A desire to contribute to a new country and the discovery of a dictionary that was almost 179 years old has led to the reclamation of the ancient Barngarla language.

28 May 2019

Oxbridge-educated, Israeli linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann made Australia his home in 2004, he wanted to find a way to give back to his adopted country.

‘I asked myself how can I contribute? What did I have to offer as an expert in Hebrew revival?’ Ghil’ad recalls.  

‘I found out that, tragically, 96% of Australian Aboriginal languages were either endangered or have already become what I call “Dreaming, Sleeping Beauties”, so I decided to use my skills and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew revival to empower Aboriginal people through language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration.’

A Professor of Linguistics and Endangered Languages, at the University of Adelaide, Zuckermann focused on finding a community in South Australia who shared his passion for reviving their language.

He then discovered a dictionary written in 1844 with 3,500 Barngarla words – a language that had not been spoken for 50 years.

‘It had been written by Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, a German Lutheran missionary and had enough grammar for me to reconstruct the entire original language.’

In 2011 he invited representatives of the Barngarla community to his Adelaide University office to gauge their interest in working with him to wake their dormant language. Their response was resounding, telling Ghil’ad ‘we’ve been waiting for you for 50 years’.

So began an 8-year-long project to reclaim Barngarla and develop the recently launched book Barngarlidhi Manoo (Speaking Barngarla Together).

Every step of the way was led by the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee of Stephen Atkinson, Harry Dare (member of the Stolen Generations), Emma Richards and Jenna Richards.

‘It's one hundred percent their book. I'm just the facilitator who helped them linguistically and revivalistically to make it happen, and the time is coming for me to hopefully hand over the reigns as the facilitator of the revival to a Barngarla person.’

The beautiful picture book is filled with images and artwork of community members. There is also a free app available that teaches pronunciation.

‘We use talknology – speech technology – to reconnect with the Barngarla heritage,’ Ghil’ad said.’

Book cover image is original artwork by Vera Richards, Barngarla woman, Port Lincoln. 

Group photo of Barngarlidhi Manoo book launch in Galinyala, Port Lincoln, South Australia

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