My pride and joy stick

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Added by First Languages Australia

Description When Aunty Lee Healy decided to make the first dictionary for the Taungurung language, she didn’t know what she was in for.

The dictionary took four years to make and Aunty Lee says, “I don’t think my mind stopped.”

“It became my passion. I would get up at 3.30 in the morning and do it. I was doing it seven days a week.”

Taungurung country is much of Central Victoria: from Kyneton to the west, Euroa to the north, Lake Nilahcootie to the east and Great Dividing Range to the south. When Taungurung country was settled and people were forced into missions, “We lost everything,” Aunty Lee says. “We lost the kinship system, our ceremonies, and our language.”

In 2001, the Taungurung Elders Committee formed a committee to revive the language. Language workers built a database of over three hundred words and ran community language camps.

Aunty Lee and her family were heavily involved in reviving language. The dictionary is dedicated to the work of Aunty Lee's mum, Aunty and Uncle, and acknowledges all the work and passion of language workers and Elders in reviving Taungurung language.

"I wanted to get the language back."
Over time, learning language and attending language camps with her kids, Aunty Lee felt something wasn’t right.

“We were pronouncing language with English sounds and it just wasn’t our language. I wanted to get it back to how our ancestors spoke."

In 2006 Aunty Judy Monk-Slattery-Patterson retired as Language Worker and Aunty Lee took over the job. She believed a dictionary was the way to research and recover the Taungurung language to its original form before colonisation.

"I had my Aunty Judy’s permission to make the dictionary and that’s where I started.”

A jigsaw puzzle of historical sources
With the help of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation of Languages, Aunty Lee pored through 19th century historical sources - diaries, letters, and reports written by colonial settlers - in search of records of the Taungurung language.

She wanted to work out each letter and sound to match the fluency of her ancestors and to put cultural knowledge to the words.

Using the historical records was not easy.

Settlers came from different parts of Britain and recorded Taungurung words through the lens of their accent. For some Taungurung words like ngarrak (mountain), Lee encountered four to six different spellings.

They used an English alphabet to record sounds they had never heard.

Aunty Lee also had to decipher the grammar of Taungurung from these colonial sources.

“We’ve got suffixes in our language, so there was more than just words. I had to figure out what the suffix was, and I could get frustrated cos I’m not a linguist at all.“

“I will say that I’m grateful for them because they wrote something down. Or else it would have been lost forever.”

Community process
Throughout the making of the dictionary, the community was consulted. The dictionary has its own orthography, a pronunciation and spelling system that the community agreed on, with one sound and one spelling.

“To see it and say it,” is the intention.

“You’re looking at adults trying to learn a second language,” Aunty Lee points out.

“From going to Taungurung language camps, I knew how I wanted the dictionary designed and how other people would want it.”

Dictionary contents
The cover of the dictionary is the Taungurung possum skin cloak. It tells Taungurung creation stories
and these are explained at the front of the book.

“We put the possum skin cloak on the cover because it represents every person in the Taungurung community,” Aunty Lee says.

The dictionary begins with a pronunciation guide, and then Taungurung-English and English - Taungurung word list.

Using the dictionary is easy, says Lee. “You can go straight to an English word at the back, find that word at the front of the book and you will also get cultural knowledge.”

My pride and joy stick
One of Aunty Lee's favourite hobbies is pyrography, making art on wood through burning. So it was natural that she burnt a stick to mark the dictionary’s completion.

"This is my ‘pride and joy’ stick. It symbolises the work of my journey."

When the Victorian Corporation for Aboriginal Languages published the dictionary in 2011, and Aunty Lee had the 400 page book in her hands for the first time, she had to sit down and take it all in. “I was crying,” she says.

“I thought, the community is going to be so proud. Everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve done it. And you had no idea what linguistics was!”

“It was a lot of work but it didn’t matter because it come from the heart.”

Aunty Lee Healy is now doing a degree in Linguistics at Monash University and has plans for a grammar book for the Taungurung language.

Produced by Jane Curtis

This video was originally contributed to the ABC Open Mother Tongue project, which invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to share a story about their mother tongue.

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