By Wesley Enoch

13 August 2018 - 09:08

Wesley Enoch at Sydney Festival
'Many times, the dominant culture assumes that the minority culture must do all the translation. I like using Aboriginal words to make people meet us halfway.' Photo ©

Prudence Upton 

Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival Wesley Enoch is an Indigenous Australian whose language, Jandai, is vanishing. He talks about how to keep a language alive.

In many Aboriginal languages, you create meaning through complex, poetic metaphor

Those metaphors are connected to the environment. So for example, if a woman is tall, she is a tree. And the more specific a tree you refer to, the more characteristics you can attribute to that person. The more understanding you have of the environment and place you come from, the more vocabulary you have.

The inverse is also possible. Destroying the landscape, or removing particular animals or plants, removes language. And if you remove language, you’re also removing knowledge of landscape. Then you no longer have that very specific way of talking about the deep knowledge of how a particular animal operates in the landscape, or the growth patterns of trees; ways of talking which meld culture with spirituality and survival.

My friend Kajal was born in spring, and his name means the unfurling spring leaf

He’s connected to the leaf through the use of language. With that empathy, or sense of connection, come responsibilities to the environment. 

My name, Wesley James Enoch, is a missionary name, closely linked to our legacy of colonisation in Australia – Wesley after the Methodist minister, James after the apostle, and Enoch comes from the book of Genesis.

Many Indigenous people take on names of significance for themselves. My aunt’s name was Kath Walker, and she took the name Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Oodgeroo is the name of the paperbark tree or tea tree. She took that name because she was a writer, and it was linked to the idea of writing on the bark. Noonuccal is the name of her clan. She took back that name for herself as a way of connecting with her heritage.

There’s a festival in Melbourne called the Moomba Festival. The organisers asked the Indigenous community what they should name the festival, and they suggested Moomba. The festival had the queen and king of Moomba, and the Moomba parade. Moomba is pejorative in the language used by the Kulin group of clans in the Melbourne area, which was very entertaining for the people who knew the language.

In regional New South Wales, there's an example of Indigenous youth changing their use of English, and using words like ‘bread’, which is connected to ‘butter’, to mean ‘brother’, which sounds like butter. Many marginalised cultures around the world do this, to have a way of speaking that is separate from mainstream culture.

Many times, the dominant culture assumes that the minority culture must do all the translation

I like using Aboriginal words to make people meet us halfway. It puts most of the audience in the position of either not knowing some of the words, and having to deduce meaning, or of having to translate.

In a play that I co-wrote with Deborah Mailman, The 7 Stages of Grieving, an actor sang a song which no-one understood because it was in a lost language. As she sang, a projection of the Roman alphabet appeared on her body. She was trying to remove the letters, and eventually took off her dress. She was left naked, and still the letters were on her body.

She was singing about a child who wants to go and see the world. Even though the audience didn’t understand the words, the actor conveyed the meaning through non-verbal language. The visuals showed the imposition of the dominant culture’s language on her.

The Indigenous writer Jack Davis’ plays were created to pass on the Noongar language. He would get his family and community to act in plays that he and others directed, and he would put Noongar language in the plays, which they had to learn as they were acting.

He comes from Perth in Western Australia, and the Noongar language in Perth has a radio station and is alive, because people felt they were connected with the language, and because people like Jack Davis worked to keep it alive

Reclamation is one way that people can preserve languages 

To do that, many of us are looking, ironically, at records of the mostly non-Indigenous anthropologists who documented Indigenous languages.

Another way to preserve a language is to keep it alive in spoken form, through oral traditions. Languages are always shifting and adapting, so it’s important to understand the language as it is used now, as well as in the past.

Schools can integrate endangered languages into curriculum development, document languages, and teach grammar in addition to vocabulary.

I’ll give you an example of why grammar is important; most Indigenous languages have a metaphor-heavy structure. Many languages, including Japanese, are constructed that way. If you understand that, you will know that it is important to let a person speak to the end of their sentence, because the meaning of a sentence can change dramatically at the end. For example, a sentence in an Indigenous language might translate to:

It’s a beautiful day, everyone is out in the ocean, they feel safe not.

In many colonised countries, particularly former British colonies, there is a mindset of looking at the British experience as the starting point for everything. Often, when people hear that there are over 500 Aboriginal languages, they say 'we all speak one language here'. But we don’t. We need to get used to that idea.

It applies to the functions of government too. There’s a general feeling that democracy is the best model. So, every time Aboriginal advisory bodies are formed, there’s pressure to have a democratic structure, which is antithetical to the anarchic, self-governing family structures that we already have.

When you visit a county, showing interest is important

Knowing that there are questions to ask is also important. For example:

Who are the people who come from here?

What did they call this place?

How do/did they say hello and goodbye?

You gain a sense of the layers of time in a place, before the roads and buildings and other structures were there. You gain history. You also help to strengthen the position of an Indigenous person; you acknowledge that what a person knows is valuable. For a colonised person, feeling valued is enormous. You can also say, in a way, and perhaps for the first time, that you are not a part of the system that erases Indigenous people’s identities.

I’m of the Quandamooka people, I’m of the Nughi clan, and we speak Jandai

My sister says she’s Quandamooki. I say I’m Noonuccal-Nughi, or two clans, because of my father's clan connections (my father is Indigenous and my mother is non-Indigenous). Someone else might say they are Jandai. All of these things are true, because they all describe our layers of identity.

Binangug is a useful Jandai word to know. It means my ears are full and I’m not listening. Mungalbah means the place to sit down, or a campsite. And, when you get to the Mungalbah, you can sit on your Abunthi.

The Edinburgh International Culture Summit will take place on 22-24 August 2018, with the British Council as a strategic partner. 

Wesley Enoch will address the Edinburgh International Culture Summit on preventing languages from vanishing and not allowing traditional customs to face extinction. 

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Editor's note about the words Indigenous and Aboriginal as they are used in this article: the interviewee uses Aboriginal to talk about mainland First Nations people, and Indigenous when referring to all Indigenous peoples of Australia including Torres Strait Islanders and First Nations Pacific people in Australian territories. 

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