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Politics

Feb 18, 2016

"I am determined to be tenacious in relation to the use of my language": Bess Price and breaking the English hegemony in NT Parliament

Aboriginal Northern Territory MP Bess Price is fighting to be able to use her first language, Warlpiri, in parliament. She argues that it's only fair given it's her first language and the language of half her constituency. The Parliament's Speaker continues to affirm that English is the language of the Assembly. Greg Dickson explores the debate further:

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The Northern Territory has a large Aboriginal population. 28% (over 50,000 people) of our population is Indigenous, compared to 2.4% nationally. Correspondingly, Aboriginal people make up a greater proportion of the NT’s parliamentarians. Aboriginal people have won seats at every Territory election since the parliament’s inception in 1974, among them John Ah Kit, Marion Scrymgour, Alison Anderson and NITV’s Malarndirri McCarthy.

Bess Price (Source: CAAMA)

Making news this week is another Aboriginal MP, the Member for Stuart, Bess Price. She got into a bit of trouble before Christmas, not just for interjecting during parliament, but for interjecting in her first language, Warlpiri. Catalysed by Malcolm Turnbull’s recent and well-received use of Ngunawal in the Federal House of Reps, Minister Price is understandably perceiving a double standard. Our Prime Minister is praised for symbolically using a largely dormant Aboriginal language that is not of his own heritage, but Minister Price is disciplined and restricted from spontaneously using her first language, Warlpiri, spoken by a few thousand people, and about half of her constituents. (For background info on the Warlpiri language, check out an old blogpost of mine, inspired by ABC News starting to broadcast radio news in Warlpiri).

It’s an interesting debate, with practical and ideological components.

If you narrow the discussion to look at only the practicalities, you’ll do what NT Speaker Kezia Purick did in her response to Minister Price. You’ll point out the rules, say that parliament is always in English, that there are proper channels to go through if you want to use a LOTE (Language Other Than English) etc. And you’ll throw in the old chestnut, as Purick did, about there being so many “languages and dialects” (note that the old “dialects” shtick can be used to diminish Aboriginal languages when they are just that: real languages) and how can we possibly accommodate them all.

Oh, and don’t forget to roll out the myth that English is the official language of Australia. The Speaker did, but got it wrong. Australia has no official language.

Let’s not go crazy with the logistics debate though. We’re talking about one language here: Warlpiri. The Aboriginal Interpreter Service’s head office is about four blocks from Parliament House. It would not be hard, or expensive, to bring one or two of their qualified interpreters down for parliament sittings. (And what’s that you say, more employment for Aboriginal people? More status, training, inclusion? How horrible!). But instead, the gut reaction of most Australians is to do a bit of a freakout when there’s a whisper of threat to the English monopoly and look for ways to relegate Aboriginal languages back to the too hard basket.

Practical and regulatory issues do matter, but they’re surmountable. And they’re not the only relevant points.

Let’s look at the languages we’re dealing with here. On the one hand you have Warlpiri – a traditional language of the Northern Territory, spoken widely in some electorates and the first language of an NT born and bred MP. On the other hand, there’s English, spoken in two-thirds of Territory households (the lowest proportion in the country), which only arrived in the NT about a century prior to Parliament starting. One is an original language of the Territory, still used daily and the other is a recent import, but much more widely used. Is it not a little striking that in Parliament, the older, perhaps more legitimate, Territory language is subjugated entirely by English? Minister Price makes a fair point in arguing that on face value, this goes against recognised movements under reconciliation and ‘Closing The Gap’. Furthermore, reasons for including Warlpiri in official dealings go beyond mere symbolism:

I feel that I cannot effectively represent my electorate without using my first language, Warlpiri. Over 75% of the population of my electorate is Aboriginal, most of who speak a traditional language – Bess Price, 12/2/2016

It’s also a personal issue for many Aboriginal people across the country who are acutely aware and aggrieved about the disastrous loss and endangerment of Aboriginal languages. Personal and family stories of language discrimination are, sadly, plentiful. Do we need to rub salt into those wounds or give Aboriginal people more reason to feel like Europeans are taking their language and heritage from them?

