What’s the default language for an Indigenous writer?

When Australians talk about ‘Indigenous writing’, ‘Indigenous writers’ and ‘Indigenous literature’ in Australia, they usually don’t mean ‘writing in Indigenous languages’. They mean English. You’d never guess that Indigenous Australians wrote in their own languages from reading Lisa Slater’s review [1] of Penny van Toorn’s recent book (2006) Writing never arrives naked: Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia. (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press). Go instead to Mary-Anne Gale’s (1997) book Dhaŋum Djorra’wuy Dhäwu: a history of writing in Aboriginal languages. Adelaide: Aboriginal Research Institute, University of South Australia. (and go to the end of this post to see how to get a copy!).
In fact, Van Toorn does have a little about early writings in Indigenous languages, but not much, because she mostly focuses on the east coast of Australia and Tasmania. The English monolingual mindset has always been very strong on the east coast since the early settlers spoke mostly English, or Gaelic, which was not highly valued as a language of learning. The monolingual mindset was less strong in South Australia (which, with the Northern Territory, is the focus of Gale’s study), since the early settlers included a relatively large group of speakers of German. German was one of the major languages of science in the nineteenth century, English speakers studied it, and the SA German settlers published in German and ran German language schools until World War 1.
That’s perhaps why bilingual education in Indigenous languages, and the production of literature in Indigenous languages has been strongest in South Australia and the Northern Territory, (which was part of SA during its first effective settlement from 1863 – 1911, and which, after 1911, retained close links with SA in relevant institutions such as churches and the law). Van Toorn suggests (p.14) that the German missionaries used the local languages because they knew very little English. Much more relevant are the language policies of the London Mission Society and the Lutheran mission societies, as well as the early SA missionaries’ discussions with the Governors of South Australia, about what languages to use in schools [2].

Gale’s book is especially good on describing what happened when communities encountered literacy in the mid twentieth century – how they reacted to it, and what they used it for. I have always been struck by the value elderly central Australian Aboriginal people have placed on ‘putting it down in the book’. People living in oral societies know how hard it is to avoid the distortions of Chinese Whispers in passing on information. Valuable ideas take a lot of work to pass on accurately, and there are people who think deeply about this, about the political implications of fixing ideas in print, and about the (in)accuracy of the record. Such people will, inevitably, be interested in the possibilities that writing holds, as external memory aids, as extra-somatic memory. They may develop scripts and spelling systems themselves, as the Hmong Soob Lwj Yaj [Shong Lue Yang] (1929 – 1971) and the Cherokee Sequoyah (1770 – 1843) did, and as the Korean King Sejong (1397 – 1450) is said to have. Or they may adapt existing scripts and systems. Or they may use scribes. In all cases they’ll use reading and writing for their own ends.
We haven’t a hope of understanding what happened when preliterate communities encountered literacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, unless we observe what happens now – how intelligent people sail the seas of an oral culture, how they navigate the changing shapes of information, the changing ownership of information, how they pass on information, and the value they place on memory.
These are not Van Toorn’s concerns, although, she, like Gale, takes issue with earlier literacy specialists such as Walter Ong. Her book contains some useful information on early uses of reading and writing English by Aborigines, and some interesting texts (but beware the typos). Her speculations on Indigenous languages should be treated with caution, as, unlike Gale, she’s writing for literature specialists, rather than teachers or linguists. For example, she writes about Governor Lachlan Macquarie holding feasts at Parramatta to entice people to leave their children at the Native Institution school:

What would the Aboriginal groups who attended or heard about Governor Macquarie’s feasts have made of the resemblance between the name ‘Macquarie’ and the names Mak-quarra, Mokwarra and Mukwara, which in several Aboriginal languages mean ‘Eaglehawk’? Would they have understood ‘Macquarie’ to mean ‘Eaglehawk’? To Europeans ‘Eaglehawk’ has connotations of power and fierce, predatory cruelty, – a fitting title for anyone who attempts to steal Aboriginal children from their families, as a bird of prey might snatch and eat the chicks of other birds. (p.31)

