Language of the Month: Tjupan

     Since starting the Language of the Month featured, we have travelled as far as the Museum’s backyard with Piscataway, to the far reaches of Asia with Cantonese. We have also seen languages both surviving (Cantonese) and almost completely forgotten (Piscataway). However, there exist several languages in the middle of these two, which are not completely dormant but in danger of disappearing forever if nothing is done soon. One of these languages is Tjupan, a language indigenous to Australia. 

     Before colonization, Australia was home to between 300-350 indigenous (or aboriginal) languages. Currently, only 7 of them have more than 1,000 speakers, due to colonization and efforts to suppress aboriginal languages. With more than 1,000 speakers, with effort and cultural sharing, these languages may remain small in number but well-documented and continue to be spoken for years to come.

     Tjupan is not as fortunate. With only “a couple of elders who are fluent” according to an interview with SBS news, Tjupan is in danger of becoming a dormant language within the next 20 years, if not less. 

     All hope, however, is not lost. There is already some effort to maintain the language. The Ngalia Heritage Research Council, a group of elders who in the 1980s realized their heritage would be lost unless they began to preserve language, culture, and history, has already begun to document the language. From this research, we know that the language consists of 6 vowels and 18 consonants. Their “picture dictionary” has also identified about 500 common words, including both nouns and action verbs. However, this dictionary does not contain any information on grammar or other structures of linguistic value that could help preserve the language. 

     So what can be done to preserve an endangered language? The picture dictionary is a fantastic start, but there are also several ways to preserve and promote a language. Especially in a language with no child speakers such as Tjupan, preserving recordings and natural language while native speakers are still alive will be key for preservation. With the Australian government promoting and funding language revitalization, it is possible that there will be increased interest outside the language’s community. Growing awareness of the importance of language preservation is evident on a global level in the Year of Indigenous Languages, a UNESCO initiative supported by the National Museum of Language. The Year of Indigenous Languages has created a new interest in preserving these languages, but it will be up to communities and governments to work together once the year is over in order to make sure this momentum stays. There has already been success preserving Maori in Australia’s neighbor New Zealand, so there is still plenty of opportunity for the Aboriginal languages of Australia.

Sources and Further Reading:

Tjupan Picture Dictionary:

The Australians Keeping Their Indigenous Languages Alive: