Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Noongar Language and Literature

Robyn McCarron

The past decade has seen an explosion of publications by Aboriginal writers and, significant to me as a wadjela, a non-aboriginal living and working in the south-west of Western Australia, is that a large number of these publications are by Noongar writers. Ten years ago when I first came to the south west, conventional wadjela wisdom (still maintained on talk back radio) was that the Aboriginal people of the area were not "real" Aborigines - they did not have a "language," their lifestyle was not greatly different from that of most non-Aborigines. This, of course, did not prevent them from being discriminated against in schools, access to employment and other facets of community life. I quickly became aware that this corner of Australia, where contact between Aborigines and Europeans is as old as European settlement in Australia, had not resolved any of the problems of contact that white settlement had brought about. The Noongars, as the Aboriginal people of the south west refer to themselves, were not sharing equally in the wealth of the region, and in fact were almost completely excluded from it. Retention rates of young Noongars into years 11 and 12 at school were amongst the worst in Australia, despite the availability of schools and other community facilities. Very few Noongars were able to get jobs. The sort of adolescent despair described by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) in Wildcat falling in 1965, with the progress of the protagonist from one correctional institution to another down the length of the Swan River, still seemed to prevail, with Archie Weller recapturing it twenty years later in Going home (1985).

The 1980s belong to that period of Aboriginal history which Mudrooroo characterizes as "the period of self-determination" (Narogin 1990: 4). Although Mudrooroo dates this from the time of the Whitlam government of the early seventies, "self-determination" doesn't seem to have brought great changes to the lives of Noongars until the last few years, where some measure of self-determination is permitted without total domination by wadjela cultural "brokers" (Howard 1982). One major move towards self-determination has been the renewal of interest amongst Noongars in recording and maintaining the Noongar language, to the extent that Noongars now have a federally funded regional Aboriginal language centre established under the Aboriginal Languages Initiatives Program. The language centre is located in Bunbury, 200 kilometres south of Perth.

The impetus given to Noongar revival and maintenance by government funding can be likened to that given to Noongar literature by similar funding. The allocation of funds for writer"s fellowships (Jack Davis), project development (scripting and staging of plays), publishing (Fremantle Press and Magabala Books) and education (development of Aboriginal tertiary education programmes) has led to the development of a number of texts that could be regarded as a Noongar literature.

The strategies associated with pan-Aboriginality or the ideology of "Aboriginality" have altered somewhat in the last few years, with writers now asserting their identification with a region - defined by geography, language, cultural practices and kinship ties. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) led the way by her adoption of a totem symbolizing her craft as a writer (oodgeroo - paperbark tree) and the name of her people, the Noonuccal tribe of Stradbroke Island. Mudrooroo has followed this lead by taking Mudrooroo (meaning "paperbark" in Noongar) and, firstly, Narogin (the area of his birth) and now, Nyoongah, an identification with his people, the Noongars of southwestern Australia.

Aboriginal people who have been denied access to their languages by the interventionist and restrictive practices of non-Aborigines for the past two hundred years are finally able to attempt to record and maintain what remains of their own languages. For some language groups it may be too late. The Australian language and literacy policy (D.E.E.T. 1991: 93) quotes from the report, The loss of Australia"s Aboriginal language heritage (Schmidt 1990):

. . . of the 250 or more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken in Australia in 1788:

* only about 20 are still being actively passed on to children with complete fluency and without apparent interference from English, and are used with pride and awareness by all members of relatively large or intact communities in a broad range of social contexts;

* about a further 70 are still relatively widely used and understood, but transmissions of the complete language to children may be broken or could be seriously weakened by interference from English or other languages; and

* about 160 have only a handful of elderly speakers left.

These statistics are based on strictly linguistic criteria and are provided to emphasise the level of need faced by Aboriginal languages.

The report includes the further comment:

Some Aboriginal groups have argued that the estimates in the Schmidt report and the 1986 Census fail to recognise that recently some languages that were thought to have been extinct or on the verge of extinction are now being revived, with the number of speakers increasing, and the languages once again being passed on to children.

