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MARCO WERMAN: How do you mimic an Australian accent? A lot of people start with this line.
MERYL STREEP: The dingo took my baby.
WERMAN: That's Meryl Streep playing an Australian mother in the movie â€œA Cry in the Dark.â€ That expression, and variations of it, have become part of American popular culture, and a way for Americans to hone their Aussie accent. There's Elaine in Seinfeld:
ELAINE: Maybe the dingo ate your baby.
WERMAN: And Bart Simpson:
BART SIMPSON: Hey I think I hear a dingo eating your baby.
WERMAN: And many others. Well, there's a rich irony here. "Dingo" is originally not an English word at all. It's borrowed from the Dharug language, which also gave English the words "koala," "wallaby" and "boomerang." Dharug is an Australian Aboriginal language that died out more than a hundred years ago, but now it's being revived. A school in Sydney is teaching Dharug. And as Phil Mercer reports, a lot of students want to learn it.
PHIL MERCER: Dharug was one of the dominant Aboriginal dialects in the Sydney region when British settlers arrived 221 years ago. It was the first Aboriginal language to have prolonged contact with English, which accounts for all those words loaned to English. In fact, the language has another name: "Sydney". But, under the weight of colonization, Dharug became extinct. At Chifley College, a public junior high school, an attempt is under way to reverse that. The school's Dunheved campus sits on ancestral land of the Dharug tribe. And so, it offers a class in Dharug. Richard Green is the Dharug teacher, and he's on a mission to rekindle this ancient language.
RICHARD GREEN: We've already reclaimed it. That's why there is so much interest. People are already speaking it. They speak our language from here, so when you walk in the school of a morning you hear Good to see you, how are you, good morning." Okay, everyone together, the whole class. People, I'm starting to lose my voice. Listen up. Let's say this together.
GREEN: But we've got some young boys here that are absolutely brilliant. No matter what I say, they say it with correct pronunciation. You know, they sit in class the whole lesson. They are changing their attitudes.
JAY TOWNEY: Badagarang and Garraway - the first one means kangaroo and the second one means cockatoo.
MERCER: And how easy is it to learn?
TOWNEY: Pretty easy. If you say it all together you can remember it.
MERCER: Easy for some. John Hobson, a professor at Sydney University, says Australia's indigenous languages are in fact quite difficult to learn.
JOHN HOBSON: For the benefit of English speakers, I often compare Aboriginal languages to something somewhere between Japanese and Latin, which, you know, surprises them because the, kind of, gut approach is to go for something primitive and simplistic which are they definitely not. They are very complex languages.
MERCER: About 20-percent of the students at Chifley College are Aborigines, some of whose ancestors spoke Dharug. Student Stephen Dargin says learning the language is important for Aborigines like him.
STEPHEN DARGIN: It's good especially for the blackfellas. You get to talk about your own culture and all that. Learn more stuff, speak it out of school.
MERCER: Aborigines remain by far Australia's most disadvantaged group, and in its small way, this school's language program is helping redress that imbalance. Deputy Principal Joyce Berry says the aim is to create a vibrant, living language.
JOYCE BERRY: If this can work, it's something that a school in western Sydney has been able to achieve with the support of the elders, so if we can do that it's going to be such a wonderful thing, not just for the school but also for the Dharug community.
MERCER: Other indigenous languages in Australia have been revived. But the revitalization process requires what experts describe as "language engineering" - the borrowing of phrases and words or the coining of new vocabulary. And even then, it's a struggle to sustain these languages. Only about a dozen Aboriginal languages are considered strong, and passed on from adults to their children. That's a sharp decline from the roughly 270 languages that existed when European settlers arrived in Australia in 1788. For the World, I'm Phil Mercer in Sydney, Australia.
WERMAN: For more on Dharug, and many of the world's other tongues, go to the world-dot-org-slash-language. That's where you can listen to our weekly podcast, â€œThe World in Words."