Reviewed: Patricia Elllis, Kerry Boyenga and Waine Donovan, The Dhurga Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar: A South-east Coast NSW Aboriginal Language, AIATSIS Books; and Darlene Oxenham, Jeannie Herbert, Jill Milroy and Pat Dudgeon (eds), Us Women, Our Ways, Our World, Magabala Books.
On Thursday night I walk over damp grass to the local Catholic school hall. A small group of us have gathered together to take Dhurga lessons, and the hall provides enough square metres of space per head to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. The school hall is ‘historical’—old and draughty—and the night is freezing, and we all keep our coats on once we’re inside.
Brinja Yuin woman Kerry Boyenga, one of the authors of the recently published Dhurga Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar, has been teaching the children language this term, and she’s agreed to teach an adult class as well. The plan is to meet once a week for ten weeks, but shifting departmental guidelines give us only three before the class is suspended. Still, it’s a privilege—despite the cold.
We start at the beginning, learning the alphabet of Dhurga’s phoneme sounds. DUH-ruh-guh: three gently voiced sounds with the stress on the first beat. Like the on or morae in spoken Japanese, each phoneme in Dhurga must be articulated; the idea of a syllable is not a perfect fit, but it’s close enough to begin.
One of the older students has trouble with the difference between dj and dh. ‘I just can’t seem to get it,’ she says. Kerry patiently repeats the sounds for her, and explains where in the mouth they go; dj behind the teeth, dh almost in the throat. She hands out an illustration of the supraglottal vocal tract. The singing teacher in the group crows. A few are keen to push on; they want to get cracking at a much faster pace. But the way in which the class unfolds is slow, deliberately so.
‘About 85 per cent of teaching Indigenous language is teaching culture,’ Kerry says. A teacher by training, Kerry grew up thinking the Dhurga words her family knew were ‘lingo’, she says. ‘For a long time, my sisters and brothers have been the only ones to have these words.’
In 2003 she began collecting Dhurga words as part of a framework for developing Dhurga as a Community Language Program for the primary school where she taught. With community consent, linguist Jutta Besold was engaged to seek out examples of Dhurga language in archives and official files. ‘We started the project with about 30 words,’ Kerry tells our class. ‘We finished with about 730. But I don’t have all of it—I only have 60 years of it.’ Some of it, inevitably, is gone.
What language has been recovered is bound by the decision of the group working on the Dictionary, in consultation with community, not to create or adapt new words. What can be expressed in Dhurga is what has been handed on; nothing more. These words are set out in The Dhurga Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar are set out in three lists: Dhurga–English; English–Dhurga; and a word finder by category (animals, body parts, kinship).
The Dictionary came about as a response to the need of Dhurga students for a reference text. In 2007, the classes were extended to adults; with Iris White, the Aboriginal development manager at TAFE Illawarra, Kerry and her brother Waine Donovan developed and delivered the first Certificate I in Aboriginal Languages.
Their sister, Patricia Ellis, joined them to teach in 2010. Today, they write, more than 100 Aboriginal people have completed the accredited Dhurga language program. Up until recently, Dhurga was taught only by Aboriginal teachers to Aboriginal adults, a golden rule that has gently been relaxed.
‘We needed to give it back before giving it to anyone else,’ Kerry says. ‘Of course, now that the dictionary has been published, anyone who’s interested can learn it.’
Dhurga will be my third language, after English and French, which I learned on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people. I don’t speak Hebrew—my father left shul long before I was born—and when my grandparents came here from Hungary, bringing my father with them, it was under the White Australia policy. I heard Magyar spoken all throughout my childhood, but it was never my inheritance.
Still, Kerry’s strong dj sounds evoke my late grandmother’s presence, and I leave our first class very close to tears. The Dhurga word for father’s mother, nadjung, is not a million miles from Nagyi; it’s a coincidence only, but one in which I find a surprising comfort.
We learn mabara (eyes), gabanaanu (head or egg), nugurr (nose), dhaaga (mouth). We try to peel ourselves away from haphazard, slipshod English. The word for cold, dhagarr, can only ever be used as a noun. It means winter; it will always mean winter; we learn to leave mutability at the door.
Inevitably, there are places in the dictionary where the richness of the spoken language comes up against the necessary contrivances of English transcription. The traditional tribal group of the land on which our town sits is documented in the dictionary as the Munkata-Yuin, but there is no ka in Dhurga, and no ta; the spelling comes from notes made by non-Aboriginal linguists in the 1960s and 1970s.
A full list of language collectors is given in the dictionary, with every word included given its own source code. It’s an open, rigorous approach that characterises the way the text is organised. The parts of language used are listed, colour-coded and explained, and basic sentence structures and word orders given. The word-category list includes pencil drawings done by the authors themselves.
We learn djamaga-bumulaga (good morning); we learn djamaga-yiribini (goodnight). Kerry gives us some laminated sheets of phonemes and we cut around them, the teachers in the class cutting neatly, the artists winging it. There are seven or eight or nine of us, all women, who come weekly as we can; some are single mums or have other care commitments. A few are early childhood educators, here to support the use of Dhurga in the classroom.
I don’t find ‘white fragility’ useful as a framework—a la Alison Whittaker’s ‘So White, So What’—but sometimes I think I sense a thread of anxiety running through the class. You could phrase it as ‘white timidity’—the cautiousness that generates a force field of its own. My seatmate phrases this as ‘the white weirdness’: ‘Do you think we’ll ever get past the white weirdness?’ she asks.