Looking at the broader picture of language diversity, we know that the planet’s languages are disappearing at a rate never before seen. The Northern Territory itself has been identified as a global hotspot for language endangerment. Minister Price’s resolve to maintain the use of her language is commendable, particularly when you appreciate the barriers put in front of anyone attempting to dismantle the English hegemony in Australia:

I am determined to be tenacious in relation to the use of my language. I am seeking permission to use my first language to make statements or answer questions should I see fit, with an appropriate English interpretation following – Bess Price, 12/2/2016

A Warlpiri classroom (Source: ABC)
A Warlpiri classroom (Source: ABC)

Maybe in Parliament last December, Minister Price did demonstrate “continued disorder” as she “ignored the Speaker’s request not to continue interjecting … and did so in language other than English”, as the Speaker said. But this issue is larger than one parliamentary sitting.

You never know, in a hundred years time, we may not be able to hear Warlpiri spoken anymore, apart from a few elderly stalwarts, as is the case for the many Aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory. If that becomes reality, then the thousands of descendants of Warlpiri speakers may look back at how NT Parliament banned one of their own from using their language. Will they care about the technicalities? Or will they just have another reason to be upset at how the ignorance of kardiya (non-Indigenous people) contributed to their discrimination and loss of their language?

The final irony is, all too often arguments are made against programs that support Indigenous languages saying things like: “But these languages don’t have a function outside the community”, “How does speaking an Aboriginal language help with employment?” “Aboriginal people will be marginalised forever if they don’t speak English”. We have here, with Bess Price, an opportunity to bring an Aboriginal language into a new domain but the roadblocks are being put up.

Back to the camp you go, Warlpiri language. See you next century… if you last that long.

Munanga —

Munanga

AKA: Greg Dickson. Postdoc guy at University of Queensland with Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Somewhere there, also a community linguist (Katherine region, NT) specialising in Aboriginal languages.

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11 thoughts on ““I am determined to be tenacious in relation to the use of my language”: Bess Price and breaking the English hegemony in NT Parliament

  1. colin@galvanisingideas.com

    Any body politic charged to deal with a broad demographic, has to have a common means of communication and discourse. The Tower of Babel never caught on as an administrative model despite bureaucrats’ attempts to create their own argot to obfuscate and hide behind. Preserving ancient languages is as important as any other form of cultural preservation, but introducing a means of communication which is totally opaque to most of the others in the process of government, seems to be ill-conceived, when it conflates preservation with political process.

  2. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s sad — sad but not of course surprising — to see so many subscribers blithely unaware of the absurdities they prattle.
    It says a great deal about the intellectual depths to which the postmodern zeitgeist has plunged Western Culture, doesn’t it.
    While I accept the most recent Poster, wamut, may not be capable of picking up more than he does, someone should help him understand that others better skilled in language pick up far more than he does about what’s happening in the World.

  3. wamut

    Lee – just quickly on your final paragraph, I wasn’t being mischievous. When you listen to ABC News in Warlpiri or Yolngu Matha you can usually pick up on what the topic is because (a) you already know what is making news and (b) proper names are used frequently. It is evidence that counters Woopwoop’s claim that languages like Warlpiri couldn’t handle a parliamentary debate.

  4. Lee Tinson

    Wamut #7 All very well for you arbitrarily dismiss the legitimacy of the “too many languages” argument. You might be talking about just one language, but this is Parliament. The members don’t understand the language, while Bess clearly has no problem with English. If anyone else feels the same about a language other than Warlpiri in similar circumstances, then they have just as much right to the same consideration.

    As for your argument in favour of interpreters, Bess said herself that she wanted to speak in Warlpiri (my apologies for my previous misreading of the word) because she felt unable to express her point adequately in English. So clearly her own or anyone else’s English interpretation would not be adequate either.