The later claim would, I feel, be supported by an increasing number of Noongars, who are starting to feel a renewal of interest in something that they formerly gave up as lost.

Noongar is a word used by Aboriginal people of the south west to describe themselves, their language (both original and contemporary forms) and, states Douglas (1976:5), "as an adjective describing their country, their way of life and other features of their culture." Its meaning is "man" or "person" and it is used across dialect boundaries. The Noongar language groups belong to a region that extends from Moora (to the north of Perth) through to Ravensthorpe and Esperance (on the southern coast). Ferguson (1987:124) states that "their religious and ritual practices differed from those of their neighbours, and because of the unique environment in which they lived, they developed a way of life and material culture differing in important ways from other examples of Aboriginal society." Dialect differences did and still exist throughout this region. Because of the major disruption to Noongar life caused by wadjela settlement, there has been considerable language change, mostly from the influence of other dialects, other Aboriginal languages and, of course, English, or even for some Noongars, other European languages (for example, the influence of German speaking missionaries documented in Glenyse Ward's Unna you fullas). Wadjela occupation brought about displacement, disease, massacres, intermarriage, resettlement, separation of children from parents, institutionalization and bans on speaking Noongar in the presence of wadjelas (at schools, missions and other institutions). For some, Noongar became a covert language, used to pass on information. Many others were deprived of learning Noongar because of an enforced separation from speakers of the language.

Glenys Collard in the Introduction to Kura (1991), the transcribed yarns of William Thomas Bennell, describes the reluctance of some speakers of the Noongar language to pass on their knowledge: "They feel it could be abused and may not be given the status, respect or appreciation it deserves. There are those who would look at Noongar Mythology as katakata [lies] or fairy tales" (viii).

Douglas, Wooltorton and Collard all refer to varieties of Noongar - traditional Noongar and its dialect variations can now never be fully known as there are few speakers still living, although continuing historical and field research is building up a comprehensive picture. Many Noongars speak what Douglas (1976: 14) describes as Neo-Noongar, a "development from Noongar under the influence of English." The speech of Tom Bennell as recorded in Kura could be viewed in this way.

Tom Bennell's speech falls within a range of dialects usually described as Aboriginal English. These dialects typically share features of pronunciation and grammatical style with other nonstandard forms of Australian English, but have idiosyncrasies that in many cases reflect features of traditional Australian Aboriginal languages. Importantly, Aboriginal English uses common English words but with meanings that are often uniquely Aboriginal. The Aboriginal English of the South West of Western Australia is further enhanced by the common use of Nyungar words and expressions. (Collard 1992: x)

The writers named in this paper are those who identify as Noongar through their birthplace and/or family allegiances, their interest in representing Noongar language and culture, their representations of or allusions to significant historical events. Writers noted are Jack Davis, Mudrooroo, Archie Weller, Eddie Bennell, Glenyse Ward, Richard Walley, Graeme Dixon, Tom Bennell, Glenys Collard, Alf Taylor, Maxine Fumagalli and Robert Bropho. All have published at least one text. Genres range across poetry (Dixon, Davis, Mudrooroo, Weller, Taylor, Fumagalli), fiction (Davis, Weller, Mudrooroo, Ward), plays (Davis, Weller, Walley, Eddie Bennell), life stories (Davis, Ward, Tom Bennell, Fumagalli, Bropho), yarns (Tom Bennell), legends (Eddie Bennell) and filmscripts (Weller).

