Kara Hinesley, director of public policy with Twitter Australia and NZ, said the “global first account takeover” would raise awareness of Indigenous languages, which were disappearing faster in Australia than anywhere else.
Every Indigenous language in Australia should be considered “endangered”, according to a National Indigenous Languages Report released last month.
At the time of colonialisation, 250 languages were spoken. Today, only 12 traditional languages are considered strong and about 123 are in use or being revitalised. Two “new languages” – Kriol, spoken in the Kimberley and Top End; and Yumplatok, spoken in the Torres Straits – were growing.
About 90 per cent of Indigenous people reported they don’t speak their traditional language, and 10 per cent spoke some of that language at home.
AIATSIS has been working to bring languages back into use by funding 25 dictionaries. A dozen have been published so far including the Dhurga Dictionary and Learners Grammar in July and Dhangutti this week.
Teacher Trisha Ellis from Moruya grew up hearing her grandmother and mother use words in Dhurga, the language of the Yuin people of NSW’s South Coast. “When we were kids, we thought they were words they had made up,” she said.
Ms Ellis, 63, and her younger siblings Kerry Boyenga and Waine Donovan, worked with a linguist to compile a dictionary of words to help teachers revive the language. “We went from having 70 words to 300 and now 730,” she said.
The dictionary is in its fourth edition, and some bookshops can’t keep up with demand, said Ms Ellis. “There is such a passion for people to learn our own language,” she said.
Mr Ritchie said the interest in the dictionaries and reviving language showed the situation with Indigenous languages wasn’t entirely lacking hope.
“It is easy to think of language as a mechanical device … but all languages are deeply rooted in culture,” he said.
“Reawakening Indigenous Australian languages is really important for Aboriginal and Torres strait islander people’s sense of identity.”
When he received a copy of the Dhangatti dictionary, it was emotional. “It is bit hard to describe on a personal level just what it means to hold in your hand the embodiment of your language and your culture.“
It also coincided with a decision to name the AIATSIS building in Canberra, Maraga. A Ngunnawal word, Maraga has two meanings, a waddy shield, and a coolamon to hold babies and carry food.
The twitter takeover is a partnership with the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) to celebrate First Nations languages. Tom Calma, the co-chairman of ANLF said Indigenous Australians said the languages are still at risk of disappearing. The Twitter campaign would help highlight Indigenous languages and cultures across Australia.
Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.