Cope on Indigenous Australian Language Change (ctd.)

‘The Language of Forgetting: A Short History of the Word’ by Bill Cope

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On a whiteboard in the Anglican church at Angurugu the Aboriginal minister has written:

'What happened to our ancestors? Was there a signpost for them?

'What is the meaning of the story about the fresh turtle meat and the three-day-old turtle meat?

'When I die, will I know everything, or maybe nothing till judgment day?

'Sinners from a long time ago, where are they now? Maybe somewhere around here?'

A long time ago … somewhere around here … judgment day. These are all questions whites have given up taking seriously. At Angurugu the answers to these questions cannot possibly come in the terms of what whites now call ‘culture’ and ‘language’, yet they are questions that insist on answers.


This is the history of the white culture of forgetting. In the beginning there were the white people who came to Groote with a word, telling the inhabitants that they had to forget, and the word was assimilation.

Then the white people changed their minds, they said, ‘Remember your past and determine your own future.’ But it was still the same word, a word now so much more subtly imposed, imposed with all the sensitivity of a people which claims to know and respect difference. This was a word by which, through remembering, you forgot.

In the last days, the white people just have to get out, to allow the renegotiation of words and space, to allow remembering that can recreate and reinvent a new future. Then, whites should only come back on the terms of indigenous invitation.


On the day I’m leaving, I find myself again counting the one hundred poles from Alyangula to the airport beside Angurugu, identical and evenly spaced. The research I have been doing here seems at best pointless, at worst it seems like I’m applying the latest technologies of colonialism, a technology of the word called ‘sensitivity to difference’ and ‘self-determination’.

I know that the world of the whites in which I live desperately needs the orientation to nature and sociality that is in the grammar of a language like Anindilyakwa. It’s a grammar all but lost to the culture of the written word, and one that remains largely unnoticed by the white linguists who only really listen to the language of difference so they can write it down on their own terms.

The brotherly love of the missionaries, the quarters of the world’s manganese, and the future orientation of our narratives all ring hollow. To know there could be an alternative to our world of written words, this is the reason I am here, this is my self-interest.

The air steward issues us all boarding passes, imposing numbered order on the straggle of people waiting for the plane. The whites end up at the front of the plane, the miners and the teachers heading home, and the blacks at the back, visiting relatives in jail or who have moved away from Groote to get work.

The plane takes off and below lie the unbearably beautiful bays and headlands of Groote. Then a white person near the front gets out a book with a sunset red cover, Aboriginal Fables Legendary Tales.

Cope, Bill. 1998. “The Language of Forgetting: A Short History of the Word.” Pp. 192-223 in Seams of Light: Best Antipodean Essays, edited by M. Fraser. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. || Amazon || WorldCat