In 2015 the children of the Aireys Inlet Primary School began to get interested in Waddawurrung, the local language of their home place. Each week through winter for the last two years they have been learning their ‘WWW’, or ‘Waddawurrung Word of the Week’, with Gregory Day, a local Aireys person with a deep interest in the ongoing Waddawurrung history, language and culture. With the go-ahead from the Waddawurrung elders Gregory and the kids wrote The Mangowak Song, which is now sung on a regular basis at the school. The song combines Waddawurrung words and English and is like the school’s very own welcome to country. It’s a great way to connect the children and their families to the ancient culture of the inlet of Mangowak, which only became known as Aireys Inlet when Europeans who took up a pastoral lease decided to name the place after themselves.
By learning the original names for the place, the local animals and plants, and for our human feelings and greetings, the kids at Aireys School develop a deeper sense of how best to notice and look after the world where they live. For instance, the sound of a lot of Waddawurrung words actually come from the things they describe. In English we call this ‘onomatopeia’ (a word with Greek origins), but it essentially means that the kids are tuning in to the sound and character of the place where they live. A good example is the Waddawurrung word for magpie – ‘parrwang’. The only reason we use the term ‘magpie’ is because the bird reminded the first European settlers of a black and white European bird which bore a fairly scanty resemblance to it. ‘Parrwang’ however actually sounds like the mellifluous call the bird itself makes. When a whole classroom of kids start saying parrwang parrwang together they begin to sound like the place where they live. There are many other examples of this.
The learning of some language and the singing of the song is also an important way of connecting the past through the present to the future. It is a gesture of respect and admiration, and also great fun. Learning Waddawurrung words helps the children to understand that with the help and blessing of the elders, the wondrous cultural and linguistic tapestry of Australia can flourish and evolve in the 21st century.
Two of the students at Aireys who particularly love learning Waddawurrung agreed to answer a couple of questions from Otway Life. Otis Talman is in Year 6 and loves technology and football. Libby Heaton is in Year 4. Libby’s family have been connected to Aireys Inlet for many generations.
What was the inspiration for the song?
Otis – To help us learn all the indigenous words at the school. Music is a brilliant way to express your love of the language, and it also makes it easier to remember the words.
Why do you think it is important that children learn an Aboriginal language?
Libby – Because it’s the language of the people who used to live here. And it’s good to learn the language of other people who you might make friends with.
Otis – Because it’s the traditional language of the landscape where we live. So we learn some detail and history about our area. Learning the language inspires you to investigate the history of how the Waddawurrung lived, how they lived differently from us and what we share in common. And it’s fun to learn a language, any language, but particularly the one from where you are growing up.
Do you think other schools could do this?
Libby – Yes, but it might be difficult because it’s not on Google Translator.
Otis – Yes! For sure! All you need is someone in the community who is learning the language, has the approval of the local elders, and the enthusiasm and time to help the kids get on board.
What is your favourite Waddawurrung word?
Otis – My favourite Waddawurrung words are ‘parrwang/barrawarn’, which means ‘magpie’, ‘goim’ which means kangaroo, and Tjuraltja, which was the name of the local clan who lived from Kuarka Dorla (Anglesea) to Mangowak (Aireys Inlet).
Libby – my favourite word is ‘tonton’, which means ‘brain’.
Gregory Day adds – These of course are Waddawurrung words. The people of the area west and southwest of Aireys Inlet, and north west through the Otways and the volcanic plain, will have different words, a different language, because they live in different country. The Painkalac Creek here at Mangowak is the southwestern border not only of the Waddawurrung tribe but of the whole Kulin Nation, which includes Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula (including Sorrento, where William Buckley escaped from!) and all the way back up to Ballarat. So the Otways have at least three different languages spoken in and around the forest: Gadabanud, Gulidjan, and Waddawurrung. Having the children learn something of the native languages of the place where they are growing up is an effective and lighthearted way of tuning them in to both the local and wider history of their country. I certainly wish I had been taught it when I was growing up. Captain Cook, John Batman and his landgrabber mates just didn’t cut it with me.
Gregory Day is a novelist, poet and musician based in Victoria, Australia. He is best known for his Mangowak novels, which document generational, demographic and environmental change on the 21st century coast of southwest Victoria, Australia. He has also been acclaimed for his musical compositions and recordings, notably his settings and singing of the poetry of William Butler Yeats on the album The Black Tower“, and his project The Flash Road“, which narrates, in a sung and highly literary musical style, the building of the Great Ocean Road in southwest Victoria in the years following The Great War.
The Flash Road is available from itunes.