This is followed by musings on the Eaglehawk and Crow myth intended to link the idea of child-stealing and the names ‘Mak-quarra’ and ‘Macquarie’. OK, it’s a literary conceit, and the earlier question marks flag that van Toorn is speculating here. But then she gently criticises John Mathew (Eaglehawk and Crow 1899) for overlooking “the fact that Macquarie’s name is a cognate of Aboriginal words for Eaglehawk”.
Fact? These words for ‘Eaglehawk’ are not from Troy’s dictionary of the Sydney language, nor from the Hunter River, nor from Wiradjuri [3]. They seem to be from northern Victoria, the only source given by Van Toorn being John Mathew, and Brough Smyth’s comments on an Eaglehawk Mak-quarra and Crow myth. But there’s a problem of timing. Victoria wasn’t really settled until the 1830s, more than 10 years after Lachlan Macquarie had left Australia. So it’s doubtful that Victorian Aborigines would have been making puns on his name, (if indeed they played with puns at all). Ideas and news about the colonists spread ahead of settlement, of course, but, judging from the words for new things that spread and entered the lexicons of different Aboriginal languages, guns, grog, horses, soldiers and policemen were bigger topics.
Another reason to question the ‘fact’ is the likelihood that many south-eastern Australian Aboriginal groups were multilingual. Multilingual mindsets make one more open to the possibility that other languages can have words that sound just like the words of one’s own language but mean something different. It takes time to get this across to monolingual English speakers – remember all the school kids screaming with laughter at the German word ‘Vater’? But it was probably second nature to multilingual Aborigines. So, even if the Victorian Aborigines had heard about Macquarie and the Native Institution, I’m betting that the similarity in sound between Macquarie and ‘Mak-quarra’ wasn’t a barbecue-stopper.
As a literary conceit to hang a story of stolen children on, the Macquarie/Mak-quarra similarity is cute . But Van Toorn’s book will be taken as history. Other people may well take up this conceit as a fact. Mark Liberman’s attributional abduction again and again.
Back to Mary-Anne Gale’s book, which is an excellent resource-book with lots of details, lists, references and some texts. The University of SA’s distribution was – ah – limited. Fortunately they’ve handed over the last copies to her, and you can get them from her:
maryanne.gale AT adelaide DOT edu DOT au
anywhere in Australia $15 (incl.postage) (at 253 pages you’d be hard-put to photocopy it for that)
overseas – negotiate with Mary-Anne.

[1] Lisa Slater. Southerly 66.3 (Autumn 2006): p217(6)
[2] Schurmann, Edwin A. (1987). I’d rather dig potatoes: Clamor Schuermann and the Aborigines of South Australia 1838 -1853. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House.
[3] Sydney language burumurring
[Troy, Jakelin. (1994). The Sydney language. Canberra: The author]
Hunter River/Lake Macquarie language Bi-ra-bán
[Threlkeld, Lancelot E. (1834). An Australian grammar, comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Sydney: Stephens and Stokes]
Wiradjuri malyan
[McNicol, Sally and Hosking, Dianne. (1994). Wiradjuri. In N. Thieberger and W. McGregor (Eds.), Macquarie Aboriginal Words (pp. 79-99). Sydney: Macquarie Library]
Bundjalung mibayn
[Sharpe, Margaret. (1994). Bundjalung. In N. Thieberger and W. McGregor (Eds.), Macquarie Aboriginal Words (pp. 1-22). Sydney: Macquarie Library]
I haven’t looked hard but haven’t found ‘makwarra’ forms for ‘eaglehawk’ yet.

7 thoughts on “What’s the default language for an Indigenous writer?”

  1. Makwara is the name of one of the two moieties found along the Darling River (see L.A. Hercus 1993 “Paakantyi Dictionary” page 123 glossed as “rain wind, west wind”) the other being Kilpara. Perhaps someone made a leap between the Paakantyi moiety name and the Eaglehawk totem, often associated with one of the moieties elsewhere in NSW? Your point about the unlikelihood of any Aboriginal person correlating this with Macquarie’s name still stands.

