Language as expression of relation between cultures

Reference 27

Nearly all other Europeans are addressed as Mr. So-and-so. This is an invariable rule at U, and there are only a very few exceptions at X. Whites collectively are often referred to as 'bosses' in the U district, whether they employ Aboriginal labour or not. This usage makes the social distance between the two groups quite clear. Aborigines are invariably addressed by Christian names, and are referred to as a group by a number of terms which I arrange here in descending order or offensiveness from the Aborigines' point of view : Nigger, boong, coon, Abo, Aborigine, Black, blackfellow, coloured. It is worthy of note that this is not necessarily the ' order of offensiveness ' in other areas. Here there is little or no insult implied by the use of the word 'blackfello' whereas in N in the central north-west it is felt to be most insulting. ' Boong ' and ' coon ' appear to date from the last war.

Probably the most important cultural element marking the Aboriginal community off from the white is the continued use of the Bandjalang language. This is self-consciously and deliberately used by the Aborigines as a mechanism by which the white man can be excluded. Though few of the younger people are fluent speakers, nearly all know sufficient to serve in situations of this nature. It is always used to give warning of the approach of police or an officer of the Welfare Board. Offensive remarks are made about whites in their presence, or a conversation is carried on with the intention of excluding them. I attended one meeting of a citizens' association at X when both manager and teacher were unpopular. Nearly all business was conducted in the language, the chairman translating from time to time with an air of condescension.

Among the younger people, the language is used on the football field to give directions to team mates, which are, of course, not understood by the opposing white team. This is one side of the picture ; on the other side the speaking of the language is taken to be a badge of inferiority, the mark of the uneducated old-timer. There is often friction between the aged and the young over this: one old woman complained bitterly to me that 'these young people won't talk to you if you talk in the lingo; they say: 'we don't want to hear any of those old things', and walk away'. I have heard young people say to their seniors: ' Shhh ! don't talk in the lingo, the white people might hear you'. Many Aborigines admit that they feel most self-conscious talking the language in the presence of whites. 'We feel ashamed to let them hear us', as one woman phrased it. This ambivalence towards Aboriginal culture is characteristic of these communities; now one side of the ambivalence finds expression and now the other.

During the last two years (1955-7) there has been a tendency for language to be more vigorously affirmed as a value. There are two factors responsible for this. Firstly, Aborigines have become aware that the large number of European migrants in Australia continue to speak their native languages. 'If these foreigners can talk their lingo, why should we be ashamed of ours; we have a right to our own lingo in our own country'. Aborigines have also noted that, on the whole, Europeans are willing to accept them to a much greater degree than are white Australians. The only white man who paid a social visit to an Aboriginal family at X during my period of residence was a European migrant. The second factor is the development of the Pentecostal cult, which insists on the 'equality of all before God' and often makes use of the language in prayers and exhortations.

Hostility to whites is seldom expressed openly. Since the first armed clashes with the Europeans over a century ago, the Bandjalang have learned that they must always come off worst in such encounters. The essential ambivalence to whites is seen again in the use of the two words mada (master) and dugai (stinking corpse). On several occasions Aboriginal parents have reprimanded their children for addressing me as dugai, as they felt that its use was most insulting. Also this term is in use only among the northern Bandjalang. In the south a white man is called jiralee (f . jilligan), which seems to be much less insulting. The feminine of dugai, dauragan, is never used of a white woman, but a corruption of the English, womerigan, is substituted

Football games also tend to bring latent hostility to the surface. I have heard onlookers give directions, in Bandjalang, how best to injure members of the opposing white team. On the football field, a flaring of hostility is not infrequent, though seldom does this end in a brawl involving both referee and onlookers, as happened at X during 1956. Aborigines expect to be slighted and expect the referee to favour the white team. The slightest error of judgment on his part is likely to be interpreted as discrimination.

Often fights on the field are precipitated by a white man calling an Aborigine a 'black bastard'. When used by one white man to another, the word 'bastard' is seldom intended to give offence, or taken as so doing, and this is probably because so few white people are indeed illegitimate. Among Aborigines, on the other hand, a large percentage are indeed legally illegitimate, and they bitterly resent being reminded of the fact. I am convinced that seldom is an insult intended by the white players; that, on the contrary, the use of the word is an attempt to be friendly and informal. It is felt that the Aborigines are 'looking for a fight'. The word has become so much a part of the every-day Australian vocabulary that whites find it difficult to appreciate the Aborigines' strong objection to its use.