Alongside the dictionary, I have been reading the 2017 anthology Us Women, Our Ways, Our World. It takes me a month or so of dipping in and out to finish. One reason is that same deliberate slowness; I want to make sure that I am not inadvertently glossing anything. But I also find I need to get out and walk after reading a chapter. The content of a book like this will always be distressing, even if it focuses on strength, continuity, resilience.
The collection, edited by Pat Dudgeon, Jeannie Herbert, Jill Milroy and Darlene Oxenham, is variously described in its publicity blurb as ‘a collection of writings on women and Aboriginal identity’ and ‘an exemplar of Indigenous Studies writing, epistemologically, theoretically and methodologically’, depending on where it is listed.
I don’t know if this is an example of alt text slipping through, or a deliberately diffuse marketing strategy, but both descriptions are apt. As with the dictionary, Us Women is a text created for and by Aboriginal people, but which anticipates the interest of a non-Aboriginal readership.
Perhaps because of this, the first 80 pages or so are given over to telling—or testimony—a still-undervalued mode in Australian literature. These begin with the 1905 Aborigines Act, the 1936 Native Administration Act, and the subsequent horror of forced child removals, and touch on the restricted freedom of movement, state intervention into sexual behaviour and marriage, and the forced sterilisation of Aboriginal women.
‘Oppression was a commonality for all our Old People, experienced one way or another,’ writes Tjalaminu Mia. One tactic of colonial domination was the attempted suppression of Aboriginal languages—making a resource like the dictionary doubly precious.
As the book goes on, the language used becomes more explicitly academic, with contributors grappling with their own place within the colonial academy. There is a world of difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowings’; or between the expectation that a ‘researcher’ remains objective with her ‘research subjects’, and discourse in which the researcher fulfils a prescribed and ‘law-full’ role.
My copy of the anthology is increasingly dog-eared. I read Irene Watson’s chapter, ‘Standing our Ground and Telling the One True Story’, twice. ‘I am committed to tell or write truth informed by critical dialogue which takes us beyond the view of the colonial project that First Nations Peoples are objects,’ she writes.
‘This journey compels us as researchers to act and transform the research project, so that the research focus provides the impetus for change, for decolonisation and greater lawfulness. It is an ambitious approach, but to write for no other purpose than to communicate ideas is not enough.’
‘Decolonisation’, for many white people, might sound like a loss, or something painful, a moving backwards over scorched earth. I suspect that much of the white weirdness comes from a genuine desire not to hurt or harm where so much harm has been done. But the question is not one of slipping backwards along a linear path; that is still colonial thinking.
Nerida Blair evokes the mind-map as a close cousin of Aboriginal epistemology; ‘I remember thinking, Why didn’t I know about this before? This is the way I think.’ This ‘pattern thinking’ is a dense network, where ‘rhythm, dimension, pattern, colour, metaphors and story’ are embodied.
What’s required is not a moving backwards but a foray into much greater richness. MaryAnn Bin-Sallik conceptualises her life, in this book, as a tapestry; Blair invokes the brick wall, the spiderweb and the waterlily. The metaphor that kept coming to me, as I read, was of the woven basket. These stories seemed to spiral around each other, building a sturdy base, then rise to create and define a lacuna.
Peggy McIntosh’s ‘Invisible Knapsack’ is referenced in this book; but unpacking is only half of the question.
In our third class we learn a simple sentence structure, always putting the most important noun first. Dhurga has two possessive pronouns: these are -dhuga, and -dha. If a thing is alienable, it is -dhuga—my blanket, djinaabli-dhuga. If a thing is inalienable, it is -dha—my head, gabaanu-dha.
When I pick up the basket of language or of culture, it is always basket-dhuga. It is not mine in the sense that English acquires things; English which behaves like waagura, the crow.
To engage in pattern thinking, to decolonise properly, it feels pressing and neccessary to draw from our disparate cultural heritages to find an ethic that can replace the ‘white weirdness’ with resonance, reciprocity, joy.
As the old year, 5780, draws to a close, I find myself thinking about the concept of teshuvah a lot. Teshuvah is a legal prescription for rectifying error, or sin: it encompasses genuine regret, a commitment to change and an expression of apology. Engaging in teshuvah is a mandatory part of the High Holidays, is at the centre of a person’s stocktaking of their responsibilities and can’t be put off for fear of embarrassment or shame.
Teshuvah is also cyclical; it can be translated as ‘a return’. In the same way as I am slowly returning to the Jewish faith—my connection with which was severed a generation back—I hope to engage an understanding of the world that has moved past colonialism and towards the waterlily and its roots.
Can a language lesson be teshuvah? Can a book review…? I feel challenged and admonished by Watson’s call to enact ideas, to not merely recite them. I read this morning that a Vietnamese lawyer, Hieu Nguyen, has translated the Uluru Statement from the Heart so that his community can understand it. That act is surely teshuvah, whether or not it is conceived as this.
My friend Felicity—my mudj—comes over for coffee. She’s figuring out what plants will help regenerate the creek that cuts our block. A strong wind is blowing; baliya, north-east wind. I want to lend her Us Women, but I need it to look up quotes; later this evening I’ll walk around to her place and drop it in the mail.
None of us wants Kerry to get sick, so we don’t moan about Dhurga being cancelled. Still, I know that we’re hoping for classes to resume. The seven or eight or nine of us form the strands of our own small web, and we run into each other at the supermarket and smile. Walawaani, Julia adds to her email sign-off. Safe journey. Goodbye. Hello. •
Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor living on Munkata-Yuin land in Braidwood, NSW. Her essay collection, Things that Helped (Scribe), was released in 2017, and she is working on a novel.