  2. I checked my Curr db and didn’t find anything in the meaning ‘eaglehawk’. The closest I could find is magui, makoran for Turrubul in the meaning of ‘ghost/white man’.

  3. Thanks Claire for confirming my much hastier glance at Curr. And thanks Peter for a great suggestion. I’d been stymied because Paakantyi for ‘eaglehawk’ is pilyara (Hercus in ‘Macquarie Aboriginal Words’). But your suggestion makes perfect sense since the words came up in the context of Eaglehawk and Crow moieties. Here’s Brough Smyth on beliefs of the aborigines of northern Victoria: “They [=Crow and Eaglehawk] agreed that the Murray blacks should be divided into two classes – the Mak-quarra or Eaglehawk, and the Kil-parra or Crow” (1876 vol.1: p.424).
    Another case of attributional abduction!

  4. Just had a look at John Mathew’s Eaglehawk and Crow, which has a comparative table of vocabulary at the back. This has about 40 words for ‘eaglehawk’, but nothing resembling makwarra. On the other hand he does have Kilparra and Mokwarra as the names of two women who were wives of the first black man on the Darling and who originated the moiety system.

  5. Just a note with regard to the use of puns. I have been working recently with MK Turner, a well known and highly respected Arrernte woman in Alice Springs, on a Picture Dictionary for Akarre. Mk’s enthusiasm for playing with language in both Arrernte and English is enormous (not to mention her ‘slinging off’ style with regard to other Arandic dialects and Western Desert languages!). We have great fun with puns, tongue twisters, rhyming and rhythyms, and joking songs. Her use of metaphor in explaining Arandic concepts is superb.

  6. And MKT is the co-author of the classic article on a play language in Australia:
    Turner, Margaret Mary and Breen, Gavan. (1984). Akarre Rabbit Talk. Language in Central Australia,Language in Central Australia,

  7. The pseudonym I’ve borrowed, Kyangadac, was originally given as the signature to a letter written on behalf of a Noongar dispossessed of his land. The letter was written by Canon Wollaston in 1855, and the obvious translation of ‘having nothing’ fits with a Victorian sensibility about pseudonyms. However, Kiangardarup, is also the name for what is today known as Grassmere Lake but which, in the 1850’s, was a significant campsite. At that time the lake was redolent with birdlife and fish (today it is badly degraded)and so it’s name alludes to some deeper meaning. Nevertheless, Wollaston’s postulant may well have been amused by the pun if he didn’t suggest it himself having, perhaps, been dispossessed of his own land at Kiangardarup.

Here at Endangered Languages and Cultures, we fully welcome your opinion, questions and comments on any post, and all posts will have an active comments form. However if you have never commented before, your comment may take some time before it is approved. Subsequent comments from you should appear immediately.

We will not edit any comments unless asked to, or unless there have been html coding errors, broken links, or formatting errors. We still reserve the right to censor any comment that the administrators deem to be unnecessarily derogatory or offensive, libellous or unhelpful, and we have an active spam filter that may reject your comment if it contains too many links or otherwise fits the description of spam. If this happens erroneously, email the author of the post and let them know. And note that given the huge amount of spam that all WordPress blogs receive on a daily basis (hundreds) it is not possible to sift through them all and find the ham.

In addition to the above, we ask that you please observe the Gricean maxims:

*Be relevant: That is, stay reasonably on topic.

*Be truthful: This goes without saying; don’t give us any nonsense.

*Be concise: Say as much as you need to without being unnecessarily long-winded.

*Be perspicuous: This last one needs no explanation.

We permit comments and trackbacks on our articles. Anyone may comment. Comments are subject to moderation, filtering, spell checking, editing, and removal without cause or justification.

All comments are reviewed by comment spamming software and by the site administrators and may be removed without cause at any time. All information provided is volunteered by you. Any website address provided in the URL will be linked to from your name, if you wish to include such information. We do not collect and save information provided when commenting such as email address and will not use this information except where indicated. This site and its representatives will not be held responsible for errors in any comment submissions.

Again, we repeat: We reserve all rights of refusal and deletion of any and all comments and trackbacks.

Leave a Comment