Book review, printed in Sami newspaper Min Áigi 29th of December 2000 - translation to English by the author.
Dát artihkkal sámegillii (This article in original, Sami language)
Australia: The language is not dead - it has been sleeping
Have you heard about a people and a language named Kaurna? Surely ninetymany percent of readers of Min Áigi have not. Neither had I before I a month ago got a book named "Warrabarna Kaurna - reclaiming an Australian Language". In Sami language this would be appoximately "Huma kaurnagiela - ealáskahttit australiala giela".
Kaurna is one of the several hundreds of peoples who lived in Australia before the Englishmen came 200 years ago and colonized their country. In the 1820s came colonists and missionaries to the land of the Kaurna people. 30-40 years after colonists told about the Kaurna people that "this tribe has ceased to exist". Many Kaurnas had died from illnesses brought by the colonists. Others were thrown away from their lands, they were spread and mixed with other indigenous peoples and with colonists. English became their daily language, and the Kaurna language was no longer passed on to the coming generations. But still there lived people who knew that they belonged to the Kaurna people and in the 1980s they gathered and asked: Where did our language disappear?
Together with colonists came missionaries and among them were people who bothered about the languages of the aboriginal peoples. Some German missionaries made a word list and a grammar of the Kaurna language and they started a school where the Kaurna children were taught in their own language. But it did not last many years before the English governor prohibited all education in aboriginal languages. It should only be taught through English. All the original sources about the Kaurna language are written between 1827 and 1857. The last person who was able to speak the Kaurna language died in 1929, and nothing is documented on tape.
Our language is not dead, said the Kaurnas. It has only been sleeping and we are going to wake it up. Around ten years they have been researching the old writings, learnt, taught and developed the language. Children have learnt the language at school, they are singing in Kaurna and Kaurna language has got a kind of official acceptance. Old placenames have come into use again, many associations and institutions have got Kaurna names. Nobody has yet Kaurna as first language, but they have a hope that soon there will grow children who will learn Kaurna from birth.
The one who has written the book about the Kaurna language and its revival, does not himself belong to the Kaurna people, neither to any other aboriginal people. His name is Rob Amery and he is a linguist who has taken part in the whole process of researching and developing the Kaurna language. He has researched the grammar and structure of the language and worked together with Kaurna elders when they had to create new words which could explain the world of today. Amery explain the research and revival processes very well, especially which problems there are when they often don't know for sure exactly how the language has been. He also explain well his own role, what he as a outsider linguist can do and what he should not do. His main thought is that the people owns its language and therefore this people has to decide.
Does such a book have anything to tell to us in the other end of the world? In my opinion it has a lot to tell. It tells how important language is for the identity and culture of a people, that a indigenous people can't survive if they don't have any other language than the language of the colonists. The book shows that a lot of things we might consider impossible, anyhow can be possible , if the people have enough courage.
Nobody spoke any longer Kaurna when the revival started. In Australia the aboriginal peoples are struggling to save the around 50 languages which still are spoken. In our end of the world there are also many languages disappearing, like Ume Sami, Pite Sami, Akkil Sami, Ter Sami and Romani. East Sami, Enare Sami, Kildin Sami, Kven/Torne Valley Finnish, Lule Sami and South Sami have very few young language users. Within North Sami area many dialects are disappearing. If every language and dialect group had had a such eager group as the Kaurna people has and such a eager linguist like Rob Amery, then future would have been a little brighter. But a good start would be if people who bother about the sami language and other minority languages read this book and then ask: What we have to do?
The book is a part of the book series "Multilingualism and Linguistic Diversity", which is edited by.the famous bilingualism researcher Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. The book may not yet be for sale in bookshops in Sápmi, but you may book it from the publishing house: Swets & Zeitlinger, P.O.Box 825, NL-2160 SZ Lisse, Nederland, ordersswets.nl. Unfortunately the book only exists in English, but it has quite easy language, and if you master ordinary school English, then you will manage with it.
More articles about indigenous peoples and Sami affairs