Saturday, June 20, 2009

NAT: Another Last SPeaker

Aboriginal elder the last speaker of his language
Peter Michael and Natalie Gregg, The Courier-Mail, June 19, 2009 12:00am

He is a living relic and an ancient linguistic treasure.

Kuku Thaypan elder Tommy George, 82, is the sole surviving fluent speaker of his language.

"I'm the last of them," said the son of an Aboriginal king. "Everybody knows that."

When the famed tracker dies, 48,000 years of oral history – from beyond the Dreamtime – dies with him.

Kuku Thaypan, one of four Aboriginal languages spoken in Quinkan country on Cape York, is destined for extinction like 120 other dialects lost across Australia since European settlement.

Despite efforts of academics, the primordial tongue and ancient secrets of the old healer handed down from generation to generation will likely vanish.

It is estimated that of more than 300 specific Aboriginal languages in use pre-British arrival, there will be fewer than 100 left by 2050.

Ilana Mushin, a lecturer in linguistics and indigenous language at the University of Queensland, said language formed an integral part of a culture's world view.

"All sorts of things are expressed in traditional language from how you understand the natural world, to songs, laws, traditions, stories, how you relate to each other, and the whole philosophy of life," she said

"All these are expressed in a language and if you don't have that language any more some of that is translatable but some of it isn't, so a lot of that knowledge gets lost."

Dr Mushin said there were less than 50 indigenous languages still being regularly spoken as first languages, and that it was inevitable that many of these would become extinct.

"If you have the community will then languages can be saved but if you are down to the last speaker there is not much you can do," she said.

When his brother, medicine man George Musgrave, died three years ago, Tommy lost the only other fluent speaker of his tribal tongue.

Both shared honorary doctorates for their efforts in later years trying to document their living archives of tens of thousands of years of traditional knowledge with researcher Victor Steffensen.

"It might die in the throat," blue-eyed elder Tommy, known by his language name of Awu Laya, said yesterday. "But it stays alive in the heart."

Born in a river bed under the totem of the taipan snake, he is curator of Quinkan Country outside Laura: home to some of the world's earliest rock art.

He said any hope of reviving dying Aboriginal culture lies in song and dance.

Today, under the shadow of world-famous artwork like the Giant Horse gallery and other sites depicting good (Timara) and bad (Imjim) spirits, the Laura Dance Festival starts.

Co-founded by Tommy, the three-day festival has become one of the nation's biggest corroborees.

About 20 Aboriginal communities and 3000 spectators are expected to make the trek into the spiritual heartland, four hours' drive north of Cairns.

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