Much of the literature represents the disruption and fragmentation caused by wadjelas. Significant events and places in much Noongar literature are the sites of Noongar/wadjela contact. Usually this was oppressive. Allusions to massacres, especially the Pinjarra massacre ("Battle of" Pinjarra) of 1834 are to be found in the works of Davis, Mudrooroo and others, particularly in poems. Heroic Noongar "resisters" of wadjela invasion such as Yagan are celebrated as in Graeme Dixon's poem "Battle heroes":

And Yagan is still the hero
pioneer of our righteous cause
(will always be remembered
with respectful, silent pause)
But there's a new breed of martyr
who in bloody battle fell
Maori Tony, Robert and Charlie
John Pat and young Ricky as well. (Dixon 1990: 19)

Because life in institutions has been the experience of many of the Noongar writers and their families, institutions recur as central motifs in much of their writing. Government settlements such as Moore River (north of Perth) and Carrolup (south of the state), missions such as Wandering, New Norcia, Roelands, and institutions such as orphanages (Sister Kate"s, Clontarf), juvenile detention centres and gaols (Fremantle Prison), are represented in many texts. Davis has used the Moore River experience as a basis for several plays and says in Jack Davis: a life-story (Chesson 1988: 38):

Moore River may not have been the success, for me, that Mr Neville or my father had anticipated, but the short period that I spent there was an experience both deep and indelible. After all these years, I find it difficult to return to Mogumber: the ghosts are too vivid and my spirit becomes restless in the presence of memories so strong. . . . Yet my writings are peopled with characters and livened with impressions that are derived from my stay at Moore River all those years ago.

Wandering Mission (St. Francis Xavier"s Native Mission) is the location for both Wandering girl and Unna you fullas by Glenyse Ward. Ward spent her childhood at this mission. It is where she was reunited with an older sister, but kept ignorant of the existence of her parents and her brother. The loss of family and sense of betrayal once Noongars discovered the truth about themselves is an emotive force in much of the literature. Billy Woodward, the twenty one year old character in Archie Weller's story, "Going home," "suddenly has to know all about his family." He travels from the city, where he has had success in wadjela terms, to his rural birthplace and his mother's blunt "So ya come back after all. Ya couldn't come back for ya Dad's funeral, but - unna? Ya too good for us mob, I s'pose" (Weller 1986: 8).

The writers Jack Davis and Eddie Bennell, the yarn teller, Tom Bennell, and his transcriber, Glenys Collard, share regional, linguistic and family affiliations. Jack Davis" knowledge of Noongar language and culture comes from his adolescent years spent in the company of his step-father, Bert Bennell and the extended Bennell/McGuire/Davis families of the Brookton-Pingelly area. (See Tilbrook 1983: 94; Chesson 1988: 49). Jack Davis states:

The Brookton area was an unusual section of the southwest, in that the Aboriginal population had been left relatively free from government and mission interference. I am talking about a region stretching south from near York through Beverley and on to Pingelly, and east from the white gum country across some 55 kilometres. There were a number of very fine old patriarchs living in the district and they were custodians of a great body of Nyoongah tradition. (Chesson 1988: 49)

Texts by Jack Davis include lengthy glossaries of Noongar words. Although earlier publications such as Eddie Bennell's Aboriginal legends of the Bibulmun tribe (1981) included a glossary, the words are not clearly identified as Noongar (Bibulmun), but simply as "Aboriginal", and include words from other Aboriginal languages such as "corroboree" and "mia-mia."

Tom Bennell, who was born in 1908 and died in 1989, recorded a number of conversations and yarns with his niece, Glenys Collard, in the year before his death. Some of these have been transcribed by Collard and published as Kura (1991). "Kura" is a Noongar word meaning "a long time ago." Collard's intention was:

. . . to reproduce the spoken word as closely as possible. Tom Bennell's pronunciation of words often differs from Standard Australian English and this is reflected in the spellings used. For example, many words which usually begin with a vowel in Standard Australian English are written here with an initial "h" (h"Aboriginal for Aboriginal), since Tom Bennell clearly pronounces an "h" with these words. (Collard 1991:x)

This method of transcription is one seen in narratives from northern Australia, particularly in publications by Magabala books. This manner of presentation of Noongar culture differs markedly from the text by Tom Bennell's nephew, Eddie Bennell, whose Aboriginal legends from the Bibulmun tribe was published in 1981 by the mainstream press, Rigby. Eddie Bennell's collection of myths and legends claims uniqueness as "never before has any material of this nature been written or recorded about the Aboriginal people of the south-west of Western Australia" and an intention to "preserve" and "to revive a rich and meaningful culture which, although not entirely lost, has become dormant in the minds of many of my mixed-blood brothers and sisters" (Bennell 1981: Foreword). Important as the Eddie Bennell text is, it is marketed as a text in the wadjela tradition of Aboriginal myths and legends with lavish, though inaccurate, illustrations.

