Dyirbal language book a tribute to linguist's First Nations teacher, complex and colourful Indigenous culture

16 January 2023

It's a sequel more than 50 years in the making' and a new book about North Queensland's Indigenous language Dyirbal is shining a fresh light on the complex and colourful language and culture of Australia's First Nations peoples.

Internationally renowned Cairns-based linguist R.M.W. (Bob) Dixon has just published A New Grammar of Dyirbal' a comprehensive collection of words' ways of speaking' and in-language storytelling across 10 Indigenous communities of North Queensland' including the Girramay' Jirrbal' Mamu and Ngajan peoples.

The CQUniversity Adjunct Professor first documented the language when he moved to Australia from England in 1963' and has described Dyirbal sentence structure as "a bit more complex that Latin or Greek".

In 1972 he published his groundbreaking book The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland' setting a benchmark for capturing and explaining an Australian Indigenous language.

Prof Dixon says the latest book is a tribute to his first Dyirbal teacher and Jirrbal/Girramay Elder' Chloe Grant' who passed away in 1974.

"Chloe had a Girramay mother and an Irish father' she had been brought up in the Jirrbalngan camp at Bellenden… (and her) tribal life had continued pretty well intact until 1913 when the government had stepped in and taken many of the people away to settlements'" he said.

"After that' aspects of traditional life had continued in secret."

Prof Dixon said Chloe was the first Dyirbal speaker to alert him to the many different dialects across different Dyirbal-speaking tribes' and that she shared and translated many traditional legends and beliefs.

"Chloe would apologise for each one' saying it was not true' just silly… and that her language was 'back-to-front'.

"This was the heart-breaking legacy from a century of psychological brainwashing by the whites' telling the Aboriginal people that they had no proper language' and reviling their customs'" he said.

"We assured Chloe that each language had a distinctive word order' and that there was nothing sacred about the order of English!"

Since Chloe's death' Prof Dixon's connection to her community has continued through his work' including with Chloe's grandson and CQUniversity Deputy Vice-President Indigenous Engagement' Professor Adrian Miller.

"Chloe was my first great teacher of Aboriginal language' and her knowledge' vivacity and intelligence informed so much of research and writing about Dyirbal'" he explained.

"Because I was adopted into the kinship system' I continue to have a traditional connection to Professor Miller - he calls me 'gaya'' which is mother's younger brother' and I call him 'daman'' or nephew."

Hear from Adjunct Professors Alexandra Aikhenvald and Robert Dixon' and Professor Adrian Miller' on CQUniversity's IMPACT podcast:

Prof Dixon is a linguistics researcher with CQU's Jawun Research Centre' a flagship for Indigenous research in Northern Australia' which is led by proud Jirrbal man Professor Miller.

The Centre is named for the uniquely-shaped bicornual basket or dilly-bag' traditionally used by speakers of Dyirbal. The language includes numerous words for different sizes and types of jawun' and the parts of the dilly-bag were described with terms used for human body parts' for instance 'julu': both the rump of a person' and the bottom corner of the dilly-bag.

Following his initial research project' Prof Dixon continued to work with Dyirbal language communities every year until 2001' and his new work is built on thousands of recorded conversations with native speakers. He also worked on Yidiñ' Warrgamay' Nyawaygi' and Mbarbaram' other languages from the area.

A New Grammar of Dyirbal refines and extends Prof Dixon's grammatical analysis' in light of recent advances in typological theory' many of which he has personally driven.

A special feature is that' while in the earlier work' structural features were explained through simple sentences crafted by linguists and speakers' and in this present volume almost every example comes directly from language recorded directly from Dyirbal-speaking interviewees.

Through their stories' the book provides insight into Dyirbal traditional culture and beliefs.


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