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Rekindling the Kaurna language

Posted by on 02/05/2019

(Transcript from SBS World News)

From the brink of extinction, a South Australian Aboriginal language is rising phoenix-like into modern times.


The ancient Kaurna language of the Adelaide plains is being revived and reinvented – and in the process is being given a new lease of life in South Australia.

Karen Ashford has the story.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

“Kaurna Wodla Pinjundi actually means to create, to produce Kaurna language”

Professor Rob Amery is a linguist at Adelaide University, and rekindling the Kaurna language of the Adelaide region is his passion.

“If this language is going to live again, then we need the kind of words and expressions that parents and grandmothers and grandfathers can use with babies and young children.”

Not long ago Kaurna was an endangered language – few, if any, original speakers remained, and as an oral tradition there were few records.

That is, until researchers stumbled across translations by German missionaries going back more than a century.

Professor Amery says it’s enabled new words to be created from remnants of the old language.

“If we’re going to speak Kaurna in the 21st century then obviously we need words to deal with some of today’s technologies. So we’ve got muka karndo, the lightning brain for computer, waratyatti, the voice sending thing for telephone, turraityatti, the picture sending thing for television.”

For Kaurna elder Stephen Gadlarbardi Goldsmith, the opportunity to reclaim the language of his ancestors has deepened his appreciation of his cultural heritage.

“People ask me can you speak your language? Can you throw a boomerang? And I always felt it caused a lot of anxiety and frustrations, but now that I can speak, beginning to speak my language I’ve learned a couple of cultural activities as well. So when I’m asked today I have a different attitude – it’s not that frustration and anger, it’s a pride, that yes I can speak a bit of my language, and yes, I can do this, I can light a fire with fire sticks, I can do this.”

He’s been inspired to develop a learning tool for those at the other end of the age spectrum.

A possum, a koala and their cheeky magpie mate are bringing Kaurna to young ears.

“I guess this program is not only aimed at the kids but also young parent so we’re hoping the young parents will be sitting with their young children while they’re doing it so the young kids will learn it but also the young parents will learn it so it’s a two way thing.”

Video producer Paul Waku Findlay, says it’s a colourful and entertaining introduction to the language.

“We don’t expect them to learn Kaurna from a few clips on YouTube, it’s more about letting people know that the language is there, it’s useable and it’s useable by the Kaurna community as well as the broader public.”

Professor Rob Amery says the video is already being picked up by schools, where Kaurna language resources are in demand.

“Many, many schools around the Adelaide plains are wanting to teach a Kaurna language program and at the moment we can’t supply the teachers. There’s so much more need out there, we really can’t address that at the moment, and we’ve really got to work on training and development of those language teachers. “

Jack Kanya Buckskin is one of just three Kaurna language teachers in South Australia.

Standing in front of a massive whiteboard filled with Kaurna phrases, he’s explaining to the students how to pronounce the written word.

“But this is the number one thing, because if you come across a word you don’t know you can sound it out – by the way it’s written down you know exactly how to say it as long as you’re sticking to the sound chart.”

Professor Amery says the logical structure of the Kaurna language and the speed with which it is being reclaimed is a promising sign for its survival.

“My expectations have been far exceeded, now we have three young Kaurna men who are able to conduct a conversation in Kaurna, we have Jack Gunya Buckskin bringing up his children speaking Kaurna, and maybe, maybe we’ll find a Kaurna novel some time.

Kaurna people say the revitalisation of their language is strengthening their connection to culture.

Retired school principal Alitja Rigney has returned to the classroom – but this time, as a student.

She’s learning how to deliver “welcome to country” greetings in the Kaurna language.

And it’s an experience that has filled her with delight.

“You do feel elated, that’s what we were just saying, that you know, you go and you hear it for the first time and you think oh no, and then you get used to it and it is go-go juice, yeah you feel elated when you’ve been in it for a while.”




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