A new project will create the world's first Aboriginal online encyclopedia as a way of preserving the ancient and endangered Noongar language - one of Australia's biggest Aboriginal language groups.
Professor Leonard Collard at The University of Western Australia's School of Indigenous Studies leads the $610,000, three-year project with colleagues at Curtin University. They are funded by the Australian Research Council.
Professor Collard, a Noongar elder and one of Australia's most respected Indigenous scholars, said there had not been a recent study to count the numbers of people who speak Noongar at different levels: from being able to converse without using any English words, to speaking English with some Noongar words and phrases. But previous investigations put the numbers at 240 first-language speakers and 8000 who speak a mixture, out of a total of more than 30,000 Noongar people in WA.
"All West Australians know a few Noongar words and many may not realise it," he said. "Quokka, wandoo, karri, marri and jarrah are Noongar, and most place-names in WA's south-west are Noongar."
He said there was a renaissance of interest in the language not only among Noongar people but among non-Aboriginal Australians who wanted to learn more about one of the world's oldest languages.
"The world has already seen similar renaissances in the Welsh and Maori languages, which almost disappeared as a result of colonisation," Professor Collard said. "Thanks to small groups of dedicated people, they didn't."
It brings together a diverse team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous media and cultural scholars to investigate the extent to which minority languages can thrive by using Internet technologies and ways in which knowledge can be passed from one generation to the next using new media.
The project recognises the dynamic nature of language in general and the team believes that Noongar people regard further development of the language as an important cultural issue. Professor Collard is collaborating on the development of a Noongar internet site with UWA's Assistant Professor Clint Bracknell and with Professors Kim Scott, John Hartley and Niall Lucy at Curtin University.
In other work, Professor Collard has recently completed an ARC-funded three-year study of Noongar place-names. A public website of more than 25,000 Noongar words will be ready soon. He is also undertaking an ARC-funded investigation of Indigenous participation in a low-carbon economy, and is one of the Indigenous scholars on the National Indigenous Research and Knowledge Network to support and encourage the Indigenous researchers of the future.