Language as social action — truth-telling and revival

Words: Samantha Roche
Images: Samantha Roche

March, 2024

“It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale”

W.E.H. Stanner

Anthropologists and linguists regard language as a tool to explore and express. It helps to define and describe the human experience, such as names of places and people, ideas within societies and cultures, or pronouns and belief systems. The particulars and nuances of language—including learned or spoken dialects, social values and norms, memory and religion—reveal great detail about our collective socio-cultural existence, including our humanity's diverse history and the stories we continue to tell.

In Stan Grant’s Quarterly Essay, The Australian Dream, he uses the word ‘reconciliation’ to untangle what is depicted as an agenda; an idea and an aspiration. As a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man, Grant delves into this conversation knowing the personal risks of rumination, alongside the dilemmas of speaking truth to Australia’s harmful relationship with its colonial history. Following a speech he gave in 2015, Grant was acknowledged and admired for his diplomatic voice—journalist Amy McGuire noticed how readers and audiences alike seemed comforted by his words—so as not to unsettle white Australia. Subsequently, in his reflective critique, he observes a tendency to oscillate between a “lazy narrative that obscures a more complete story” and a will towards self-determination by speaking about “a history of dispossession and ensuing suffering” (Grant, 2016: 9). With equal despair and grace, Grant uses language as an instrument for reckoning, paying particular attention to what the anthropologist W.E.H Stanner called the ‘Great Australian Silence’ (Stanner, 2010). Language urges us to engage with the multiplicity of reconciliation, and how colonisation has infiltrated the Australian identity and culture. However, for First Nations Australians, language is an ongoing relationship with suppression and self-determination.

Indigeneity in contemporary Australia is complex, multi-faceted, and tied to socio-cultural constructs that have been imposed by decades of government intervention and academic inquiry. Each time an English word seeks to explain, examine or understand Indigenous experiences, it acts as a subtle reminder of the superiority of the colonial gaze. From boundary constructs that seem impermeable (Gilroy, 1993; 2000), to urban alienation and identity conflict (Cowlishaw, 2004); race relations in Australia must confront the story behind language, or more critically, the absence of it. As Professor Yin Paradies writes:

Due, in large part, to my grandmother being a member of the Stolen Generations, I do not speak an Aboriginal language, I do not have a connection with my ancestral lands or a unique spirituality inherited through my Indigeneity, I have little contact with my extended family, and the majority of my friends are non-Indigenous.

If reconciliation is defined as the restoration of friendship, Paradies would reject this sentiment. The desire to cultivate friendship with the First People of Australia was far from the narrative when British settlers arrived on the shores of Australia. So how then can you restore a friendship if it was never offered in the first instance? Both Paradies and Grant understand “solidarity grounded in a common experience of subordination” and the “emphasis of marginality” (Paradies, 2006: 359) because they are reconciling whiteness and Aboriginality with a language system that always tempts misrepresentation and subjugation. In his most recent publication, The Queen is Dead, Grant addresses the dilemma of words that are deliberately used to erase the Australian story:

Although we may speak English, when we are talking to White people we are always involved in an act of translation. Words are heard so differently. It is as though White people are tuned to a different frequency. White people talk about the ‘dispossession’ of our country. We know it was stolen. White people talk about ‘settlement’. We know we were invaded. White people talk about ‘frontier conflict’. We know it was genocide. Yes, even when we use English, we are speaking different languages (Grant, 2023: 120).

What Grant and Paradies both allude to is the experience of survival, internalised racism, and marginalisation that derive from language. No approach will decolonise or reverse centuries of intergenerational harm, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that diversity or inclusivity of Indigeneity cannot be captured within the English language.

Brinja Yuin Elder Patricia Ellis OAM demonstrates how to weave a traditional waraawara (fishing line) with Samantha on Yuin Country

Australian native species Banksia (Banksia integrifolia)

As a profound act of revival, preservation and legacy, Minga Aboriginal Cultural Services has dedicated years of collaboration to publish what is known as The Dhurga Dictionary. A joint venture between the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and authors Patricia Ellis, Kerry Boyenga and Waine Donovan, this publication is a cultural archive and a written record that is helping communities to rediscover the Dhurga language.

