newsJewish & Israeli Culture

Inspired by Hebrew, scholar helps revive dying aboriginal Australian languages

Two Israeli natives living in Australia are working with indigenous Australians to give their languages a life after death.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, chair of linguistics and endangered languages, and a tenured professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Photo by Avi Kumar.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann, chair of linguistics and endangered languages, and a tenured professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Photo by Avi Kumar.

Amid the COVID pandemic in 2020, Ghil’ad Zuckermann drove to Cardabia Station in a remote part of Western Australia. The coast reminded the Tel Aviv-born scholar of the shorelines of Eilat.

Chair of linguistics and endangered languages, and a tenured professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, Zuckermann approached representatives of the indigenous Bayoongoo tribe with a unique offer: reviving their endangered language.

“I was inspired by Israel’s linguistic revival, which is Zionism’s greatest achievement,” he told JNS.

Missing mother tongues

In an interview from the Outback, the 52-year-old graduate of Oxford and Cambridge universities in England told JNS that the modern revival of Hebrew is the best example of bringing a “dead” language back to life. This example can inspire other cultures, including Australian aboriginal ones, he said.

According to the 2021 Australian census, 3.2% of the population is indigenous. More than 250 indigenous Australian languages were spoken on the continent in 1788, per the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In 2016, 120 were spoken with 90% considered endangered by 2019, per AIATSIS.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Hazel Cooyou Walgar, one of apparently two people who speak the Bayoongoo language. Credit: Courtesy.

Zuckermann, who speaks 13 languages fluently, told JNS that many indigenous Australian languages were erased during the “stolen generation” of the 1910s to 1970s, when many aboriginal children, particularly those of visibly mixed heritage, were forcibly removed from their families and placed in foster homes to assimilate them.

“These children missed out on the opportunity to acquire their mother tongues at a crucial age and were often forced to speak only in English at their new homes or missions,” he said.

The language shift to English via linguicide, intermarriage and assimilation has been “grave,” added Zuckermann.

Unwritten rules

When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda helped revive Hebrew at the end of the 19th century, he had at his disposal centuries of voluminous Hebrew writings, both sacred and secular. Australian aboriginal languages, however, lack written records.

In 2011, Zuckermann launched a revival of the South Australian Barngarla language, using a dictionary penned by Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, a German Lutheran missionary, in 1844.

Schürmann wrote the book “to Christianize and thereby ‘Westernize’ the Barngarla people,” Zuckermann told JNS. “Ironically, 175 years later, a secular Jew turned to it to help them reconnect with their heritage in an effort to fix the wrongs of the past.”

There are different challenges with the Bayoongoo language—the one that Zuckermann set out in 2020 to work on, seeing Israeli coastlines on Western Australian shores.

Some community members can recognize some Bayoongoo words and phrases, Zuckermann told JNS, but these people, whom linguists call “rememberers,” cannot hold fluent conversations.

The same phenomenon can be seen among grandchildren of those who spoke Yiddish, Ladino or other Jewish Diaspora languages who may retain elements, such as lullabies, names of foods and key terms for family members, like zeidy or bubby.

Per some estimates, none of the 200 or so Bayoongoo people are native speakers of the language. Zuckermann told JNS that there are two people who can speak the language: Hazel Cooyou Walgar and her sister, Gwen Peck. (The people and the language are sometimes spelled Baiyungu, and also called Burduna.)

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Hazel Cooyou Walgar, one of apparently two people who speak the Bayoongoo language. Credit: Courtesy.

With support from the nonprofit First Languages Australia, Zuckermann commissioned Walgar to write new poems in her ancestral language. The Israeli-born composer Yitzhak Yedid, who lives in Perth, helped transcribe them. The first is called ngathala ngarrari, which means “my country.”

“We have only just begun,” Yedid told JNS. “Over time, more people will be able to learn the language.”

Zuckermann told JNS that knowing one’s ancestral language is associated with benefits, such as reducing rates of depression, suicide and other other health issues: “Knowing the language of your ancestors instills a sense of pride and identity.”  

So what do aboriginal Australians think of Israel, given the role that Hebrew may play in reviving their languages?

Some are pro-Palestinian, Zuckermann told JNS. But many have become Christian in recent years, which means that they read the Bible.

“Many of them see Jews as being ‘aboriginal’ to the land of Israel and having successfully reclaimed their country, language and identity,” he said.

Reached over the phone from Australia, Walgar—one of the two Bayoongoo speakers—told JNS that she appreciates all the efforts to revive her people’s language. “This is a dream come true,” she said. “Our ancestors will be proud.”

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