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  • The habitat of Australia's Aboriginal languages: Past, present and future
  • Colin Yallop
The habitat of Australia's Aboriginal languages: Past, present and future. Ed. by Gerhard Leitner and Ian G. Malcolm. (Trends in linguistics, studies and monographs 179.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2007. Pp. ix, 389. ISBN 9783110190793. $137 (Hb).

This is an informative book by a variety of authors and is a useful addition to the literature on the indigenous languages of Australia. After an introduction of twenty-two pages, the book itself begins solidly, with an exemplary 'overview of Australian traditional languages' by HAROLD KOCH. In little more than thirty pages, he succeeds in summarizing the history of research on Australian languages, commenting on their possible historical relations, surveying phonological, grammatical, and lexical features, and providing a substantial bibliography.

Michael Christie's chapter on 'Yolngu language habitat: Ecology, identity, and law in an Aboriginal society' concentrates on the people of the northeastern coast of the Northern Territory. The Yolngu are sometimes mentioned as relatively traditional, but this chapter is not a description of a static society, but rather a thoughtful study of cultural change grouped under headings such as 'feet and bones' and 'lagoons'.A lagoon, for example, may seem to be a body of still water, but it can also be a place where salt water meets fresh, a place created by the tides, or a place of movement and life beneath the surface. The lagoon is a metaphor for the meeting of cultures and a challenge to look beneath surfaces. Christie speaks of Yolngu 'language habitats' that are 'alive and productive', with 'new generations of Yolngu young people dealing with a changing world' (75).

Michael Walsh's contribution, 'Indigenous languages: Transitions from the past to the present', is a deft combination of overview and case study. He cites and discusses surveys of the state of traditional languages and measures of 'language vitality', before giving a concise social and linguistic history of the community at Wadeye, about 250 km southwest of Darwin. He then returns to a more general discussion of both loss of, and new life for, indigenous languages, and includes useful references to websites, databases, and language programs.

Graham McKay deals with 'Language maintenance, shift—and planning'. He reviews the statistics on the numbers of speakers of indigenous languages, and reports informatively on the use of indigenous languages in schools and courts of law, and on the development of national language policy.

John Harris's chapter, 'Linguistic responses to contact: Pidgins and creoles', is about pidgins and creoles in Australia, and particularly about the emergence of Kriol, a language whose standing, between English and traditional languages, remains controversial. Harris wisely says 'the ultimate future of Kriol is unclear' (147), but his estimates—that Kriol is the primary language of 15,000 people and a significant lingua franca for at least 30,000 others—suggest that educators and policy makers should be taking this language seriously.

Aboriginal English likewise deserves respectful attention and is the subject of a chapter by IAN G. MALCOLM and ELLEN GROTE. 'Aboriginal English: Restructured variety for cultural maintenance'moves through a descriptive outline to a discussion of the functions of Aboriginal English and variations within it.

Farzad Sharifian's contribution, 'Aboriginal language habitat and cultural continuity', is primarily devoted to what Sharifian calls 'cultural conceptualizations', and examples are drawn largely from kinship, such as the use of terms like 'second father' in Aboriginal English and the marking of personal pronouns according to kin groupings in some central Australian languages.

Gerhard Leitner contends that 'The Aboriginal contribution to Australia's language habitat' is more than a matter of lexical borrowing: '[s]een from a habitat approach, the theme of contact covers considerably more than the transfer of words to and the creation of concepts in a target language' (197). He mentions well-known examples such as boomerang and dingo, and devotes a substantial part of the chapter to studies of words such as native, tribal, country, and law—English words that have acquired new uses in Australia. He then gives some samples of text to demonstrate that the 'language repertoires [of Australians of...


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