April 30, 2014

"This is a story about the language I lost"

I didn’t speak our lingo. We weren’t allowed at school. The white men got the idea we were abusing them. They couldn’t understand us, so they said you have to speak English, son. I find it better to communicate in English now. But to put both languages together would have been much better. I still feel that way, a strong feeling wishing to speak my lingo, my own language. 
My father was from the Wulngarri clan and my mother was from across the river. What my father want[ed] to see was for me to get a better education, from the whiteman. I don’t think he thought about teaching me the lingo. When he started to get old, he started saying he wished us youngfellas had learned our language. He wanted us to learn both ways – the whitefella way and the blackfella way. 
When I came back to Ngukurr, the only language was my mother’s. Straight after 1968 I came back. I was around 14 years old. You lose your identity if you lose your language. Your identity is connected to your land and your clan. And if your clan doesn’t have a language, then you feel like nothing. If you have a clan that has a language, then you are somebody. Being somebody is important. This is a story about the language I lost.
These are some of the spoken word lyrics on the track "Across The River" from the 2004 album Blues Across The River by the Yugul Band. The lyrics - I assume written by singer Dan Thompson - are a fantastic insight into how people from Ngukurr of his generation (who grew up in the last decade or two of the mission) experienced language loss and what that meant for personal and social identity. He mentions aspects such as his parents' generation wanting their children to acquire English and that there was discrimination towards those who spoke traditional languages. Those two aspects are certainly linked, although the link is not made explicit in the song. He also talks about the personal ramifications of not knowing his heritage language and I love the simple affirmation at the end that 'being somebody is important'.

It's also a really great rambling blues track. Definitely worth a play while you read Dan Thompson's wonderful lyrics: