Lewis University is not alone in its emphasis on the Humanities as an integral and foundational aspect of a university education. For the past 35 years, the University of Chicago has hosted its “Humanities Day.” The latest iteration of this annual celebration was on October 19th.
Alumni, parents and community members had a choice of over 40 presentations in four sessions during the morning and afternoon. It is always an agonizing choice since so many of the literature, classics, philosophy, linguistics, and history lectures compete for our attention with their learned topics.
I attended a lecture by Dr. Dorothea Hoffman, Department of Linguistics, whose work is supported by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. She has published the story of the Blue-tongued Lizard, Kumugut, and offered a translation of the MalakMalak language narration recorded at the settlements at Woolianna, Dyamalagany and Kumugutyinnga, NT, Australia.
Blue-tongue Lizard? In MalakMalak? Only ten people, all over 60 now, still speak MalakMalak. We must count Dr. Hoffman as the eleventh speaker. Why is it important to capture this language, one of over 200 Aboriginal languages, before its last native speakers fall silent?
The answer lies at the foundation of the humanities. The story of Kumugut is a rare and precious human creation. We share the world of the MalakMalak speakers when we enter into their intellectual and spiritual realm. What we call the “dreaming” world of the Aborigines is their religion, their myth as well as their natural philosophy. This oral tradition is carried in the memory of the speakers.
Australia is cross-crossed by an interconnected network of dreaming tracks which each describes a journey with a starting point and an ending point. Episodes of a larger narrative are recited by the various elders who own a portion of the whole. The story of Kumugut explains how this little (short-legged), slow-moving lizard acquired its characteristic shape in a journey from Tyullukinnga to Kumugutyinnga while facing a deadly snake and a water goanna.
This tale is not only a rumination of the characteristics of local animals, it is also a memory of the topology (the river, the meadow, the watering hole) of a section of the world. It is the trace left by the MalakMalak speakers in human experience and human speech. It was a moving experience, a privilege, to see the world through the eyes of the last speakers of MalakMalak.