The gun and the trousers spoke English : language shift on Northern Cape York Peninsula

Harper, Helen. (2002). The gun and the trousers spoke English : language shift on Northern Cape York Peninsula PhD Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland.

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Author Harper, Helen.
Thesis Title The gun and the trousers spoke English : language shift on Northern Cape York Peninsula
School, Centre or Institute School of Social Science
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2002
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Rigsby, Bruce
Total pages 344
Collection year 2002
Language eng
Subjects 200319 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages
370302 Social and Cultural Anthropology
370303 Linguistic Anthropology
750309 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander development and welfare
Formatted abstract
This thesis examines the changing situation of indigenous languages in Northern Cape York Peninsula. Today only a handful of people are still able to speak any of the traditional indigenous languages and children have not learned them as first languages since the 1930s. This thesis documents the story of the Northern Cape York Peninsula languages from pre-contact times until today, showing how the symbolic, or sociocultural, meanings associated with these languages have changed for speakers and their descendants.

Past studies of language shift and language death have been drawn from a number of different perspectives. Many studies focus on macrosociological factors, correlating language shift with social, economic and demographic changes. Some studies focus on the changing social meanings of languages in relation to other languages within multilingual repertoires. Some studies focus on language transmission across generations. All these approaches are relevant to this case study, and this thesis employs each of them as far as is possible with the available data. It is argued that changing language use is associated not only with the need to communicate within a radically changed social order, but also with changes in the socio-cultural meanings of given languages in the context of changing multilingual repertoires.

This study is based on data drawn from historical, ethnographic and linguistic sources. Field work was carried out in Injinoo, an Aboriginal community in Northern Cape York Peninsula where a large number of the descendants of the traditional owners of this region currently reside.

Chapter 1 describes various perspectives on language shift in the linguistic literature and introduces the case study of Northern Cape York Peninsula. Subsequent chapters are ordered in a roughly chronological way, being organised according to distinct stages of social and linguistic changes in Northern Cape York Peninsula, from the pre-contact period until the present. Available data on language use in the pre-contact and early contact periods is scant, so the early chapters (2 and 3) focus on the demographic and social changes which caused Northern Cape York Peninsula people to develop new patterns of interaction with outsiders and amongst themselves. Chapters 4 and 5 draw more on local accounts and some analysis of language use in stories recorded in course of field work in Injinoo.

Chapter 4, on the early period of settlement at Injinoo, presents evidence of changing cultural identity to explain changing patterns of language transmission. Specifically, it is argued that language shift in Northern Cape York Peninsula was partly the result of an ideology wherein the use of distinct languages was intimately associated with discrete cultures, perceived in terms of patterns of behaviour and associated material goods, as well as in terms of cultural knowledge and the power gained in the use of that knowledge.

Chapter 5 addresses the use of traditional languages in Injinoo today, in particular the status of traditional language speakers within the community and the symbolic values of traditional languages as part of the community's multilingual repertoire.

In recent years, some people in Injinoo have been talking about 'getting Language back', and the final chapter of this thesis examines what this might mean. The present case study is discussed in relation to other cases in which 'language maintenance' activities have to some extent been successful. It is shown that there can be enormous variation with regard to the rationales and goals of such activities amongst different communities. In light of this discussion, a number of key questions are identified which are relevant to 'getting Language back' in Injinoo.
Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Languages
Additional Notes The author has given permission for this thesis to be made open access.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
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Created: Fri, 27 Nov 2009, 14:36:25 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service