    I fully support the survival of any and all Aboriginal languages, but Parliament is a place where hopefully things get done by all citizens for all citizens, and catering for other languages is not practical in the NT, I suspect.

    As an English speaker I would choose not to listen to Warlpiri on ABC (see your reply to #6). I wouldn’t understand it, and it would be a waste of my time, and I think you were probably being mischievous. I’m glad it’s being done, though.

  5. wamut

    @Lee Tinson (#2): There is only one language under discussion here: Warlpiri. In my article above, I already mentioned that the ‘too many languages’ argument has been wheeled out and not altogether legitimately.

    @BruceHassan (#5): Ah, another chestnut! The ol’ ‘modern vs ancient’ language. The thing is, when Bess Price is in Parliament, the year is 2016 for her, just like everyone else there. Yes, Warlpiri is an old language, but it is also a contemporary one. Your comment also harks to the point of irony I identified where people argue that Aboriginal languages are of little value and simultaneoulsy argue against increasing their value (e.g. by legitimising their use in parliament).

    @Woopwoop (#6): One solution is offered by Bess Price herself – she is prepared to provide her own English interpretation of anything she says in Warlpiri. Alternatively, you could use interpreters. Aboriginal Interpreters are trained and accredited under a national system and part of a global industry that is the backbone of international diplomacy. They can rise to the occasion if need be. (And if you want to hear Warlpiri used to discuss a range of topics, listen to ABC News in Warlpiri – linked above).

  6. Woopwoop

    As a language teacher I firmly support the survival of aboriginal and other languages with small numbers of speakers, but I question the way language is treated as an idealogical matter without regard to the practicalities.
    Sure, let MPs speak their own language in Parliament, but in order for the rest of the MPs and the population to understand, you’d have to rely on interpreters. This puts a huge responsibility on non-elected people who may not understand the political nuances of what is to be communicated.I would bet there is no word in Walpiri for many of the subjects of parliamentary speeches, which would also involve lengthy and possibly inaccurate explanations on the run.

  7. Desmond Graham

    Are you guys taking a Mickey out of us all-I actually thought the article was a spoof.
    Around about 25 million people speak one language English and numbers of round about 800 people speak a language therefore that language cannot seriously be considered a benefit to society other than an anthropological oddity. No commerce can be transacted, it is not meaningful to the modern society and the modern language is not meaningful the the older language. Yes the European Parliament may have 24 different languages but each of those languages are spoken by millions of people and embody the same concepts but using different sounds.
    But the study of these obscure languages is very important and the universities should devote considerable capital to preserve the history of human communities from which we have developed.

  8. BruceHassan

    Excellent article. If the European Parliament can function with 24 official languages, and the UN General Assembly with 6 official and working languages, there is no reason any Australian parliament can’t also do the same thing, and generate some great job opportunities and cultural development along the way.
    The Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly allowed both English and Norf’k languages to be spoken, and some of its written documents, such as agendas, were printed in a bi-lingual format. Unfortunately, the Federal Government abolished the Assembly and self-government last year, but it remains as an Australian precedent.
    I look forward to hearing more Indigeneous languages being spoken and written in all the parliaments of Australia.

  9. Hmm

    Interjection aside, I think it’s an important moment. We need to have this discussion.
    Australia is a liberal democracy-so it’s not always about the majority-and as noted we don’t have an official language.
    Bring on the language diversity

  10. Lee Tinson

    My last comment appears to have been deleted. In essence it was this: there are more useful (and fairer to the majority) ways for Bess to forward the interests of her people than to interject in a language that pretty much noone else in the parliament understands. She wasted her and the parliament’s time.

    And a technicality: how do you propose to accommodate such languages? I understand there are many, which in all fairness should also be accommodated. Not to mention French, German, American etc.

  11. Nicholas Fisher

    Good on you Bess. The NT parliament can and should accommodate the original languages of the area which are still the languages of its constituents.

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