Years ago, studying for a languages degree, I found I preferred the dead or semi-dead ones. Old Norse or Middle Welsh, a bit of Latin or ancient Greek: I liked being able to pin down a corpus, dissect a grammar, knowing (very much in theory) that it could be mastered. French and Russian were more chaotic, elusive. Alive.
I thought of this when Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, of the University of Adelaide, told me about his work in reviving Indigenous languages.
“What do you prefer?” he asked. “Do you prefer a beautiful clean butterfly which is hanging on the wall, or an injured dirty butterfly which is alive and kicking?”
For him, and for the many Indigenous Australians involved in language reclamation projects, it’s a no-brainer.
Revived languages are messy, hybrid – and vital. Over the past decade Zuckermann has used the dictionary and grammar compiled by a 19th-century Lutheran missionary to help the Barngarla people of the Eyre Peninsula, SA, reclaim their language, lost 50 years ago. Barngarla today is not the same as it once was; but it’s once again a living language.
And a living language brings life. The United Nations classifies linguicide – the deliberate killing of a language, a policy actively pursued here over the last 200 years – as a form of genocide. People who lose their language lose their culture and, often, their sense of wellbeing. Equally, language revival brings empowerment, happiness, and better mental and physical health.
Charmaine Councillor, a Bible translator involved in revitalising the Noongar language in southwestern WA, told me that an Aboriginal language that is no longer spoken is said to have “gone to sleep on country”. I love those pinned butterflies I’ve had the privilege of studying; but the beauty of a sleeping language is that it can be reawakened.