Monday, April 28, 2008

A very brief history of written Noongar

Words tend to congeal, like blood from a wound, out of the flow of possibilities and spellings. The Noongar language is still flowing across the page redolent with potential, like the earth after the rain.

Tonight I counted 13 different word lists that had been written over the last 200 years recording the southern Noongar dialect as it has been spoken around King Georges Sound since 1801. At a guess, there would be another 30 or more word lists for the whole of the south west during this period of colonization. Now Noongar people themselves are beginning to write the language in their own way, scratching the itch making the blood flow again.

Consider by way of contrast the languages of the Western Desert, these languages have been ‘saved’ partly by linguists writing them down and providing a phonetically based script. Well, at least that’s the linguist’s justification, the actual saving was done by the speakers speaking and the learners learning. What the script and consequent dictionaries and grammars have provided has been a way of competing in the classroom with English. But even this argument is flawed - the descriptive tools of linguists have become the prescriptive tools of the classroom. The clotted words have colonized the poetics of recitative.

Collett Barker, in 1830, wrote about Noongar visitors arriving at King Georges Sound “when they have something important to say they say it in a sort of recitative”, Nind referred to “a chant”. The traditional language was sung as much as it was spoken. When I read this sort of thing, I feel that we have missed out on a high culture where everyday conversation was an art form that would leave the salons of Europe for dead.

Something else happened instead. Unlike the precise dictionaries of the Western desert, Noongar was written down by ordinary people trying to communicate what they thought they heard around them. As a result many Noongar words have solidified into spellings that (in much the same way as English) do not map the pronunciation but are purely symbolic. Thus balga, Palgarup, refer to the grass tree and to a place where grass trees grow; quenda, rather than kwenda is used for bandicoot. In linguistics both sets of words Noongar and Western Desert are considered technically symbolic but clearly the former is more arbitrary than the latter.

The form is also political. The academic spelling was for years, Nyungar, but this was challenged by Noongar people themselves in the 1980’s and so by 1992, the first dictionary produced by the speakers themselves was the Noongar Dictionary. Many Noongar people speak bitterly of being unable to speak their language as children and young people. They risked arrest, one lady I know recalled being put off the school bus for saying something in language. Another spoke of the aura of fear and criminality that surrounded the old people who lived on the edge of the Gnowangerup reserve.“We were too scared to talk to them”. An unfortunate legacy of Daisy Bates was her appellation of Bibbulmun to the people of the south west. Writers like Jack Davis derided this mistaken metonymy. During the 1960’s and 70’s there was a slow and painful process of reclaiming their own name in official and educational publications, of fighting the studied ignorance of racism.

Many people objected to the 1992 Dictionary, especially on the south coast. “That’s not our talk”. The complexities of the dialects were not acknowledged, not through any sense of superiority but more from a lack of time and money. So today a new phenomenon is beginning to occur. As people write stories, signs, lists and posters they are making their own spellings, revising those found in other dictionaries. Two books featured here recently spelt kangaroo, yongker and yongka. In Perth I’ve seen other examples of this fluidity (although I’ve been remiss in recording them). It’s as if each family wants it’s own way of doing things and it’s also a form of resistance. As Luce Irigary wrote… “fluid movements that permeate and resist, but are irreducible to the phallocentric[read colonial] structures of representation”.
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