For almost seven years I worked with hundreds of Indigenous community language activists, some professionally trained in languages, most not, who were working day and night to bring their languages back into everyday use. If they stumbled across a single missing word – in some library archive or vanished book – the excitement was palpable.
'If the language activists taught me one thing it was that underneath the surface language was everywhere and in everything'
It was like finding a long-lost relative. Words for sister, brother, mother, father, long thought lost, suddenly leapt out at them. Ironically, often it was the missionaries, most interested in streaming a message about their religion from English who codified and recorded the local languages and, as a result, laid an unwitting basis for this later work.
|Big Talk One Fire Festival, Cairns 2013 - 'there were 250 languages in Queensland alone'|
The process these languages activists are trying to reverse – the decrease in the use of the Australia’s own languages over many generations – did not happen spontaneously. As Australia was progressively settled it was common practice to discourage or actively suppress people’s use of their ancestral languages.
If the language activists taught me one thing it was that underneath the surface language was everywhere and in everything.