Peter's Blog

Barngarla Language Book

Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (15:59): Today, I want to talk about a significant and exciting event I attended in Port Lincoln on 25 May: the launch of the Barngarla alphabet and picture book, entitled Barngarlidhi Manoo: Speaking Barngarla Together.

The traditional people of Eyre Peninsula are the Barngarla. The language map produced by Wilhelm Schmidt in 1914 clearly shows that the Barngarla language was spoken in the Port Lincoln, Whyalla and Port Augusta areas and the townships around them. Pastor Schurmann recorded the Barngarla language, starting in the 1840s, when he was assigned by the government to Port Lincoln to engage with and convert the original inhabitants to make relationships more amicable with the authorities.

He also opened a native school located just outside Port Lincoln, which only Barngarla people attended. Aside from recording much of the language of the local people, Pastor Schürmann established a mission known as the Poonindie Mission and, although it is now defunct, the Poonindie Mission has been the recipient of a government grant to reinstate some of the heritage buildings, so that is a good result.

Pastor Schürmann published a vocabulary of the Barngarla language 170 years ago, and that work provided the foundation for what is now the Barngarla language book. The Barngarla language has been dormant for a long time, and the last Barngarla person recorded speaking it fluently was a senior elder named Moonie Davis back in the 1960s. He was also the last known Barngarla person to sing a special song in the Barngarla language that would call the sharks and dolphins to chase the fish into the shallows to the waiting Barngarla people on the shoreline.

Like many Aboriginal languages around this great continent, the language was eroded and became dormant, but awakening the Barngarla language means different things to different people. To some, it means reconnecting to your country and ancestors; to others, it means developing a sense of pride in self and identity or strengthening what you already know in your heart. To others, still, it gives a sense of belonging to family, community and country. One thing is for certain: the Barngarla people of Eyre Peninsula are wholeheartedly embracing the awakening of the ancient language of their ancestors, and this can only be positive.

The Barngarla community strives to continue to reclaim its ancient language and hopes that the publication of the alphabet book and other educational resources—an app was launched two or three years ago, which is available for those researching online and is currently free and available to all—will lead to more members of the Barngarla community embedding the language into their daily lives and developing fluent speakers within the younger generations.

A committee known as the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee was founded some years ago. It currently consists of four people, and they are very much to be congratulated, and most were in attendance the other day. Stephen Atkinson is the chairperson, and the committee members are Emma Richards, Harold Dare and Jenna Richards. Since 2012, the committee has consistently worked with the revivalist-linguist Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann is Israeli by birth and resident at Flinders University here in Adelaide. He speaks 12 languages and also has a doctorate from both Oxford and Cambridge, so we are very fortunate here in South Australia to have such a talented, gifted and generous man. I have met Ghil’ad on a number of occasions. Certainly, the launch of the book the other day was a very exciting time for him; many contributed, but ultimately it was Professor Zuckermann who was able to pull it together.

The role of the committee was to provide advice to Ghil’ad and other guests on how to engage with the Barngarla community respectfully and to ensure that the ancient language of the Barngarla ancestors remains with the community as a whole. It was a very exciting time, and I congratulate all those who have done work on this. Without the original work of Pastor Schürmann in the 1840s and without the consistent work of the local Barngarla community and also Professor Zuckermann, this would not have been possible. On page 2 of the book is a quote by Nelson Mandela that I am going to contribute today. He said:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.