking: examples from Australian talk’, Australian Journal of Communication 36: 65–89.

Lingard, B, S Creagh and G Vass 2012, ‘Education policy as numbers: data categories and two Australian cases of misrecognition’, Journal of Education Policy 27(3): 315–333.

Mushin, I and R Gardner 2009, ‘Silence is talk: conversational silence in Australian Aboriginal talk-in-interaction’, Journal of Pragmatics 41: 2033–2052.

Sally Dixon

The Australian National University

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