A new book, A New Grammar by Dyirbal, about North Queensland’s Indigenous language Dyirbal is shining a fresh light on the complex and colourful language and culture of Australia’s First Nations peoples.
The new book, A New Grammar of Dyirbal, celebrates language and storytelling across 10 North Queensland Indigenous communities. Cairns-based CQUniversity Adjunct Professor Bob Dixon documents the entire work. It’s a sequel more than 50 years in the making.
The comprehensive collection of words, ways of speaking, and in-language storytelling encompass the Girramay, Jirrbal, Mamu and Ngajan peoples. Additionally, A New Grammar of Dyirbal refines and extends Prof Dixon’s grammatical analysis in light of recent advances in typological theory, many of which he has personally driven.
Adjunct Professor Bob Dixon first documented the language when he moved to Australia from England in 1963. Uniquely ancient languages are highly complex, and Prof Dixon describes Dyirbal sentence structure as “a bit more complex than Latin or Greek”.
Prof Dixon says the latest book is a tribute to his first Dyirbal teacher and Jirrbal/Girramay Elder, Chloe Grant, who passed away in 1974.
“Chloe had had a Girramay mother and an Irish father. She had been brought up in the Jirrbalngan camp at Bellenden… (and her) tribal life had continued pretty well intact until 1913 when the government had stepped in and taken many of the people away to settlements,” he said.
“After that, aspects of traditional life had continued in secret.”
Prof Dixon said Chloe was the first Dyirbal speaker to alert him to the many different dialects across different Dyirbal-speaking tribes. She shared and translated many traditional legends and beliefs.
“Chloe would apologise for each one, saying it was not true, just silly… and that her language was ‘back-to-front’.
“We assured Chloe that each language had a distinctive word order and that there was nothing sacred about the order of English!”
Following Chloe’s death, Prof Dixon’s connection to her community has continued through his work with Chloe’s grandson and CQUniversity Deputy Vice-President Indigenous Engagement, Professor Adrian Miller.
“Because I was adopted into the kinship system. I continue to have a traditional connection to Professor Miller. He calls me ‘gaya’, which is mother’s younger brother, and I call him ‘daman’, or nephew.”
Prof Dixon is a linguistics researcher with CQU’s Jawun Research Centre. It’s a flagship centre for Indigenous research in Northern Australia, which is led by proud Jirrbal man Professor Miller. The Centre is named for the uniquely-shaped bicornual basket or dilly-bag, traditionally used by speakers of Dyirbal.
In 1972 he published his groundbreaking book The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland. This book captured and explained an Australian Indigenous language.