Tom Bennell stated to Glenys Collard in 1989:

I know what you wonna do
an I bin waitin thirty years
for someone to help me do it
I bin layin down thinkin
all about them old things
thas been taught to me. (Collard 1991: ix)

Another recently published Noongar writer, Maxine Fumagalli, also talks about a link with the Bennell family, and her memory of "an old Uncle called Doorin Benal" (Fumagalli 1992: 16). Norman "Dooran" Bennell was the father of Tom Bennell and the grandfather of Eddie (Tilbrook 1983: 94).

The places of Mudrooroo"s birth and childhood are also in the Brookton/Pingelly/Narrogin area. Mudrooroo refers to his mother"s people as being from the Bibulmun tribe (Thompson 1990: 57). Eddie Bennell also regards his tribe as Bibulmun, as does Jack Davis. Collard, however, locates Tom Bennell as from the Baladong people, with Bibulmun (also written "Bibelmen" [Berndt] and "Pipelman" [Douglas] being variously located by Douglas as closer to the coast in the Bunbury to Perth area, and by Berndt on the coast between Busselton and Denmark. This highlights the difficulty of establishing exact tribal boundaries when the impact of wadjela settlement may have seen the relocation of tribes firstly away from the coast towards the Brookton area, and then, ironically in recent years, a shift back to the major coastal towns.

Both Jack Davis and Mudrooroo are central figures in the development of Aboriginal writing in Australia. They have been writing for many years and are acknowledged by younger Noongar writers as sources of inspiration and practical assistance. Glenyse Ward, Archie Weller ("[Uncle Jack] was one of the people who got me out of where I was going which was right down the gutter" [Thompson 1990: 35]), Graeme Dixon and Richard Walley ("Jack Davis had told me to write" [Thompson 1990: 68]) are some who have publicly recorded this assistance.

Perhaps because of the fact that the people of the Brookton area were, as quoted previously from Davis, "left relatively free from government and mission interference" (Chesson 1988: 49), it is not surprising that the first Noongar writers came from this area and that it is the dialect of this area that has prevailed so far in the revival of the Noongar language. The Noongar language course titled Noongar - our way (1992) prepared by Wooltorton with assistance and advice by Glenys Collard, Cliff Humphries, Hazel Winmar and Alan Dench has "been prepared in the north eastern wheatbelt dialect. The speakers are from the Brookton/Kellerberrin area" (Wooltorton 1992: ix). Wooltorton stresses in this publication, and this is reemphasised in the other publications from the Noongar Language Centre that:

There are several identifiable Noongar dialects in existence at the present time. Each dialect varies slightly in the pronunciation of words, some suffixes, and sometimes in the word itself. Sometimes, some will say: "That is wrong! That is not how you say it. You should say it like this . . . " We regard everyone who already knows it, who learned it from their own parents or grandparents, as right. They have simply learned another variation of the word. Be aware of this. It need not cause difficulty or confusion. (Wooltorton 1992: ix)

The orthography of the word noongar reflects some of this variation, as well as the history of rendering an oral language into a written one by wadjelas. Writers who have close connections with the Brookton area (Davis, Mudrooroo, Eddie Bennell), or who acknowledge Davis as a mentor, use the "Nyoongah" transcription, although Eddie Bennell used the ar ending. Wadjela historians (Tilbrook, Haebich) and linguists (Dench) use the phonetic "Nyungar." This orthography was used initially by the Noongar language and culture centre, and used by Collard in her transcription, Kura, and by Glenyse Ward in Unna you fullas. (Ward acknowledges the assistance of the Noongar language and culture centre.) However in April 1991, a meeting of Noongar elders convened by the Noongar language and culture centre and held in Narrogin decided that the preferred orthography was "Noongar." Reasons given by Rose Whitehurst, the compiler of the Noongar Dictionary published by the centre, were that the elders recalled that when the missionaries first wrote the word "Noongar" for the people, this was the orthography used; and that the use of oo rather than u was preferred because there was less likelihood of it being confused with "Nunga," the name of Aboriginal people from South Australia. (Whitehurst 1992: Pers. comm.)

