I've just come home from attending a talk by Dr Rachel Nordlinger about Australia's indigenous languages. She presented the Margaret Lyttle 4th Annual Oration at Preshil School in Kew.
Like most Australians, I am appallingly ignorant about the wealth of languages that existed here before the arrival of Europeans. And about the languages that still exist today.
If I remember correctly, Dr Nordlinger said there were about 700 to 800 languages here when Europeans arrived about two hundred and twenty years ago. As is the case in most places around the world, some languages could be grouped together and were so similar as to be classed as dialects, but even allowing for this, there were about 260 entirely separate languages.
When she said this, I recalled an old map, one I bought many years ago. It was published by the Aboriginal Advancement League, in 1971, and showed 500 'Key Aboriginal Tribes'. The indigenous children in my class spent many enjoyable hours transforming it from a black line-drawing into a colorful celebration of the diversity of indigenous cultures in Australia.
Dr Nordlinger explained that in the indigenous view of things, language is seen as a property of the landscape, so that people who lived in a particular place spoke the language of that area. This contrasts with the European vision of language as an aspect of a cultural group, whereby speakers can move to a new place and take their language with them. A person is defined by the language they speak as well as by the place they live. (I'd love to read more about this.)
Another thing I didn't know was that indigenous children would routinely grow up in a multilingual environment, due to the traditional practice of marrying outside the kin group. (I might not have understood this well, as I don't know much about traditional marriage rules.) For instance, a child might hear her uncle speaking one language and his wife speaking another, and her own mother might speak a third language. Grandfather might speak a fourth language. All these people would understand each others' languages as well.
Throughout human history it has been the norm for people to speak more than one language.
However, we are in an age where languages are disappearing at a disturbing rate, and it is estimated that by 2050 there might not be any indigenous languages spoken in Australia. This is a reflection of a world trend. (I've posted about this previously.)
All humanity suffers when a language dies, because each language represents a different way of seeing the world. On the other hand, I suppose there have been many language 'deaths' over the millennia, and I guess new ones do emerge.
But I can't help wondering why languages are disappearing at such a terrible rate at the moment, and whether this accelerating loss will become unstoppable. I hope not.
Here's an article from The Age about Dr Nordlinger's work.