Language remains helps to unify Tasmanian Aboriginals

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre secretary Trudy Maluga at the flag raising ceremony for NAIDOC Week,  at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in Launceston. Picture: Paul Scambler
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre secretary Trudy Maluga at the flag raising ceremony for NAIDOC Week, at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in Launceston. Picture: Paul Scambler

Historians are learning more about Tasmania’s ancient Aboriginal languages every year, according to John Addison.

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery curator said there were between eight and 12 languages spoken over five different language groups by Tasmania’s Aboriginal population, before colonisation.  

Mr Addison said research into the languages spoken by the estimated 10,000 Tasmanian Aboriginals pre-white settlement has progressed slowly over time.

“There’s a whole lot of various sources, and word lists compiled by various Europeans, and when you start pulling these sources together you can start to put together a picture,” he said.  “There’s a whole lot more research needed and it’s only in its infancy, this type of research.”

However, most of Tasmania’s first languages have been lost to history.

Despite all attempts to exterminate our people, these cultural reminders still exist.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre chief executive Heather Sculthorpe

While isolated words and phrases are known from different regions, no complete indigenous language has survived. 

By piecing together historical artefacts, audio recordings and words still alive in the community, a reconstructed language was created in the 1990s – palawa kani. 

Maintaining a unified language for the Aboriginal community is vital to preserve culture, according to Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre chief executive Heather Sculthorpe. 

“Despite all attempts to exterminate our people, these cultural reminders still exist,” she said.

“That’s hugely important for people’s identity – that we are indeed one people.”

The language was used in February in a television advertisement by the Wilderness Society and is taught at the TAC. 

However, not everyone in the wider Aboriginal community is passionate about palawa kani. 

Mr Addison said some people felt the language was not authentic and used words that would not have been spoken by some clans thousands of years ago.

“Not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people use it or like it,” he said. 

“In some places it leads to palawa kani using words with a different pronunciation to what their ancestors would have actually used.”

Ms Sculthorpe said everyone should get on board with the language.

“Palawa kani is the only way that language can be spoken right through in Tasmania [for Aboriginals],” she said.

“There are individual words people can find that were written down in the 1800s and people can look up a word here or a word there, but that’s not a language – that’s individual words.”

Ms Sculthorpe said the community needed to find a better way of teaching Indigenous people palawa kani. 

While it is taught to children in Launceston and Hobart, and used for ceremonies, it is still not widely spoken. 

“We’re getting the resources to do it, but getting people to actually use it is proving more difficult,” she said.