Pentecost: An invitation to linguistic humility this #NRW2020

Ngata (hello). Last week I met some women who were speaking language. Their conversation sounded like sunlight on a gently rippling stream, like good earth made soft with ash. As they turned to include me, I asked the elder how many languages she speaks. ‘Nine,’ she said, ‘plus English. Usually five around the kitchen table at my house.’ Then she apologised for speaking language in front of me. ‘Should be speakin English,’ she said.

I don’t know her personal history, but I do know that speaking language has been a fraught issue since invasion. Many languages were lost when all speakers died, whether because of massacre or introduced disease. In the Wimmera, one missionary learned language in order to preach the gospel; by the time he achieved proficiency, every Indigenous speaker was dead (1). Worse, speaking language was at times made illegal by white government. Stan Grant writes that his great-grandfather, a man who passed on ceremony and culture, was overheard speaking Wiradjuri and jailed for this act. When he was released, he refused to speak that language again (2). In many places, police, teachers and missionaries severely punished anyone who spoke anything other than English (3).

With this history, it’s no wonder my conversation partner apologised for speaking language in front of me: I’m a white woman. I felt so ashamed. My eyes pricked with tears as I rushed to thank them both for speaking language. I explained that, for me, it is a privilege to hear it, and I am incredibly sad that whitefellas have not learned it and that so much has been lost. ‘Yes,’ said the elder, ‘I lost five myself. Five languages. But you can learn, easy!’ I smiled ruefully and asked where, exactly, I could learn. She smiled ruefully too, and the conversation moved on.

This Sunday we will be celebrating Pentecost, that time when the Holy Spirit came down and enabled new believers to speak in other tongues. Pentecost tells us that our task is not to enforce one homogenous language, but to let Babel be a blessing, and to learn to communicate, think and see the world through a diversity of tongues. Falling as it does this year in the middle of Reconciliation Week, I am struck more than ever by the terrible tragedy, irony and sin that the church has so often been complicit in the destruction and loss of traditional languages.

Can we imagine a church which is committed to supporting forensic language research and, where possible, learning the first languages of its local area? Or, if that’s a stretch too far, can we imagine a church which rejects jargon-filled Christianese and doesn’t flinch at earthy words, but instead is able to communicate with the real people it is called to serve, whether Indigenous, adolescent, LGBTIQA+, working class, or whoever else it may be, in the language of people’s hearts?

Perhaps this Pentecost is an invitation to linguistic humility: a time to listen, learn and speak in other people’s tongues as we seek to love and serve.

Wurruk (goodbye),
Alison

(1) See The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World, by Robert Kenny.
(2) See Talking to my Country, by Stan Grant (pp 107-108).
(3) See e.g. Black Swan. A Koorie Woman’s Life, by  Eileen Harrison and Carolyn Landon; My Place, by Sally Morgan; or Kick the Tin, by Doris Kartinyeri, to understand some of the pressures on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to stop speaking language.

Emailed to Sanctuary, 27 May 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Language snippets from Moyjil. If you’re interested in birds of SW Victoria, download the app, part-parti mirring-yi: you’ll learn both local words and traditional stories for 48 birds. Header provided by Reconciliation Australia, found here.

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