I wish there was a word for what I’m feeling. It’s a kind of emotional malnutrition, an emptiness brought on by the lack of vision I perceive in those who would lead us into the future. Such a word should exist in the Australian idiom. We’ve needed it before.

Other languages provide words for culturally specific sensations.

The Inuit speak of itsuarpok – the feeling of anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone is coming. In French they talk of depaysement  – the unsettling sensation that comes from not being in one’s home country. A personal favourite is the German word zerrissenheit, which literally means broken-to-pieces-hood.

I’m fifth generation Australian, but I don’t have a word to describe my queasiness about short-sighted policy-makers. Maybe there are words for such feelings in Yamatji, or Eora, or Noongar, but most of us wouldn’t know, because we don’t speak any of the languages that rose directly from our earth. In the late 18th century, there were over 350 indigenous languages in Australia. At the start of the 21st, fewer than 150 remain in daily use, and most of those are endangered.

This was a place with more linguistic individuation than Europe before our boat-people ancestors arrived, but they didn’t take the time to learn its words or hear its stories. Colonisers and evangelists do this over and over, insisting they know what is best.

Recently, I heard the tale of a European media executive who decided developing African countries would provide a lucrative market for his empire. A remote village was chosen to pilot his project. For the first few days the villagers were mesmerised by a television, and all their work ground to a halt. But one morning the executive found the screen deserted and the villagers going about their normal work.

‘What has happened?’ he asked.

‘We’ve seen it all,’ came the reply.

‘But you have access to over twenty channels, transmitting 24 hours a day. You can’t have seen it all.’

An elder shrugged. ‘We have our own storyteller.’

‘But he can’t possibly know all the stories on television.’

‘Ah, but our storyteller knows our story, in our words.’

We tell stories solely in the words of Milton and Shakespeare, or Pepsi and Nike, at cost to ourselves. English is beautiful, but it’s also ruthless. It morphs, changes and conquers because it must do that to survive. In that march to victory, the loss of cultural specificity is profound. That loss is the sacrificing of identity, because that’s what language is. Identity.


Photo credit: wilhei

But all is not lost.

In Geraldton, on the coast of WA, there’s a beautiful centre for learning Yamatji, and it’s possible, given time and communal desire, that local kids might grow up speaking two tongues – indigenous and settler’s.

Meantime, there’s more hope.

A recent news report told how linguistics professor Dr Michael Walsh was browsing the stacks at Sydney’s Mitchell Library when he randomly pulled down a box containing two notebooks. Walsh had stumbled across a colonial guide to a lost Aboriginal language.

He instigated a research project, trolling through 14km of manuscripts in search of mentions of lost or endangered languages. Much of the material recorded harsh ironies – many who’d noted words or phrases were colonialists, intent on taking Aboriginal land to settle and open it to pastoralism.

But Walsh remains hopeful, as he takes recovered languages back to communities. People report that once they regain language, they also regain identity; with that comes improvement. He spoke of people who’d been dysfunctional, in trouble with police, with alcohol, and not able to work. They said it was language that brought them back to themselves.

So. Hope.

We are still losing many Australian languages, but I have to hold onto hope – surely one of the most beautiful words in English.

Interestingly, it doesn’t exist in Yamatji.

That’s right. No word for hope.

There is, however, the word “wirla”.

In Geraldton I learned that “wirla” is the word for a bad feeling in the gut – the kind of feeling you get when you see a person and know something isn’t right. It’s exactly the word I need to describe my current queasiness. Let’s remember it.

Ailsa Piper

Ailsa Piper is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.