Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Some thoughts on language, loss and identity

Have you ever seen this map?

At a conservative estimate, more than two hundred and fifty different languages were spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now extinct with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.

That’s a sobering picture. Why? Because language is about identity. Consider this quote from Wominjeka at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

Language is the essence of who you are. It tells you where you come from, your connection to Country and where your Country is … Without speaking that language, you’re missing a huge chunk of your identity.

As a Welsh language learner, this is a reality I often reflect upon. But this week, at the request of an Australian woman doing an M.A. in Celtic Studies through the University of Wales, Trinity St David, I have been trying to articulate how learning Welsh shapes my identity. In an email to the researcher, I wrote:

One of my life ambitions has always been to write a novel. On turning forty, I decided it was time to give this ambition a go. It would be a historical novel as I love history. It had to be Australian (because I had no research budget) and it would be about migrants because emigration was the single most defining event of my childhood. Somewhere along the line I also decided to have Welsh characters.

Initially, I knew very little about Welsh culture but, as I began to research, I stumbled across the Melbourne Welsh classes. I went along to the first class expecting only to attend for a short while – long enough get a broad sense of the language for my novel. Ten years later I am still learning Welsh because somewhere along the way I fell in love with the language. I love its words. Their spelling. The poetry. Speaking Welsh does something warm inside me.

The researcher wanted to know more about this warmth – what exactly falling in love with a language looked like. I wrote back to her:

At the beginning of the year, our Welsh class sits in a circle. We introduce ourselves and tell the class why we are wanting to learn Welsh. Some speak of heritage. Others describe a sense of belonging they felt on first crossing the border into Wales. Others describe a longing – a desire to speak their own language. Welsh has a word for this yearning: Hiraeth. Hir, first part, means long. The second part aeth is the word for pain or grief.

Hiraeth is therefore a long ache.

How does this relate to the map of Australia’s indigenous languages? Good question. I’m coming to that.

You see a friend of mine, Veronica Calarco, is an Australian artist who lives and works in Wales and Australia. I first met Veronica at Cwrs Haf – an intensive Welsh language summer school in Aberystwyth. We have corresponded, on and off, ever since. In a recent email, Veronica sent me a Vimeo link to one of her recent works – KurnaiCymraeg. In her brief explanatory note, she says this about the project:
I decided to make a Kurnai Welsh dictionary to signify the loss of meaning, history, memory, knowledge and growth that occurs when a language becomes extinct or is rarely used.
Much of the spoken Welsh at the beginning of the Vimeo clip is written in English on the bilingual introductory page. After that that, unless you read Welsh, you will be dependant entirely on Veronica’s images. Why not have a look? Never mind the privacy message, just clink on the link. Enjoy the beauty of spoken Welsh. Kurnai spoken with a North Walian accent. Experience the sensation of incomplete meaning. And in that moment, mourn: for when a language is lost, a people is lost and all knowledge contained within that language is lost, and the world is a little less interesting.



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  1. A fascinating post, Liz.
    It’s always so sad to read how so many indigenous languages have been lost. Their individuality and identities along with them. But lovely to hear/see Veronica’s video. It made me admire you both so much for learning Welsh. I struggle with accents and Welsh seems particularly difficult. Correct me, if I’m wrong.
    I think it’s fabulous too that you have pursued your heritage and knowledge of Wales and Welsh and know for reading your novel how beautifully and evocatively it has reflected in your writing.

    • Yes, it’s funny. I guess I chose Welsh characters because of my heritage but looking back it didn’t feel that significant at the time. Looking back now it seems one of the most important decisions of my life. I can’t do accents either. I tell my Welsh class, sorry. You are going to learn To speak Welsh with a horrible Australian accent. They say not to worry we speak English that way too.

  2. Stephen Fry did a series on ABC recently on languages, the lost ones, the ones that have survived despite the political landscape and conquerors doing everything they could to wipe out those languages, and also the languages that were created out of a need to connect, to belong and create a new history. It was a really amazing program.
    Language is definitely part of identity, and it is definitely a long ache to think of those that have been lost, never to be spoken again.

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