The Commonwealth Observer

Tiny group of Australian islanders fight to save a 10-language treasure

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Murray Burt
Written by Murray Burt

There are 400 islanders who talk, work and live in the Arnemland archipelagoes in northern Australia and speak 10 languages among themselves. One group on Goldberg Island, and there are many like it in the world.

Big concern there is the dwindling number of scientists, scholars and elders fighting to preserve the region’s lifestyle. The numbers who soak up and use the many languages of the region are in steady decline, despite the vigorous support of elders and one-on-one work in community, even in kindergarten atmospheres.

One person, a failing 74-year-old, is the last person alive speaking one of the 10 languages> That’s Omerdoc, the language of his birth.

Nevertheless, it’s not an anomaly when one considers our whole world functions in 6,000 languages, and many of them are fading fast. It’s estimated one language is lost every two weeks, despite the scientific efforts, scholarship, education, and some government support.

Those living in these language oases, know from experience when a word is lost it is gone forever. Australia was once home to 500 languages, a feature of its nomadic populace. Now there are 300 or less.

Photo credit: Chris Lofqvist / cc

About the author

Murray Burt

Murray Burt

Murray Burt has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, starting as a cadet reporter in New Zealand, and doing two stints with wire services on Fleet Street before settling in Canada in the newspaper business. He is a retired managing editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, and former city and national editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto. He is a past-president of the CJA and has been a life member since 2003, participating in each of its conferences and CPU’s conferences since 1990. He is a director of the Advisory Council of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi; president of Manitoba’s newly-reconstituted Royal Commonwealth Society; and has directorships in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and the Canadian Forces Liaison Council (western Canada).

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