[Editor: This article about the languages of the Australian Aborigines, by P. I. O’Leary, was published in The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 11 August 1938.]
The real Australian tongue
Too true it is, alas, that the Australian Aborigines are becoming fewer and fewer. Will they, like the Tasmanian Aborigines, become extinct? Late, perhaps too late, we are awakening to our neglect of them. And — tragic commentary — now that they seem to be disappearing, world-wide interest in ethnological and lingual aspects of Aboriginal life, lore, customs, thought processes, beliefs and dialects progressively quickens. In this article some aspects of Aboriginal linguistics are discussed, and the work of two Catholic priest-scientists, Dr. Worms, P.S.M., and Dr. Nekes, P.S.M., briefly referred to.
When Keats, in a magic line, wrote that, in his day, great spirits were sojourning in the world unknown to it, he conveyed a sense of the world’s ignorance of or indifference to illustrious souls and rare minds whose faculties and achievements form no part of what Francis Thompson calls its “loud bruit.” The Matt. Talbots living are not recognised for what they are. Many writers and painters and makers of other forms of enduring artistic beauty have fame associated with their names only after they are dead. And other men and women, great by reason of sacrifice or discovery or action, vision and creativeness, close their eyes on a world which, knowing them not on their death-day, acclaims them on its morrow.
The things men set their hearts upon are not, usually, things of the spirit; of the search for truth by philosopher or scientist. A leading jockey is regarded as a sort of national figure when, say, the poet is neglected. For, for all his wings, Pegasus is popularly accounted of much less repute than Phar Lap.
An outstanding cricketer becomes not merely a national figure, but an international one; his bat more potent than a king’s sceptre or a rod that sways an empire — not to speak of so incommensurate a thing as a bishop’s crozier.
The face of a mime, shown multi-form through a cinema projector, is immeasurably more famous and familiar than Attic Helen’s, which Marlowe, in a statement needing abatement, said “launched a thousand ships.” For modern Hollywood out-popularises ancient Greece. (And let me confess that I am one of its devotees; as I am a close follower of form alike in one William Elliot and one Donald George Bradman.)
OUGHT TO BE PROUD OF THEM!
In Melbourne, at the present time, are two scientists with world reputations. Both are priests, and both are German-born. They are anthropologists, and both members of the Fathers of the Pious Missions — the Pallottine Fathers. One is the Very Rev. Ernest Worms, P.S.M., Rector of the Pallottine Missionary College, Kew. The other is a fellow-scientist, Rev. Dr. Herman Nekes, P.S.M., who has just come to Melbourne from the Kimberleys.
These men have devoted their great talents, learning, industry, and understanding sympathy to the Australian Aborigines. Their first and ceaseless duty and absorption is to bring their darker-skinned brothers of tribe and totem to the Faith. To do this they unwearingly seek to study, learn and elucidate the history, customs, mind-processes, culture and languages of these most genuine of Australians.
Dr. Worms has lectured several times in Melbourne before both scientific and popular audiences. He has made a deep impression. But, as in the case of that of Dr. Nekes, his anthropological and ethnological work and his linguistic studies are known largely only to scientists. I think the whites in the Commonwealth ought to know much more of what they, and other students and investigators, have done, and are doing, towards an understanding, instructed, sympathetic and imaginative, of the aborigine.
Catholics especially, it seems to me, have something of a duty to make themselves acquainted with at least a general idea of what these two Catholic missionary scientists from another land are accomplishing in a field which has rather shamefully been neglected by all but relatively few Australian scientists.
We ought to be proud of Fr. Worms and Dr. Nekes — and others like them.
NOTHING TO LAUGH AT
Although I have all too little instructed knowledge of the difficult subject, I am interestedly drawn to studies in the languages, dialects and other verbal usages of our Aborigines, and I was delighted to read in the report of an interview of Fr. Nekes and a “Herald” reporter that that scientist drew a somewhat unflattering comparison on the subject of grammar between members of certain tribes in North-West Australia and the average man in the street. He humorously doubted whether or not these Westralian tribesmen, whom he has questioned long and successfully, had not the better of it. I am inclined to agree with him.
In expressing this doubt, Dr. Nekes, as the thoughtful reader will realise, exposed the hollowness of a certain superiority complex the white has with regard to the black.
