The Language of the Colonisers

The coloniser's words, more surely than his guns, exert power down the generations. Names are the words we use to identify ourselves as individuals and as groups; the words we use to describe our mountain ranges, streams, plains and other landmarks; and the words we choose to identify outsiders. Naming defines the world in familiar terms.

The invasion/settlement debate, as it has been popularly characterised, can be read as a struggle for control over what view of the story of Australia should dominate. Do teachers show an awareness of an Indigenous viewpoint and call the events of 1788 in this country an invasion, or do they see the arrival of the First Fleet as the beginning of European settlement, with all the comfort surrounding that term? The decision is not so simple.

In implementing Indigenous Studies, many teachers would maintain that a different approach needs to be taken. It is not a matter of choosing one set of words or another. Rather, it is important that students are helped to recognise the range of meanings and interpretation associated with the words chosen.

When the First Fleet anchored in Botany Bay (so named by Cook 18 years earlier) in January 1788, the continent was inhabited by more than 300 different groups - people who had their own land and language, and who had their own names for one another. Each group understood the borders of its territory, could read the land and had, of course, its own names for the significant features of its country. The land was central to each group's sense of identity. It was a source of spiritual and physical nourishment.

Over the next 100 years, as land was 'discovered' and then 'settled,' the landscape was renamed. Through this renaming process, European explorers and discoverers brought the country which they had conquered into the imaginative vision of the immigrant population. The new names, familiar to the settler communities, indicated ownership. Land, for example, which for thousands of years had been the home of the Kurnai (or Gunnai) people was discovered by Strzelecki in 1840 and called Gipps' Land, after Governor George Gipps.

Imported place names such as Sandringham or Brighton, and regal associations such as Victoria or Albert Park, resonated with the culture that was being planted in this strange soil: symbolically they controlled and tamed the wilderness. Other names such as Mt Disappointment recorded the heroic experiences of the explorers. Names such as Skull Creek, Butcher's Creek or Mt Dispersion allude to that other aspect of the colonial experience: the violence of the frontier. An awareness of the renaming process in the dispossession of one group and the establishment of the power of the colonists should inform and underpin any units of study.

Sensitivity to the power of language can be developed by a judicious pause and invitation to students to examine words which might otherwise be unquestioned. Three parts of speech - nouns, verbs and pronouns - bear close scrutiny.

The following questions could be asked:

  • Who is doing the naming of whom or what? What is the effect of the name on the group being named? And on the group doing the naming? For example, 'Aborigine', 'Aboriginal people', 'Gunditjmara', 'Wurundjeri', 'Grampians'/'Gariwerd', 'Koorie', 'Murri', 'Nyoongah', 'gubbah', 'gadiya', 'blackfella', 'yellafella', 'whitefella'.
  • What actions are described? From whose viewpoints are these actions described? At what times in the past might these verbs have been used? Consider, for example, 'discovering', 'settling', 'dispersing', 'invading'.
  • Who is an 'insider'? Who is an 'outsider'? Where are Indigenous people when 'we' speak of 'our' history? If there is an unconscious 'we', who is 'them' or 'these people'?

Grappling with these questions will assist students to see a number of viewpoints in studying their society. Acknowledging the past struggle for control of the land between Indigenous and settler societies will lead students to ask questions about both broad groups which can throw light on the issues being publicly debated in the parliaments and in the media.