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Aboriginal Languages

Relatively recently northern Australia was connected to New Guinea by land and had a similarly diverse range of languages.  But the sea rose, separating the land masses about eight thousand years ago.  The climate changed and Australia became less hospitable and less able to support the same hunting and gathering population.  This resulted in some language groups occupying larger areas and others dying out.  It is estimated that when the British arrived in 1788, Australia with an area ten times the size of New Guinea, had perhaps half as many distinct clans and languages.

Today only fifteen Aboriginal languages are in regular use; mostly in and around Darwin. These few are under such threat that there is an active programme of preservation; linking to programmes intended to retain traditional culture and lifestyle.  Other programmes are attempting, perhaps incompatibly, to educate children, introduce improved medical practice and nutrition and mitigate the clash of cultures that has introduced alcohol, drugs and welfare dependence. 

A living language is a dynamic thing not an ancient object to be preserved in a museum.  Words stand for concepts and without the correct words we can't grasp the concepts that they embody.  While any language can absorb words and concepts from others or evolve its own, we should not condemn anyone to using an ancient language that prevents them properly integrating into society, obscures meaning and understanding, or does other harms like maintaining erroneous views of the universe.   Languages should not be preserved just for the delight of a handful of academics to the detriment of the communities in which they are preserved.   We should simply record the past forms and usages for future study; absorb anything useful, like place names; then let them go.

English, for example, is changing all the time and is almost unrecognisable after less than a thousand years.  Hundreds of European languages have disappeared over the same time to be replaced by standardised French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian; plus a few more.

 

 

 

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