Nicholas Evans: Waving to the other side: the language of poetry in indigenous Australian song


17 December 2018, 14:30


Krizkovskeho 10, auditorium 3.05


Poetry and song are inextricably interwoven in most indigenous Australian traditions. And the poetic masterpieces found across the continent are little-known outside their immediate communities, tied up as they are with the intricacies of the languages they are sung in. As a result, Australia has little awareness of the many hundreds of Shakespeares, Keatses, and Bob Dylans whose poetic masterpieces are composed in First Nations languages. The same goes for the continent’s rich and varied indigenous musical traditions. In this talk I will seek to give a glimpse into the richness of the poetic language found across a number of north Australian communities I have worked in, focussing on allusive subtlety, inner feeling, multilingual characterisation, and the deployment of vocabulary and grammar for expressive nuance, and the role of song in maintaining language knowledge through the powerful emotional charge it generates. I take the title of my talk from some lines of a Mayali song by the late and great Djorli Laywanga, a Dalabon songman: Kurebe ngadjowkke ngawayudwayudme, marrek berlnayiii, marrek nuk berlnayiii. ‘From the other side of the river I am waving, I couldn’t see your arm waving back, Maybe I missed your arm waving’. I hope that the close readings of several poetic masterpieces that I will undertake during the lecture will help span what we see and hear across the river.


ARC Laureate Fellow and Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the Australian National University, directs the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL). He has carried out wide-ranging fieldwork on indigenous languages of Australia and Papua New Guinea. The driving interest of his work is the interplay between documenting and describing the far-reaching diversity contained in the world’s endangered languages and the many humanistic and scientific questions they can help us answer.