We think, when we think at all about the matter, that his pidgin-English or picaninny-English is rather laughable, if not absurd. Under a cartoon by Minns, or one in “Smith’s Weekly,” depicting an aboriginal in a humorous situation, a specimen of it gives us capital entertainment. Perhaps there is no harm in this.
But I wonder do we ever think that much of what we might say to “Jacky” — as we, with “civilised” patronage, call him — may sound equally laughable and absurd? And if he makes fun of us in his own way — and the aborigine is a mimic and comedian of talents doubly native — he is only doing what we do to him, and what Shakespeare did to the Welsh and the French.
Moreover, he whom we call the “educated” black can, very often, speak English with a fluency and a pleasingness of accent that many so-called “educated Australians” might well envy — a fact that has tellingly presented itself in newspaper reports of the tour in central and northern Australia of Federal Minister McEwen. However, it is not of “pidgin-talk,” but the Aborigines’ own speech, that I would here write a suggestive word or two — suggestive because I am not skilled in the linguistic or philological aspects of the Australian native, or of his customs and culture. Nevertheless, I am powerfully attracted by it.
I would like to possess, not so much the grounded, penetrating scientific knowledge of this subject possessed by Dr. Worms and Dr. Neke s— that were too ambitious — but something of the instructed interest of, say, my friend, Mr. James Devaney, of Brisbane, whose writings on Aborigine lore and legendry, is as important as it is fascinating.
THE PROPER STUDY
But, with all my want of precise knowledge, of this I am sure — Dr. A. P. Elkin, Professor of Anthropology in the University of Sydney, is right when he writes: “The language of the Aborigines is a vital part of their culture, and progress in the mastery of it depends on an increasing understanding of their social, economic and religious life.” It is precisely this fact that actuates such linguistic and anthropological investigations and studies as the two Catholic missionary scientists now in our midst have made and are making.
In “Studies in Australian Linguistics” (The “Oceania” Monographs, No. 3), Professor Elkin, writing on “The Nature of Australian Languages,” says: “There is a tendency to underestimate the wealth of vocabulary, the power of expression, and the variety of grammatical forms possessed by Australian Aboriginal languages. Men who have associated with the natives have frequently said that an Aboriginal language consists only of a few words.” Indeed, scientists who might be thought authorities on this subject have asserted that the Aborigines “were utterly unable to generalise and that they did not have any words for abstract notions”; that they “possessed an utter incapability of calculating and combining”; that one sought “in vain for abstract expressions from them,” and that “hand in hand with this undeveloped intellect goes an undeveloped but not absolutely ugly language.”
“A LIVING FUNCTIONING ELEMENT”
The fact is, as Professor Elkin points out, that those who made such judgments as these I have indicated by quotations, “like many others who generalise about the language and intellectual abilities of the Aborigines, had not entered into their life.” It is now known “that abstract and general terms are not altogether lacking” among the Aborigines. A deeper knowledge of their culture and language “shows that their apparent inability to translate literally our abstract terms, conjunctions, relative pronouns and various grammatical constructions expressing comparison, contrast and equality, does not imply an absence of these mental activities which we express in such ways.”
Language approached through a people’s culture is seen to be “not a tool used by the culture, but a living functioning element within it.” It is from the cultural contexts in which they occur that the meaning of words and their structural forms and combinations are to be apprehended. These contexts are made up of actions, presuppositions, beliefs and mutual understanding. “Moreover,” as we learn from Professor Elkin, “the grammatical presentation of the words is only part of the mechanism for conveying the meaning; there are also accent, intonation, and the general use of the voice, and, equally important, facial expression and bodily gesture.”
TALKING WITH THE FACE
To show how important is this matter of facial expression and movement, Dr. Nekes, in one of the studies in the monograph from which I quote, says that, in the Nyol-Nyol dialect: “When ny and ly are at the end of the word, the explosion of the closing mouth is repressed or swallowed, which at first mystifies Europeans. Picking off from the mouth of the native, he discerns no difference between mogon and mogony. Perhaps he thinks the difference exists in a different kind of vowel. Generally speaking, the reading from the mouth of Australian Aborigines is a skill that first has to be learned and to be practised. Rev. Aug. Spangenberg, P.S.M., who has been working among the Bad (a tribal name, pronounced ‘Bard’) at Lombadina (Kimberley Vicariate) for eight years, was my teacher in this difficult task. The tongues of the natives are much more movable than our tongues, moving upwards and downwards, forwards and backwards without interruption. It is necessary to look always at the mouth and to observe its position.”
