Language at risk of disappearing

Taelor PeluseyBusselton Dunsborough Times
Wadandi-Pibulmun cultural custodians Zac and Wayne Webb.
Camera IconWadandi-Pibulmun cultural custodians Zac and Wayne Webb. Credit: Busselton-Dunsborough Times

“It’s hanging by a thread, ready to snap, but it might hang on just a little bit longer ... because of him.”

Wadandi-Pibulmun cultural custodian Wayne Webb is referring to his son Zac, who has the weight of thousands of years of culture on his shoulders.

The duo are the last speakers of their language, or more accurately, the two dialects native to the Wadandi (saltwater people), who form one of 14 Aboriginal groups within what European settlers dubbed the Noongar nation — a region spanning from Jurien Bay to the north, south through the Capes region and east to Israelite Bay.

Yes, they concede, it’s a lot to take in.

At just 34, Zac is already a wealth of knowledge on his people’s culture, having learned from his family, who have lived continuously on Wadandi Boodja (country) for generations.

But if he isn’t able to pass on that knowledge, the buck stops with him.

Noting the threat Aboriginal languages were under, the Government made a concerted effort in the mid-1990s to introduce “Noongar” into the school curriculum, and some people are still learning it today.

But despite good intentions, Wayne and Zac say it was always going to be problematic because there is no true uniform Noongar language.

Wayne said it posed a problem for people wanting to and thinking they were communicating in the native tongue.

“A little bloke came up to me the other day, he was only about four or five, and he started talking to me, and I asked, ‘what are you talking?’, and his mum said, ‘he’s talking Noongar language’,” he said.

“And what can you do?

“So I told him in my language how to say it.”

Confusion about languages has stemmed from the beginning of European settlement, when Governor Stirling asked a man who his people were.

Not understanding the question, the Wadjuk man said he was Noongar (a man) and the practice of referring to South West Aboriginal people as Noongar has stuck.

Zac said another was when a settler asked what a kangaroo was. The Aboriginal man responded with the word kangaroo, which translates to: “I don’t know what you mean.”

While seemingly harmless, Zac said the act of adopting non-traditional words contributed to the degradation of traditional dialects, which were often mutually intelligible, but highly nuanced.

For example, Zac said “up”, “ing” and “in” all meant “place of” in different dialects and were used in different areas of the South West, denoting where the speaker came from and the place they were referring to.

“Language is so tied to personal identity and it’s eroding away,” he said.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to the Wadandi.

Most Aboriginal languages and their dialects are at risk of extinction, and many indigenous languages around the world are under threat.

The UN has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages after concluding that of the estimated 6700 languages spoken around the world, about 40 per cent are in danger of disappearing.

Zac said it would be a massive blow to see dialects die, and an overhaul of the way Noongar language was taught could be a way of preventing it.

“Teachers in different areas could keep teaching it ... but with each word, they could teach the dialect from the area they’re in as well,” he said.

They acknowledge it would be a big task to get the appropriate training and resources, but it would be crucial to sustaining Aboriginals’ sense of place and a connection to country that has spanned 40,000-80,000 years.

“We’ve lived on this country continuously. We’ve never left,” Wayne said.

“We know how the rivers work, where they come from, what the places are and what they mean ... but that might all be gone.

“Because they say if you lose your language, you lose your culture.”

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