Fewer than twenty people were fluent in Miriwoong when work began to preserve this virtually-extinct language. And those native speakers were all elderly and their numbers were dwindling fast.
At the Mirima Language Centre in Kununurra, specialists have been working since the 1970s to snatch the Miriwoong language from the ‘virtually-extinct’ list. Only through clever, hard work, determination and with the help of outside expertise, do they continue to stay ahead of the race against time to save Miriwoong language.
“The old people put me here to preserve the language, to pass it on” David Newry (Senior Consultant and Board Director) says, as if that’s a normal thing. It appears the old people chose well, as David is doing remarkable work, and Miriwoong is coming back. He’s worked with non-indigenous specialists to ensure the traditions, customs and especially the language, is preserved. Through language, the old people hope to pass on all-important history, customs, stories, traditions – all those things that go to give a person a sense of identity.
An unlikely pairing
David Newry is a Miriwoong man, born and bred in remote north west Western Australia – almost part of the land itself; Knut J. Olawsky is a German-born linguist who’s worked in Africa, America, New Guinea and Australia.
Together they work tirelessly to preserve this ancient language and through that the culture and traditions.
There are now loads of resources that have been developed to help the locals regain their culture, customs and traditions through language. These days they have a printed dictionary of more than 300 pages; classes are held each week; community sessions attract interested locals and it appears the language may be saved.
Those involved in this important work believe it’s through identity they can keep their young people safe and help them survive and thrive on country.
Here are a couple of snippets of the language if you would like to practice …
Berrayinga Miriwoong Dawang yoowoorriyantha (This is our country, Miriwoong Country)
Woonyjoo barranggoo dawa–yoowoorriyang (Please respect this place of ours)
That’s what this whole story is about – the resources, the people, and the co-operation – these will be explored further in our film about Mirima Language Centre, currently in production.