Australian Aboriginal Languages: Their Decline and Revitalisation

Australian Aboriginal Languages: Their Decline and Revitalisation

Tasaku Tsunoda (Emeritus, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Japan)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2959-1.ch004
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The present chapter describes the decline and revitalisation of Australian Aboriginal languages—also called Australian languages. As preliminaries, it looks at the following: (i) a brief history of Aboriginal Australians, (ii) degrees of language viability, (iii) current situation of Australian languages, (iv) value of linguistic heritage, and (v) methods of language revitalisation. It then describes five selected language revitalisation activities, concerning Warrongo, Kaurna, Bandjalang, Thalanyji and Wiradjuri languages. In particular, it provides a detailed account of the Warrongo language revitalisation activity (in which the author has been participating). It finally examines a problem that is frequently encountered in language revitalisation activities: confusion over writing systems. The entire chapter pays careful attention to the changing political climate that surrounds Australian languages and activities for them.
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Degrees Of Language Viability

Languages can be classified in terms of the degree of their viability. A number of proposals are put forward for this purpose (Tsunoda, 2005, pp. 10-12). As Tsunoda (2005, p. 9) notes, “the survival of a given language crucially depends on whether or not the children learn it”. In view of this, almost all the classifications consider the factor of the transmission of a language to children, or learning of the language by children, among other factors.

For Australian languages, Hudson and McConvell (1984, pp. 29-30) and Schmidt (1990, p. 54) put forward four-level classifications, and they are adopted in Tsunoda (2005, p.13).

  • (a) Strong, healthy, safe, flourishing.

Strong languages: the traditional language is still the main, first language for everyone, including children (Hudson & McConvell, 1984).

Healthy languages: all generations actively use the language in a wide range of activities (Schmidt, 1990).

  • (b) Sick, weakening.

Sick languages: they will pass away soon if they do not receive treatment. Young people may understand a sick language when it is spoken in a simple way and may be able to say only a few words (Hudson & McConvell, 1984).

Weakening languages: they are usually spoken by older people, but not fully transmitted to the younger generation (Schmidt, 1990).

  • (c) Dying, moribund.

Dying languages: no young people are learning them (Hudson & McConvell, 1984).

Dying languages: only a few speakers remain (Schmidt, 1990).

  • (d) Dead, extinct.

Dead languages: they are no longer spoken (Hudson & McConvell, 1984).

Extinct languages: no speakers remain (Schmidt, 1990).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Adoption Method: A method of language revitalisation whereby a group of people adopt the language of another group.

Language Viability: Ability of a language to function as a means of communication. Roughly same as language vitality.

Endangered Language: A language which is no longer strong/healthy/safe/flourishing or awake/active/lively.

Language Ownership: A belief that a group of people own a language.

Reclamation Method: A method of language revitalisation: revival of an extinct language, utilizing materials recorded earlier when the language was spoken.

Language Revitalisation: An activity to restore a language towards a strong/healthy/safe/flourishing or awake/active/lively state.

Syntactic Ergativity: A phenomenon in which the intransitive subject and the transitive object are treated in the same way, in contradistinction to the transitive subject, at the syntactic level of a given language.

Writing system: A system of letters and symbols used for writing a language.

Linguistic Heritage: Language as a cultural heritage.

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