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Linguists give voice to silent languages

By Patrick Nelson

Professor Marie Carla D. Adone and Dr Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama … co-presenters of “Alternate Sign Languages in Arnhem Land” Professor Marie Carla D. Adone and Dr Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama … co-presenters of “Alternate Sign Languages in Arnhem Land”

Two academics in linguistics have warned that several Indigenous sign languages are in danger of becoming extinct.

Professor Marie Carla D. Adone and Yolngu sign language authority Dr Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama said the sign languages were “in danger” largely because young people were not using them.

“We will lose them unless something is done about it,” Professor Adone said.

The co-authors of the ground-breaking “A Grammar Sketch of Yolngu Sign Language” issued the warning during the presentation “Alternate sign languages in Arnhem Land” at the Northern Institute in Darwin recently.

“We discussed the sociolinguistic elements of several Indigenous sign languages, looked at their structural makeup, compared them with other sign languages and discussed their potential development paths,” Professor Adone said.

“It was a continuation of the conversation we began last year with the launch of ‘Grammar Sketch’, where we discussed who uses sign language, where, when and with whom.”

Professor Adone said Yolngu sign language was typically used during ceremonies and for communicating at distance during hunting.

“It functions as a primary sign language for communicating to the deaf and as an alternate language when silence is required.

“It is important that we engage decision-makers, academics and the public in a conversation about this silent, invisible, valuable yet diminishing element of Indigenous culture.”