BREVITY AND PRECISION
This resort by the Aborigine to other than purely verbal processes for conveying his meaning justifies Dr. Elkin in saying that the native does not only speak through the form of words and their grammatical construction and arrangements; he also uses tonal inflection, facial expression and bodily action, and, in addition, relies on the context. This makes for a characteristic of brevity. Associated with this are precision and concreteness. “The genius of the language is to give a complete and exact picture of a situation, if possible, in one word, or else in a very few words.” (It is a pity some of our novelists and other writers were not a good deal more aboriginal in this regard!)
“The Aborigine,” Professor Elkin observes, “is a very exact observer” — an example surely for press correspondents in Spain and elsewhere — and tends to use a special and unique word for each significant part or condition of an object, instead of employing a combination of general nouns, adjectives and prepositions, as we do in English, along with the generic name of the object.”
This seeking for precision and economy of expression is characteristic. The aim is always “to express the complete picture or exact shade of meaning in one word.” Some of these words are as long as some in Welsh or in German. For example, one tribe uses the “portmanteau” term bumadyillibenagadhu, which means “I shall beat myself all day,” or literally, “beat self all day shall.”
There are other examples. The Groote Eylandt word for harpoon is Amumgualyumpa, which is, morphologically, a compound of amum from amumore, the fingers; gual from agualya, flesh; and yumpa from ininyumpa, to dive. It means literally “fingers-flesh-dive.” This is an accurate description of what occurs.
Other words are metaphorical, and their origin imaginative and even poetical. For example, in the Adelaide language karndoworti, scorpion, is made up the karndo, lightning, and worti, tail. Warrapadnitti, windpipe, means literally, words walk.
FR. WORMS’ STUDIES
Fr. Worms, in an article on “Onomatopœia in Some Kimberley Tribes of North-Western Australia,” speaks of “the skill of the natives” in this respect and says that “an observer of bush life will soon identify the shrill call of the coloured ‘blue mountains,’ the cooing of the wild doves, the melodious drumming of the bush-pheasant, and the various chirping by the corresponding words the Aborigines gave them.”
Here is a realistic matching of sound and sense in which the dark-skinned tribesman of the Kimberleys is one with Tennyson and Schiller.
I have, of course, here but touched, and not even skimmed, this subject — one of deep interest and importance, for it is intervolved with that of the welfare of the Aborigines themselves. For the culture and the language of a people go together, as the Gaelic League insists.
Let Dr. Elkin have the last word: “… Language is an aspect of a people’s life. It is the people doing something, in fact living, and it can no more be studied in isolation than any of the other aspects. They are all intertwined and enrich, modify and explain each other. Man must eat, associate with others, and deal with the unseen just as much as he must talk. Ultimately, he cannot do any one of these without at the same time doing the others. Thus, apart from the consideration of word forms and phonetic structure, the knowledge of a language grows with the knowledge of a culture and vice versa.”
— P. I. O’L.
The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 11 August 1938, p. 11
The comment about “press correspondents in Spain” was made in the context of the Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939), which was occurring when this article was published.
Attic = the region around the Greek city of Athens (believed to derive from the Latin “Atticus”, meaning “of Athens”, from the Greek “Attikos”); of, or relating to, the Athenian civilisation, culture, and/or people (including architecture, literature, etc.); regarding a quality considered to be characteristic of the Athenians (e.g. classically elegant, refined; pure, restrained, or simple in style); of, or relating to, the Athenian dialect or language
Herald = in the context of Sydney (New South Wales): The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper
Jacky = (also spelt “Jackie”) an Aboriginal man
Pallottine Father = a priest of the Pious Society of Missions, a Catholic organisation founded in 1835 by Vincent Mary Pallotti
portmanteau = a large suitcase that opens into two compartments (abbreviated as “port”); from the French “porter”, to carry, and “manteau”, cloak or coat (can also refer to the combining of several items or qualities, especially to the combining of two existing words to form a new word)
P.S.M. = the Pious Society of Missions, a Catholic organisation founded in 1835 by Vincent Mary Pallotti, which seeks to preserve the Catholic faith among Catholics (especially among migrants), and to propagate the Catholic faith among non-Catholics and non-Christians; the priests of the PSM are known as Pallottini Fathers
Westralian = of, or relating to, Western Australia; a resident of Western Australia; someone from Western Australia
[Editor: Changed “Aborinines’ own speech” to “Aborigines’ own speech”.]