Indigenous Languages
State of Environment Report Technical Paper Series
David Nash & John Henderson

The knowledge that a culture has about the environment is best expressed by the language of that culture. Language allows the expression and transmission of this knowledge within and across generations. It also serves as a powerful expression of identity. This paper surveys the state of Australia's indigenous languages.

In general, the indigenous languages have been in a disastrous decline since first European contact. Many languages have only a handful of elderly speakers, and if preceding cases are any indication, almost all of the traditional languages currently spoken could be gone within a generation. As it is, there are only at most twenty traditional languages that are being passed on to children and being used by them as a primary form of communication. The loss of indigenous languages goes together with the loss of detail in traditional knowledge.

Research on indigenous places best involves collaborative site documentation combined with investigation of the narrative context and related songs and other performance, and hence implies an understanding of the local languages. A case study shows how indigenous place names are treated or ignored in official toponymy. The paper summarises current pressures on languages, and responses including language maintenance activities such as:

The main current needs are identified, with suggestions for dealing with documentation of language and traditional knowledge.

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