Our Mother Tongue: GunaiKurnai

Our Culture

Added by First Languages Australia

Description This is a story about a dynamic group of women who are reviving the GunaiKurnai language throughout East Gippsland in Victoria: Lynnette Solomon-Dent, Dr Doris Paton and Hollie Johnson.

Dr Paton explains that not everything in her language can be directly translated into English. There is no single word in Gunai for ‘tree’. The word they use to name a tree will depend on the food it yields, what species it is and what cultural and medicinal function it might serve. Born of some of the world’s greatest environmentalists, it makes sense that the Gunai language expresses the intimate knowledge its interlocutors share of their natural world.

‘Language isn’t just about speaking, it’s your whole way of life,’ explained Lynnette Solomon-Dent. ‘It tells you what’s in the country, what the stories are, what your obligations are to each other.’ Unpack a single word and you can start to understand a system of kin relations and cultural obligations that are still alive and well. The word for ‘mother’ doubles as the word used for Lynnette’s sisters. If anything happened to Lynnette, her sisters would automatically become mothers to her children. It’s all there in the language.

The scope of words we have and use reveals a lot about what we care about, where our attention lies and what kind of world we live in. In the Arrernte language of Central Australia, there is a single word for ‘the smell of rain’ and for ‘debris from trees floating, left over from a flood’. The Yindiny language spoken south of Cairns has highly specialised terms for noises. ‘Ganga’ means ‘the sound of someone’s feet approaching’ and ‘yuyurungul’ means ‘the shushing noise of a snake sliding through the grass’. Pitjantjatjara has no words for numbers beyond three, but like Gunai and countless other Indigenous languages, it contains extremely complex vocabulary surrounding kinship relations and natural phenomena – right down to describing types of lightening and the spectrum of colours in the sky.

A language can bring you into a community or it can keep you apart from one. Anybody who has travelled in a foreign country without a grasp of its language can attest to the bewildering sense of disconnection from the people, landscape and culture. Words can help you see beyond your peripheral vision. Dr Doris Paton hopes that Australians will turn their heads to embrace the many different languages and countries we have on board our great big island, and all the little islands surrounding it. ‘[Our languages] are quite distinct like in Europe, and that sharing of language also shares knowledge, as it does in European languages.’

The biggest difference is that unlike the majority of European languages, our Indigenous languages are vanishing at an alarming rate. Across the country, people like Doris, Lynnette and Hollie are racing against the clock to revive their ancestral languages, protect over 40,000 years of knowledge and offer all of us the opportunity to better understand this country and its Indigenous caretakers, from the inside out.

Feel free to share your response to the film or the ideas in this blog, using the ‘feedback’ form below. For more background on the GunaiKurnai language and culture of East Gippsland, check out a fantastic article with audio links by ABC Open Producer Rachael Lucas on some local GunaiKurnai place names and click here for a great yarn about a recent canoe-building building project in Gippsland, led by Gunai elder Uncle Albert Mullett. Check out other documentary films produced as part of the 'Our Mother Tongue' series here.

Please note, the Australian Aboriginal Languages map featured in the film is just one representation of many other map sources that are available for Aboriginal Australia. Using published resources available between 1988–1994, this map attempts to represent all the language or tribal or nation groups of the Indigenous people of Australia. It indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. Boundaries are not intended to be exact. This map is NOT SUITABLE FOR USE IN NATIVE TITLE AND OTHER LAND CLAIMS. David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996. No reproduction allowed without permission.

ABC Open Producer: Suzi Taylor

This video was originally contributed to the ABC Open Mother Tongue project, which invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to share a story about their mother tongue.

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