Posted by: dave | August 27, 2014

Learning Gamilaraay


Always Was, Always Will Be, by Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie

If you’ve been following my Twitter feed recently — and honestly, there’s no reason why you should — you might have noticed some strange non-English words popping up. There’s a reason for this: I’m trying to learn Gamilaraay.

It’s an Aboriginal language from northern New South Wales–around Gunnedah, Coonabarabran, Tamworth and Lightning Ridge, for those who know the area. The indigenous people of the region are the Kamilaroi — same word, different spelling — who, quite by coincidence, are pretty close kin to the Yuwaalaraay, who originated “Mayrah” — Anya’s middle name.

That’s not the only loan-word in Australian English. The coolibah tree in “Waltzing Matilda” derives from Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay, as does the galah parrot and bindis, a type of weed that creates painful burrs on Australian lawns.

The choice of language was largely driven by my own limitations. I was never a great linguist, so if I’m to get anywhere with this I need a language with some decent learning resources and the possibility to encounter fellow-speakers. Gamilaraay has some great online dictionaries and courses, and I’m hopeful that Sydney’s relative proximity to Gamilaraay country will make it easier to find speakers. The University of Sydney runs a module in the language, which presumably produces some speakers too.

It’s ages since I last made serious efforts to learn a language, still less a non-European one, and I’m finding unexpected delights in it. There’s a poetry in the sounds and meanings of an unfamiliar tongue which gives me a lot of pleasure, although it may derive as much from my paltry understanding as any deeper etymology.

A few examples: the word for “head”, gawugaa, contains the word for egg, gawu. Which is wonderfully evocative, when you consider the similarity of the forms. The word for “I”, ngay, is almost a homonym of the word for “mouth”, ngaay. “Child” is gaay and “hand” is mara, while “small child”(and I’m really stretching it here) is gaayinmara; which sounds very much like you’re talking about a child you can carry.

Even the name of the language itself has a lovely linguistic parallel. Gamil means “no” so gamilaraay is “gamil-having”, to indicate how the Kamilaroi say “no” (the Yuwaalaraay say yuwaal instead).

This is of course almost exactly how the French used to distinguish between their north and south, the Languedoc and (now obselete) Languedoil, the places where people said oc for yes and, in the north, oil, or oui.

Aside from the sheer interest of it, why learn something that’s so little-spoken? Only a few hundred people listed Gamilaraay as a spoken language in the 2011 census, and I don’t think anyone alive today would count it as a native tongue.

Well, I became a dual Australian-British citizen a few months ago. And I’ve been reading books like Charles C Mann’s 1491 and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, and articles like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”, that have made me think a lot about the way colonial history is really a type of myth-making, that you have to work hard to see past. There were 200-odd languages in Australia on the eve of the British invasion, and less than a dozen would now be considered viable. It seems the least any non-indigenous Australian can do in return for the bounty this country gives us is to put a bit of effort into preserving some of this continent’s unique culture.

It’s impossible for a white immigrant like myself to ever really comprehend the scale of what was lost when Europeans invaded this continent, let alone try to make recompense. But I’m struck by the almost wilful ignorance of indigenous life in Australia’s mainstream. To my mind, even the formal nods we pay — the admiration of indigenous art, the welcomes to country and acknowledgements of traditional owners, the earnest discussion of recognition of indigenous people in the constitution — often have the form of rote pieties, like we’re hastily crossing ourselves to ward off too much reflection about the brutal facts of our history. And I would love to see more of a spirit of genuine celebration, wonderment and curiosity in white Australia about the people who created the world’s first large buildings, the first fish farms, and the first bread.

How do you develop any of that? Well, we can start by listening. And if we can listen to people in their own language, so much the better.



  1. Love it. Well done. Dad

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