Reviving Aboriginal languages

By Amanda Burdon August 21, 2013
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An incredible project aims to revive more than 250 languages once spoken across Australia.

IN THE DRY BED of the Northern Territory’s Hanson River, words dance from Clarrie Kemarr Long’s fingertips. Her hand signs and facial expressions are as captivating as the hypnotic song she leads while sitting cross-legged in the shade of river red gums.

She is accompanied by other senior Aboriginals and younger women, all of whom speak both the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri languages. To the steady beat of clapping hands, they sing about an ancestral barn owl that turns into a monster and frightens a family group of hunters.

Indigenous Australian language

Clarrie has spent the morning burning ironwood twigs, for ash to mix with chewing tobacco, and eating kangaroo tail cooked on an open fire – but she truly comes alive in this singing and storytelling. Her appreciative audience includes linguists who are recording with the support of Eileen’s daughter, April Pengart Campbell. She teaches and co-ordinates the language and culture program at nearby Ti Tree School, 180km north of Alice Springs.

April is one of a team using technology to document ancient stories told through song, sand drawings, sign language and speech. She will include the song recorded today – for a place called Angenty – in a book. “So the kids can watch and learn about their country,” she tells me. “So they can remember.”

Read more about the revival of Aboriginal languages in issue 116 (Sept/Oct) of Australian Geographic.