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The alpha and omega of an Aboriginal language

The alpha and omega of an Aboriginal language

A linguist from Leuven studied the Aboriginal language Umpithamu for almost twenty years: time to turn that knowledge into a dictionary!

3 minutes
25 March 2021

You won’t easily find Umpithamu in apps like Google Translate or Duolingo: it is an Aboriginal language from northeastern Australia. Linguist Jean-Christophe Verstraete has been studying Umpithamu for almost twenty years and now publishes a dictionary containing a lot more than just words.

The Aboriginals once spoke more than 250 different languages in the immense Australia. Today, most of them are in a difficult position. Some languages have vanished quietly; others are still understood, but no longer spoken. In some cases, it is a race against the clock to document the language for the generations to come, because of the advanced age of the last speakers.

This was also true for Umpithamu, one of the five languages of the Lamalama, an Aboriginal people living on the Cape York Peninsula in northeastern Australia. Seventeen years ago, professor Jean-Christophe Verstraete ended up with two sisters there: Florrie Bassani and Joan Liddy, the last active speakers of the language. Their children understood Umpithamu, but responded in English to their mothers.

“There are languages with a small number of speakers, but there is no such thing as a “small” language.”

Like an anthropologist

Altogether, Verstraete spent about one year and a half with the Lamalama to learn the different languages and the culture: “You cannot describe a language without understanding its culture. Just like an anthropologist, you have to use participant observation: living together with the people to collect data. In my case, I was also included in their kinship terminology: I called Florrie ‘amitha’ - mother - a word that is also used for the younger sister of the mother.”

The amithas who taught Verstraete the languages, unfortunately did not live to see it, but now there is a dictionary for Umpithamu. Although the term ‘dictionary’ does too little justice to the reference work. Verstraete explains the history of the Lamalama, the pronunciation of the language and the grammar. For every word, he gives the origin and history, next to ethnographical notes; for names of plants and animals, he even adds the Latin names, with an explanation of the traditional usage and the hunting.

Er zijn talen met een klein aantal sprekers, maar er zijn geen ‘kleine’ talen.

National heritage

In other words, the dictionary captures a piece of heritage. “It is of course a reference work for the Lamalama, but the book also received attention from others in Australia. Awareness of the painful colonial era is growing now and they are working on reconciliation. This means that Australia is starting to regard the Aboriginal languages as national heritage. And this kind of dictionary is also interesting for anthropologists, historians and biologists, of course.

And last but not least, the dictionary also provides linguistic insights. “Umpithamu offers us new knowledge, for instance about case systems and word structure. The language has cases with a double function: the case tells who does what, but also who is important in the sentence. And over time, their words become shorter: usually, sounds are dropped at the end of a word, but in Umpithamu, they are systematically dropped at the beginning of a word. That has to do with changes in the stress-assignment system.”

Verstraete often gets the question why he studies such a “small language”: “There are about 7,000 languages and each of them can teach us something about how human languages are structured. In this respect, Umpithamu is equal to English for example. “There are languages with a small number of speakers, but there is no such thing as a “small” or unimportant language.”

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Spring 2021