Albey on Threatened Languages

With the growing dominance of English as a worldwide language, Mark Abley details the disappearance of other languages around the world and laments the loss of memory, history, and culture that may follow.

‘Called by the natives Kangooroo,’ James Cook wrote in his journal in June 1770, his ship pierced by coral along the Great Barrier Reef, its marooned captain facing a new world. This undreamed-of creature, for example, which moved ‘by hopping or jumping 7 or 8 feet at each hop upon its hind legs only … Excepting the head and ears which I thought something like a Hare’s, it bears no sort of resemblance to any European animal I ever saw.’ Once his men had finally repaired Endeavour and he’d removed it from the reef, Cook sailed back to London with news of an unknown continent where the fauna and flora seemed bizarre. As proof, he took a stuffed specimen of the hind-leg hopper – the first kangaroo to arrive in Europe, and the first word of any Australian language to make its way into English.

‘Kangooroo!’ said the penal colonists of Botany Bay, eighteen years later. But the Iora people among whom they landed had no idea what the British were talking about. To them the animal was a patagarang. Guugu Yimidhirr-the language Cook had heard far to the north, at what he called Cape Tribulation-was entirely different from the language the Iora spoke. Patagarang never made it into English, but the colonists went on asking the Iora and neighboring peoples about the remarkable animals, plants, and landscapes all around them. And in short order budgerigar, koala, kookaburra, dingo, boomerang, billabong, and a few dozen other Aboriginal terms were being mouthed by the intruders from the far side of the world.

When those first ships landed near what would become the metropolis of Sydney, the sailors confronted a people who found them peculiar beyond belief. Instead of using bark canoes, the oddly colored newcomers rode enormous vessels on which flat plant material seemed to hang between trees. Instead of carrying wooden spears, the newcomers had long sticks, as hard as stone, that could produce a terrifying noise. Instead of walking naked, they wore bright disguises, even on top of their heads. They also hid their manhood. Were they men at all? The bravest among the Iora began to poke at British breeches, hoping to find out. Finally an embarrassed lieutenant ordered one of his men to extricate his penis and display it to the people who had gathered on the beach. When the sailor complied, the people ‘made a great shout of admiration.’ So the British version goes.

The Aboriginal people, it seems safe to say, were struck by what the British possessed. The British were struck by what the Aboriginals lacked. They had no clothes. They had no farms of domestic animals. They used no pottery. They had no permanent houses, no settled communities, no means of preserving food. They appeared to have no religion of any kind. And of course they had no guns; this was convenient, though hardly surprising. Their land was ripe for the taking. Without obvious possessions, they were ready to be dispossessed.

What the Aborigines did have, though, were languages. Estimates of their number have gone as high as six hundred; seems the best current guess. Some of these languages were spoken by fewer than a thousand people. But each of them embodied an elaborate network of rules and laws. In many cases the intricacy of kinship systems matched the intricacy of grammar, so that even within a small society, an individual could not speak to some people at all and could address others only by using a special vocabulary. The Yolngu speakers of Arnhem Land, in the far north, lived by the Madayin—a concept that embraces codes, protections, controls, song cycles, trading highways, sacred sites, and much else. The Yolngu carried their laws and their religion in their minds. This does not mean their laws and religion were simple matters. Before the invention of alphabets and printing presses, human beings on every continent were capable of feats of memory that most people today find incomprehensible (the Iliad and the Odyssey, remember, were composed by illiterates). Each fully initiated Yolngu, intimate with the Madayin, possessed a library of unwritten knowledge.

No matter what language they spoke, the Aboriginal peoples had a high degree of social organization and a resolute attachment to a particular stretch of land. The land had been given to them, so they believed, by ancestral beings in the Dreamtime: the dawn of consciousness. The Dreamtime beings often lived in animal form—emus, frogs, opossums, and so on—but they performed recognizable human tasks like camping and fishing, making love and making war. Having arisen from a featureless land, they moved over it, creating its qualities as they went: a creek here, a rock formation there. Before they left the world, they bequeathed to its people the systems of clan and totem, the tools and weapons that would make up the fabric of Aboriginal life. They also bequeathed language: theirs were the words that came before all else, each name a living gift from the ancient past. Australia was not a new world, as Captain Cook imagined; it was an immensely old one.

The stories of the Dreaming cross physical and linguistic boundaries. A tale one clan begins to tell beside a seashore, another clan may finish far inland in a different language. The stories name and explain the landscape, so that patterns of wording and patterns of earth are inextricably linked. But the Dreamtime is not just something that happened once, long ago. It exists in a realm beyond ordinary time. Its beings defined the world. Perhaps they will appear again.

