FOR the first time since the 1860s, the Kaurna language of the Adelaide plains is being spoken fluently by three young Aboriginal men.
The result is the culmination of more than 20 years of painstaking research into the dormant language, which has allowed a new generation of Aboriginal men to revive the tongue of their ancestors.
Jack Buckskin is one of the three men in Adelaide now fluent in Kaurna, which had been considered a “dead language” since its last known speaker, Ivarityi, died in 1929.
Mr Buckskin has worked with linguists from the University of Adelaide on the Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi project to learn the language and to develop teaching resources.
“It was only since the late 1980s and early 90s that our elders started to learn language and now it has started to filter down through the future generations,” Mr Buckskin said.
“We knew words as we were growing up as kids, but we didn’t know how it all flowed together without any English, and we didn’t know which language we were speaking.”
He began to learn the Kaurna language as a young adult.
Mr Buckskin is now teaching his young children Maleaha and Vincent to speak the language. They will be the first people to claim Kaurna as their mother tongue in more than 150 years.
The language revival began in 1989 as part of an event tied to the Adelaide Festival that translated songs into local indigenous languages.
Linguist Rob Amery from the University of Adelaide then began to collect source material in order to document the language as interest in its revival grew.
The most important source was an illustrated manuscript of about 3000 words made by two German missionaries, Christian Gottlob Teichelmann and Clamor Wilhelm Schurmann, who came to Adelaide in the 1830s and 1840s.
Other documents included translations of six German hymns and the Ten Commandments, some of which had been preserved in South Africa.
These were used to reconstruct the lost grammar of Kaurna.
Just five documents written by Kaurna people in their own language in the 19th century have survived to help with the task, including letters written by Kaurna schoolchildren in 1843 to the Leipzig Mission in Germany.
“It is quite remarkable when we look back,” Dr Amery says.
“The language has far exceeded my expectations. I never thought it would come as far as it has. It is much more than a linguistic exercise; it is about language and culture and land and identity.”