The Noongar language and culture centre stresses oral learning in the teaching of the Noongar language. It also stresses that elders must be deferred to in matters of language knowledge and, whenever the Noongar language is taught, a Noongar elder who is "familiar with Noongar language be present . . . The role of the elder is an extremely important aspect of teaching of the language. No short cuts can be taken: this person cannot be done without. A language model is very important" (Wooltorton 1992: xi).

The Noongar language and culture centre has based its work upon a series of meetings with Noongars - at Marribank in 1985, Wellington Mills in 1990, Narrogin in 1991 and in October 1992, the Noongar Language Festival at Dryandra. It draws upon the work of linguists Douglas, Dench and Thieberger, project coordinators Wooltorton and Sherwood, and the fieldwork of the Noongar language workers, Collard and Whitehurst. It has obtained funding from a range of government and private sources which have enabled it to employ staff and to produce its three publications to date - transcribed yarns, a language course and a dictionary. Rose Whitehurst has observed results such as a renewal of respect for elders and some Noongar parents insisting that their children be taught Noongar language and culture. (1992: Pers. comm.)

Within the last few years therefore, a dramatic rise in the number of published Noongar writers has been accompanied by a parallel development in the recording and revival of Noongar language. This is not unique to Noongars; similar developments have been happening for other Aboriginal communities across Australia. However, the number of writers who have come from the Noongar community of the South West of Western Australia is a significantly high one, and the impact of these writers on the development of Aboriginal literature in Australia has been marked. Increasingly, the writers have identified themselves as Noongar rather than as Aboriginal or "black". There has been a move away from Standard English to the increased use of Noongar and Noongar English. The writers are now supported in this project by the interest of the Noongar community in language and cultural revival.

List of References and Bibliography of Noongar Writers


Bennell, Eddie (1981) Aboriginal legends from the Bibulmun tribe. Adelaide: Rigby.

Bennell, Tom & Collard, Glenys (1991) Kura. Carey Park: Nyungar language & culture centre.

Chesson, Keith (1988) Jack Davis: a life-story. Melbourne: Dent.

Department of Employment, Education & Training (DEET)(1991) Australia"s language: the Australian language and literacy policy. Canberra: A.G.P.S.

Dixon, Graeme (1990) "Battleheroes" in Holocaust Island. St. Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

Douglas, Wilfred H. (1976) The Aboriginal languages of the south-west of Australia. 2nd. ed. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Ferguson, W.C. (1979) "Mokare's domain" in Mulvaney, D.J. & White, J. Peter Australians to 1788. Sydney: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates.

Haebich, Anna (1988) For their own good: Aborigines and government in the Southwest of Western Australia 1900 - 1940. Nedlands: Uni. of W.A. Press.

Howard, M. (1982) "Aboriginal brokerage and political development in South-western Australia" in Howard, M. (ed.) Aboriginal power in Australia. St. Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

Johnson, Colin (1965) Wildcat falling. Ringwood: Penguin.

Narogin, Mudrooroo (1990) Writing from the fringe: a study of modern Aboriginal literature. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Thompson, Liz (1991) Aboriginal voices. Brookvale: Simon & Schuster.

Tilbrook, Lois (1983) Nyungar tradition: glimpses of Aborigines of South-Western Australia 1829 - 1914. Nedlands: Uni. of W.A. Press.

Ward, Glenyse (1987) Wandering girl. Broome: Magabala Books.

Ward, Glenyse (1991) Unna you fullas. Broome: Magabala Books.

Weller, Archie (1985) Going home. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Whitehurst, Rose (1992) Noongar dictionary. Carey Park: Noongar language & culture centre.

