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Reclaiming Native Language Title Rights

June 8, 2010 – 10:59 pm7 Comments

Australia by indigenous language group

By Ghil’ad Zuckermann

‘I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.’

– John Adams, 1735–1826, second president of the United States

‘Language is power; let us have ours’, wrote Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway perspicaciously on 26 November 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald. But most Australian revival efforts have been unsuccessful because they were not supported by a sound theoretical understanding of how successful language revival works. Decisions about the appropriate target for language maintenance programmes are too often driven by structural linguistics, where the supposed ideal is inter-generational transmission of the language with all its original structural complexity retained.

But as Israeli (a.k.a. Modern Hebrew) demonstrates, some language components are more revivable than others. Words and verbal conjugations, for example, are easier to reclaim than intonation, discourse, associations and connotations. Australian revivalists and Aboriginal leaders should be encouraged to be realistic rather than puristic, and not to chastise English loanwords and pronunciation, for example, within the emergent language.

But why should attempts to revive Aboriginal languages such as Kaurna (spoken in Adelaide) be supported in the first place? Reversing language shift is of great social benefit. Here are two of the reasons. Firstly – and in my view most importantly – a deontological reason (a principle): Aboriginal tongues deserve to be revived for historical and humanistic justice, inter alia addressing inequality. We hear again and again ‘native title rights’ but where is the ‘native tongue title rights’? Is land more important than language and cultural lens? And in case land and language are one entity, then why only claim land without reclaiming language?

Secondly, a utilitarian reason: Revival of sleeping Aboriginal languages can result in personal, educational and economic empowerment, sense of pride and higher self-esteem of people who have lost their heritage and purpose in life.

Although they too encountered hostility and animosity, the Hebrew revivalists had several advantages compared with Australian revivalists. For example: (1) Documentation: extensive – consider, for example, the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah. Jews have been exposed to literary Hebrew throughout the generations, e.g. when praying in the synagogue.

(2) Prestige: Hebrew was considered a prestigious language (as opposed to Yiddish, for instance).

(3) Uniqueness: Jews from all over the globe only had Hebrew in common (Aramaic was not as prominent), whereas there are dozens of ‘sleeping’ Aboriginal languages and it would be hard to choose only one unifying tongue, unless one resorts to Aboriginal English. The revival of a single language is much more manageable that that of numerous tongues in varying states of disrepair.

(4) National self-determination: revived Hebrew was aimed to be the language of an envisioned state.

(5) Lack of ownership: Unlike in the case of Aboriginal languages, anybody has the right to speak Hebrew without getting permission from the Jews.

(6) Easy borrowing: Loanwords and foreign words are not considered theft. In fact, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda loved borrowing from Arabic, Aramaic and other Semitic languages.

(7) Lack of place restriction: Hebrew could be and was revived all over the globe – consider Haim Leib Hazan’s coinage mishkafáim ‘glasses’ in 1890 in Grodno.

Applying precious conclusions from Hebrew will closely assist Australian revivalists in being more efficient, urging them not to waste time and resources on Sisyphean efforts to resuscitate linguistic components that are unlikely to be revivable. While the results of such endeavors have considerable value as a research enterprise, one can also consider them in terms of a cost-benefit analysis: Language revitalization contributes to social reconciliation, cultural tourism, capacity building, and improved community health for Indigenous peoples.

The process may be more important here than the actual goal. In the process of language revival, many Aboriginal people will experience a marked increase in well-being and optimism. The benefits to the wider community and to Australian society are immense. Stop, revive, survive!

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D. (Cambridge), M.A. (summa cum laude) (Tel Aviv), is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in Linguistics at The University of Queensland, Brisbane. His most recent revolutionary book ‘Israeli – A Beautiful Language’ was published by Am Oved (Tel Aviv) and became a bestseller. His website is www.zuckermann.org .

Prof. Zuckermann will lecture in Adelaide on Wednesday 9 June at 19:30 – at Hines Hall, Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, 13 Flemington Street, Glenside SA 5065; as well as at Limmud Oz Melbourne at Monash Caulfield on Sunday 13 June at 13:15 and on Monday 14 June at 12:00.

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