Reawakening language in Gunnedah

By Leanne Pryor and Hilary Smith

This post was originally written for the GECHO (Gunnedah Early Childhood Hub Online) blog, and is reproduced here with permission.

Yaama maliyaa, hello friends

The children at Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centres love learning Gamilaraay. Their faces light up and their pride is obvious when they practise greetings, play games, or sing songs in Gamilaraay. We see that that when they are immersed in language and culture they become confident and capable learners.

Winanga-Li children Ava Gallagher, Mahaliah Oui and Charvi Gold recording “Gulbiyaay Dhirrabaa-ga Nginayingu – Welcome to our school” in Gamilaraay.

So how can we reawaken a language that was last in everyday use in families nearly a hundred years ago, and ensure that it is relevant for the twenty-first century?

From the early days of invasion, words and phrases in the Gamilaraay and related Yuwaaalaraay and Yuwaalayaay languages were recorded by explorers, missionaries, farmers and linguists. Words and phrases were written down as they were heard, which is why we now see different spellings for people and places; for example, we have Kamilaroi, Gomeroi, Gamilaraay, etc. (see here for an explanation of these different names). Fortunately, the words from the many sources were collected, and their spellings standardised, in a 2003 dictionary (downloadable here).

The different world faced by Aboriginal peoples after invasion required many additional words. From that first contact Gamilaraay people developed terms for the language of this new world, such a dhimba, ‘sheep’, and later wilbaarr, ‘car’, which itself was also a new word in English at that time. The dictionary points out that wilbaarr may come from Warrawilbaarru, the name of a whirlwind spirit, showing that traditional words and ideas were being incorporated as the language adapted.

Along with everyday objects, concepts such as different ways of marking time were also introduced. For example, traditional Gamilaraay language did not have words for the months of the year because the ancestors marked the passage of time differently, using their in-depth knowledge of stars, seasons, and animals on Country. In 2000 names for the months were discussed in a meeting of Elders and linguists at Walgett. They did not want to try and adapt the English names based on Roman festivals (e.g. February from the Februa festival), Gods (e.g. March from Mars), Emperors (e.g. July from Julius), or numbers (e.g. October from octo). The Elders at the Walgett meeting suggested names for months based on their knowledge of what is happening on Country at those times. For example, for May they suggested guduu, ‘Murray cod’, because the traditional season for catching the big cod started after the first hard frosts; for June garriil, ‘cold’; and for July, they suggested barrgay, ‘older emu chicks’ which are seen at this time.

Posters for suggested new names of the months in Gamilaraay include cultural knowledge as it is reflected in the language.

The current Elders in the Winanga-Li dhiiyaan (family) have decided to use those suggestions, as part of our approach to reawakening the traditional language and normalising the use of Gamilaraay for modern life in our centre. To indicate that these are the names of months, a suffix based on gilay (moon) is added to each word, giving Guduu-gil (May), Garriil-gil, Barrgay-gil (July), etc.

Respect for our Elders is an important part of Gamilaraay culture, because they are the link to our past and hold so much knowledge.The Winanga-Li Elders are committed to sharing the results of our language development for others to use in their own work and life, and most of our language materials are freely available on our website and YouTube channel.

We believe that this shows how we can move into the twenty-first century using a language which developed over thousands of years as a fundamental way of communicating our culture; merging the traditional with the contemporary is able to be achieved while still remaining respectful to the old ways. It also shows that when children know who they are and where they belong, then they are confidently able to embrace language and cultural knowledge which ultimately will benefit the children of our Gamilaraay community, and the wider community, into the future.

Leanne Pryor is a Gamilaraay Elder from Gunnedah, and Manager Early Learning and Care at Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre.

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