After many years of community-led education in south-coast schools (the Dhurga Djamanj Aboriginal Language Program), Patricia, together with her family and community, researched and compiled the Dhurga dictionary in 2020. Today, she teaches in schools and TAFE across Yuin Country and the dictionary itself is a tool for growth. As a book, it’s a brilliant resource to teach; as a cultural archive, it’s an essential written record that will help the community reclaim what was once a stolen language. Patricia expresses that:

It might seem simple, but a dictionary offers three essential things: it reduces memory load (consistent spelling of words), it acts as an authority (authentic representation of a Dhurga word), and enables independent learning (I can look that up on my own)  (Ellis, 2023).

Patricia wants to see language revitalised, but she also wants to attend to the undercurrent of trepidation felt by Aboriginal people. At the time of the British invasion in 1788, Yuin people living on the south coast of New South Wales spoke several languages: Dhurga, Dharrawal, Dharumba and Djirringanj. Following colonisation, Aboriginal communities in Australia faced the imposition of English as their primary language in a systemic effort to harmfully erase traditional culture. Language became an act of rebellion that often placed many Aboriginal people in perilous situations, subjecting them to punishment by colonial authorities. However, Patricia explains, "Languages were thought to have been sleeping. But now they are more widely spoken” (Ellis, 2023). A closer read of the Dhurga dictionary will reveal how collective ways of thinking, being and doing must continue to confront the history of Australia’s colonial past.

With the flick of a page, Dhurga words capture rich emotional intelligence. There are singular words that convey unique meaning and cultural knowledge. Mere soundbites can expand ideas, in acknowledgement of Songlines and custodianship. Dhurga pronouns, for example, have a dual first person: -ngul, -ngal, -njin or -njingga. It evokes connection through a range of kinship pairs: us-two. It’s symbolic of the ever-present rapport with the ‘Other’, whether speaking about other people, communities, lands, seas or skies. This is a First Nations dictionary that acts as a cognitive technology for new ways of thinking and perceiving the world. It’s about the process, as much as it is about the content.

In the final chapters of Grant’s book, he speaks in Wiradjuri:

Dyirrimadalinya Badhu Wiradjuri.
Yuin Dhi Wongamar.
Do you understand me? Can you hear me?
Do I need to interpret this language for you? This language that has been here on this land for tens of thousands of years? When I speak the name of my great-great-great-grandfather, Wongamar, do you know who he is? He was here before you came and he is still here in me. But you don’t see him. You have brought your voices here. Your languages here. His voice is silenced (Grant, 2023: 129).

If reconciliation is to inspire truth-telling and revival, it must be a word of multitudes. Commencing the path of reconciliation—as a process—involves acknowledging First Peoples and their deep and storied history. They were here before the land was stolen, they were custodians of the country before settlement. Without First Nations culture and language, the idea of reconciliation will elude our shared futures. We must begin to collectively initiate more meaningful conversations around the revival of cultural languages and how this is a crucial step in our country’s journey of reconciliation.


The Dhurga Dictionary. This project was achieved through a joint venture between the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and authors Patricia Ellis, Kerry Boyenga and Waine Donovan.
Bingi Bingi Point headland, Yuin Country (near Moruya on the south coast of New South Wales)


Cowlishaw, G (2004) Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race, Blackwell Publishing, Victoria.

Ellis, P, Boyenga, K and Donovan, W (2022) The Dhurga Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar: A south-east coast, NSW Aboriginal Language, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

Gilroy, P (1993) Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, Serpent’s Tail, London.

Gilroy, P (2000) Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Grant, S (2016) ‘The Australian Dream Blood, History and Becoming’, Quarterly Essay, no. 64, pp. 1-80.

Grant, S (2023) The Queen is Dead, Harper Collins, Sydney.

Paradies, Y (2006) ‘Beyond Black and White: Essentialism, hybridity and Indigeneity’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 355-367.

Stanner, W.E.H (2010) The Dreaming and Other Essays, Black Inc, Victoria.

Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.