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Spotlighting Australia's Languages: Wajarri

We Australians don't know much about the languages spoken in our own country - so Fully Sic is here to help! We're featuring a series of posts about languages spoken around the country. Today, Rosie Sitorus tells us about Wajarri.

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The Bundiyarra – Irra Wangga Language Centre is located Geraldton in the Midwest of Western Australia, covering a geographical area in excess of 275,000km2 and working on 7 languages of the Midwest, Murchison and Gascoyne region. These 7 languages are in varying states, with many ‘sleeping’, and some with a number of full and partial speakers remaining. While many of these languages share common features and words and are most likely related, they are all distinct (meaning that a speaker of one would not be able to understand or speak fluently to a speaker of another; much like Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian have many common features and many similar words, but are mutually unintelligible).

One of our regional languages is Wajarri (sometimes Watjarri, Wadjari, Wadjarri…). Wajarri was traditionally spoken in the Murchison region of Western Australia. The Murchison region is pretty sparsely populated today, as many Wajarri people were forced to relocate to pastoral stations, then missions, and now towns in the region like Geraldton, Carnarvon, Mullewa, Yalgoo and Meekatharra. Before this movement of people, Wajarri language was spoken from an area stretching from around the Mullewa-Mt Magnet road, north to Mt Augustus, east approaching Meekatharra and west to a line between the Yallalong and Byro stations. As Wajarri covers such a vast amount of barna (Wajarri wangga ‘language/speak’ for ‘country’), there were (and still are) many different dialects, corresponding roughly with geographical orientations like north, south, east and west. Some dialectal differences are small (for example, some sounds are pronounced differently, but are understood to be in free variation), but others are more significant (a quick dictionary search will show that the word for ‘bark of a tree’ could be as different as thantha and bingarra).

Where Wajarri is traditionally spoken. (Original image: David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996)

Wajarri, like all other Australian languages, is very different from English. There are lots of features that distinguish Wajarri and English, but the morphology of the language is particularly fun. Wajarri makes extensive use of nominal suffixes, which are attached to nouns to show what they’re doing, where they’re going, what they’re having done to them and other pesky concepts that English needs entirely separate words to express. My favourite example is the suffix –nguny, which is the semblative suffix, and which expresses that one thing is like something else. This highly entertaining video of an emu chasing a ball was today described by one of my colleagues as yalibirri jambarnimanha duthunguny, which roughly translates to ‘the emu (yalibirri) is running (jambarnimanha) like a dog (duthunguny)’. Wajarri takes the word duthu (dog), sticks this useful suffix –nguny on the end et voilà! Put a collar on that yalibirri ‘cos he’s going for walkies! And because Wajarri has relatively free word order (meaning you can move the words around within the sentence without changing the meaning) we could put duthunguny first to maximise the lols.

Today, the number of fluent Wajarri speakers is probably below 50. Most are over the age of 50, though there are a couple of young people who spent time learning wangga from their elders when they were children. The small number of speakers is almost entirely because of a combination of government policies that interrupted language transmission. Many people tell stories of being corporally punished for speaking their language in schools and missions, and of being separated from their families and the traditional domains of use for the language so that learning and speaking became difficult impossible. Thankfully, and due to the hard work of many Wajarri people who refused to let their language die, a number of schools in the region now teach Wajarri, giving today’s children a chance to learn the language their parents and grandparents were silenced from speaking. With the reinvigoration of the language, the cultural knowledge and experiences which are unique to Wajarri people can again be communicated and preserved against the monocultural tide swept in by English.

Rosie Sitorus is the linguist at Bundiyarra – Irra Wangga Language Centre and a big fan of amusing animal videos.

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Spotlighting Australia’s Languages: Wajarri

  1. Rosie Sitorus

    Thanks for the feedback Ian! Certainly there has been great success here with teaching Wajarri – let’s just hope that intergenerational transmission of both the language and that success continues, because Wajarri wangga is ngardi barndi (really great!)

    And I find sometimes I just want to saddle up an English word with a nominal suffix from Wajarri because it would more accurately convey what I’m trying to express…but I think that’s a hazard of my job 🙂

  2. Ian

    Here’s hoping the schools’ efforts to teach Wajarri meet with success. Thanks for an informative post Rosie.

    Nominal suffixes are intriguing…I can see their use but am thankful English dropped them! And thanks for that enjoyable emu video.

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