Australia's Original Languages by R.M.W. Dixon

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Reviewed by E.B. Heath

Professor Dixon is clearly a mild mannered man, but everyone has a breaking point, and his can be faintly detected in the first chapter of his latest book. 

In Australia’s Original Languages: An Introduction Dixon is at pains to refute, for all time, any ideas that Australian Indigenous languages are impoverished in comparison with European languages.  Often referred to in a derogatory way as ‘dialects’, they are, in fact, distinct complex languages.  When the Europeans arrived there were 250 separate languages used by the Indigenous nations across Australia. The impact of British settlement is woven into the text as Dixon discusses the mechanics of Australian languages and cultures.  Drawing comparisons with European equivalents he discusses kinship ties and modes of behaviour, gender systems, naming conventions, even poetry.  In this the reader is given a brief introduction to linguistic theory.

Dixon is a Professor of Linguistics at James Cook University, (JCU) Queensland.  He is also Deputy Director of The Language and Culture Research Centre at JCU.  He holds the degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt. Australian National University, 1991), and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by JCU in 2018.  Fellow of the British Academy; Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America, he is one of three living linguists to be specifically mentioned in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics by P. H. Matthews (2014). 

Given the above, the only critique needed here is whether Dixon’s extensive research and experience is presented clearly for readers not familiar with linguistic studies.  And it is.  Dixon uses easy-to-understand terms; the style is light and often amusing.

Dixon makes clear from the outset the correct definition of ‘dialect’ is a variation on a given language.  He emphasizes that using ‘dialect’ as a derogatory reference, denoting an impoverished language, is racist and ignorant, given that there are no languages in existence that could be classed as primitive.  He has been saying this for many years, but the message is falling on deaf ears, or if you prefer – milga ngandal – ear refuse (forget, fail to heed).  The Guugu Yimidhirr language has so many ‘ear’ expressions (p. 118) referring to intelligence, or lack thereof.  So very useful! There are fifteen dialect groups within the Western Desert language, and five dialects in Dyirbal.

When it comes to understanding Indigenous kinship relations it is, to quote Professor Dixon,  ‘an intellectual exercise, requiring a considerable amount of concentration.’  Dixon gives readers an account of classificatory kinship and supporting language structure.  Within twenty or so categories, everyone within a community understands their relationship to other members of the community, including nearby communities. This provides a system for transmitting genetic information regarding who can marry whom.  One can only wonder how this knowledge was acquired; regardless it certainly buries any ideas of an intellectually primitive people with an impoverished knowledge in comparison with European cultures.

Indigenous cultures abhor vagueness; precise speech is required at all times.  Chapters eight, nine and ten, concerning grammar, gender and vocabulary demonstrates how precision is structured into daily communication.  A comparison might be made with Latin, although Australian languages are more complex.  Dixon makes clear that the grammatical intricacy of Australian languages cannot be fully detailed within this small volume; as he says, he can give only  ‘a number of guarded peeps’.   He gives examples concerning tenses, pronouns, verb structures and demonstratives.  For instance, English uses two demonstratives, this, near the speaker, that, away from the speaker, whereas the Bandjalang language, spoken in northern New South Wales, recognizes three degrees of distance: near the speaker, mid-distance from the speaker or far from the speaker, and must indicate whether referring to a singular or plural object or person.

 Equally intricate are noun cases with suffix classifiers indicating type – masculine, feminine, edible animals, and other functions.  When new words are adopted from English they are given appropriate gender markers, such as ‘edible plant food’ group or ‘drinkable liquid’.  Extensive vocabularies are also needed as a requirement for precision; Australian languages have distinct labels for all parts of the body, as well as everything in the environment. 

According to latest figures, 120,000 years ago humans walked out of Africa, and that Indigenous Australians have been here for 80,000 years.  So, optimistically, one might hope that Indigenous languages could teach us something about the development of language.   But that is not the case.  Dixon gives a lesson in comparative linguistics – how linguists compare words and structures of different languages to test if they belong to a common genetic ancestor, or a proto-language. This method can take knowledge of past languages back some 5,000-8,000 years – a mere blip in the 80,000-year history of humans in Australia.  This is a most interesting chapter that might encourage further study.

Australia’s Original Languages: An Introduction illustrates so clearly that language, culture and environment are entwined to such an extent that one can be fully understood only via knowledge of the other.  Taking time to appreciate the culture and language of another group provides a fresh window into our own culture, and respect for another way of thinking and living.   Consequently, the historical loss of Indigenous languages has impoverished our collective knowledge of civilizations that existed some 80,000 years ago. 

Australia’s Original Languages: An Introduction

By R. M. W. Dixon

(2019)

ALLEN & UNWIN

ISBN:  9 781760 875237

RRP:   $32.99

Pp. 197

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