The good nature of the earliest encounters between Aborigines and whites did not last. Very soon it became clear to the indigenous Australians that these firearmed invaders had no intention of leaving. But the Aborigines made little effort to flee the guns, as some indigenous peoples did in the Americas. In Australia they stood their ground. If they tried to escape, they would have to enter someone else’s land without permission. They would be abandoning their own – the land that gave their lives meaning, expressed in words that had come down to them from the Dreaming.

Generations after the first shock of contact, much of the land has been transformed beyond recognition, and many of its words have been erased. Guugu Yimidhirr, the source of ‘kangaroo,’ may still have a dozen or two speakers. But the languages that first told of koalas and kookaburras are no more. Indeed most of the languages belonging to land now, occupied by Australia’s major cities-Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Canberra – have not been heard for decades. The latest edition of Ethnologue, a directory of the world’s languages, lists 417 as “nearly extinct.” Of these, 138 are in Australia: a third of the total. …

On every inhabited continent, languages keep falling silent. New replacements are rare. Linguists believe that about six thousand languages still flow into human ears: the exact total is a matter of debate. By some estimates, a maximum of three thousand are likely to be heard at the century’s end, and fewer than six hundred of those appear secure. Within our children’s lifetimes, thousands of human languages seem fated to dwindle away.

They are vanishing under similar pressures. A few languages of high prestige—English is a prime but not sole example—dominate the media and the marketplace, school systems and bureaucracies. Almost anywhere you care to go … young people are absorbing the same music and watching the same movies, most of them from Hollywood. Local cultures, less forceful, less alluring, are swept aside. At the same time, economic patterns of migration and displacement mean that fewer and fewer small languages still have a vibrant local base, a spoken homeland they can call their own. Cities provide new opportunities; they also blur and erase old identities. A minority language can quickly come to seem a hobby for the old—a quaint refuge from ambition, knowledge, progress. A minority language always depends on popular will. It dies as its voices fade in the midst of PalmPilots, cell phones, and Walkmans. It dies as its remaining speakers find they have less and less to talk about.

The price of that loss is beyond estimation. We have grown used to giving cultural artifacts a dollar figure: so many thousand for a Yeats manuscript, so many millions for a Ming porcelain. But a language is more than any artifact. You can’t slap a price tag on a language, no matter how small and obscure, any more than you can pin down the financial value of an ivory-billed woodpecker or a bill of rights.

… [In] the twenty-first century, more and more of us are aspiring to the freedom of a fluid identity-if we are equating modernity with mobility-then that freedom may be hard to reconcile with the demands of a traditional language. …[It] should be clear by now, is part of a worldwide battle to prevent language annihilation. But even this larger battle – I ask forgiveness for the metaphor-may be part of a wider war, perhaps the central one of our time: the fight to sustain diversity on a planet where globalizing, assimilating, and eradicating occur on a massive scale. As the eminent sociolinguist Joshua Fishman once observed, a question facing minority cultures is also an issue for everyone living in the contemporary age: ‘how one can build a home that one can still call one’s own and, by cultivating it, find community, comfort, companionship and meaning in a world whose mainstreams are increasingly unable to provide the basic ingredients for their own members?’ Home is a place where knowledge resonates with meaning. Home is where the tongue is – or was.

… I have proposed various analogies to the condition of threatened tongues: locally run stores, confronted by a Wal-Mart invasion; small nations, bordered by aggressive neighbors; rare species of animals and plants, their living space depleted or overrun by intruders. The biological analogy may be the most pertinent – ‘linguistic ecology’ is now a recognized field of study, not just a figure of speech. What dialects are to languages, subspecies are to species. Chain saws and invaders menace them indiscriminately. Yet in the end, all these parallels are imperfect.

[Each unique language permits us] … to articulate a vision of the world, a vision that shapes us even as we shape it. To express what is common to all of us, along with what is different for many of us. Only by noticing the differences can we fully grasp the commonalities. Otherwise, we are restricted to the path of thinking and imagining that a single language lays down. …

What the survival of threatened languages means, perhaps, is the endurance of dozens, hundreds, thousands of subtly different notions of the truth. With our astonishing powers of technology, it’s easy for us in the West to believe we have all the answers. Perhaps we do—to the questions we have asked. But what if some questions elude our capacity to ask? What if certain ideas cannot be fully articulated in our words? ‘There are amazing things about Aboriginal languages,’ Michael Christie told me when I visited his office at Northern Territory University in Darwin. ‘Their concepts of time and agency, for example. They go right against our ideology of linear time—past, present, and future. I reckon they’d completely revolutionize Western philosophy, if only we knew more about them.’

Western linguists tend to analyze any language as though it were a machine functioning in response to precise commands. Yet machines are only one model for understanding language. In a trenchant, subversive essay entitled ‘Yolngu Linguistics,’ Michael suggested that ‘language abides in the structures of what we have learnt to be real.’


Abley, Mark. Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. London: William Heinemann, 2003, pp. 13-16. 4, 273-274, 277. || Amazon || Worldcat


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