Wooltorton, Sandra (1992) Noongar - our way: a noongar language course. Part 1 : Noongar tradition (Units 1 -9) Carey Park: Noongar language and culture centre.

Bibliography of Noongar Writers

Bennell, Eddie & Thomas, Anne (1981) Aboriginal legends from the Bibulmun tribe. Sydney: Rigby.

Bennell, Eddie (1993) My spiritual dreaming Opera libretto. Unpublished. To be performed at 1993 Festival of Perth.

Bennell, Tom & Collard, Glenys (1991) Kura. Bunbury: Nyungar language & cultural centre.

Bropho, Robert (1980) Fringedweller. Sydney: Alternative Publishing Co.

Bropho, Robert (1990) "The great journey of the Aboriginal teenagers" in Davis,J., Narogin, M., Muecke,S. & Shoemaker,A. Paperbark. St Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

Davis, Jack (1970,1983) The first born and other poems. Melbourne: Dent.

Davis, Jack (1977) Jagardoo: poems from Aboriginal Australia. Sydney: Methuen.

Davis, Jack (1988) John Pat and other poems. St. Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

Davis, Jack (1991) Black life: poems. St Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

Plays (Davis)

Davis, Jack (1979/82) Kullark. Sydney: Currrency Press.

(1982) The dreamers. Sydney: Currrency Press.

(1985) No sugar. Sydney: Currency Press.

(1987) Honey Spot. Sydney: Currency Press.

(1988) Barungin (smell the wind). Sydney: Currency Press.

(1992) In Our Town. Sydney: Currency Press.

Davis, Jack and Hodge, Bob (1985) Aboriginal writing today. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Fumagalli, Maxine (1992) South west noongar woman. Denmark: Fumagalli.

Dixon, Graeme (1990) Holocaust island. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Johnson, Colin (See Webb, Hugh "The work of Mudrooroo Narogin: 31 years of literary production, 1960-1991" in SPAN . No.33 May 1992 for detailed bibliography of this writer)

Novels (Johnson)

Johnson, Colin (1965) Wildcat falling. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

(1979/87) Long live Sandawara. Melbourne: Hyland House.

(1983) Doctor Wooreddy's prescription for enduring the ending of the world. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Mudrooroo Narogin (1988) Doin wildcat/ a novel Koori script/as constructed by/ Mudrooroo Narogin. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Mudrooroo Nyoongah (1991) Master of the ghost dreaming: a novel by Mudrooroo Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

(1992) Wildcat screaming. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

(1992) The man who wasn"t there. Sydney: Collins/ Angus & Robertson.

Poetry (Johnson)

Colin Johnson (1986) The song circle of Jacky and selected poems. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Colin Johnson (Mudrooroo Narogin) (1988) Dalwurra: the black bittern. A poem cycle. Perth: Centre for Australian Studies.

Mudrooroo (1991) The garden of Gethsemane: poems from the lost decade. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Criticism (Mudrooroo)

Mudrooroo Narogin (1990) Writing from the fringe: a study of modern Aboriginal literature. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Taylor, Alf (1992) Singer songwriter. Broome: Magabala books.

Walley, Richard (1987/89) Coordah. Sydney: Currency Press

(1990) Munjong. Unpublished playscript.

Ward, Glenyse (1987) Wandering girl. Broome: Magabala books.

(1991) Unna you fullas. Broome: Magabala books.

Weller, Archie (1981) The day of the dog. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin/Pan.

(1986) Going home. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Glass, Colleen & Weller, Archie (eds.)(1987) Us fellas. Perth: Artlook.

Weller, Archie (1988) 3 poems in Gilbert, Kevin (ed) Inside black Australia. Ringwood: Penguin.

(1990) "Stolen car" in Davis,J., Muecke, S. Narogin,M., Shoemaker,A.(eds.) Paperbark: a collection of black Australian writings. St. Lucia: Uni. of Queensland Press.

(1993) The day of the dog (Blackfellas) Filmscript.

Edith Cowan University, Bunbury Campus, WA

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 16 April, 2015