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Raising an Aboriginal language from the dead

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 15 September 2008

Much has been written about the need for ecological diversity to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Yet in Adelaide, in the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages, an equally profound revolution is taking place which has linguists all over the world talking - the resurrection of a dead Aboriginal language.

Ninna marni? Are you good? Marniai. I’m good. Wanti ninna? Where are you going? Wodlianna. Going home.

That’s Kaurna (pronounced garma) the language of the original inhabitants of the Adelaide Plain, the Kaurna People. It was effectively dead by 1860. It suffered the fate of many Aboriginal people: dispersal, disease, in-fighting and assimilation. English buried their tongue.


The Kaurna people lived to the rhythm of the seasonal changes. They lived on the coast in summer months, living off berries and sea life, including turtles. In the colder months they moved to the foothills, which had better shelter and firewood.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, linguists estimate that there were more than 250 Aboriginal languages. Today no more than 25 Aboriginal languages are spoken daily.

Enshrined in a language is the whole of a community’s history and a large part of its cultural identity. We think in language. It is the code through which we make sense of the world. It makes us self-aware. All of our art, culture and scientific discoveries come to us through language.

The only record of the Kaurna language was a tiny dictionary and some song sheets compiled in 1840 by Kaurna Elders and two German missionaries, Clamor Schurmann and Christian Teichelmann, who ran a school for Aboriginal children in Adelaide.

Schurmann and Teichelmann were not cane wielding Bible bashers who sought to eradicate the local language. They were Christian linguists who meticulously recorded the Kaura language knowing that it faced extinction. They saved more than they knew.

The dictionary lay buried in an Adelaide library until it was unearthed in 1960.


And there it might have stayed until in the early 1990s, Dr Rob Amery, a linguist, and member of the Kaurna community, decided to “rebuild” the language and teach it to school children and adults.

This was an epic undertaking. Amery and the Kaurna community had been left a smattering of words but constructing the grammar was another matter.

“Back in 1990 Teichelmann’s dictionary was pretty much all we had of the Kaurna language. There were other materials around but they had not been produced or collated. Some were not reliable and didn’t tell us much about the grammar,” Dr Amery says.

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First published in The Age on September 6, 2008.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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