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[from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
4 November 2010

Friday this week (5th November 2010) marks a sad day for Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara region of Western Australia with the funeral of Alexander ("Sandy") Brown, the last fluent speaker of Ngarla. Sandy was born in 1930 near the De Grey River in the traditional country of the Ngarla which stretched eastwards for about 180 km along the coast from what is now the town of Port Hedland, and inland for about 50 km. Due to early white settlement in the area Ngarla population numbers plummeted in the 19th century, and by 1990 there were probably less than 20 speakers. Sandy was the last person to speak the language fully.

Sandy Brown was an highly talented person who was literate in Ngarla (he spoke several other languages, and worked with Alan Dench on Nyamal) and took great pleasure after his retirement in documenting his language. He worked with Brian Geytenbeek on preparing a dictionary of Ngarla from the 1980s until recently, and in 2003 he released a CD of 68 Ngarla yirraru songs with accompanying explanatory booklet (reviewed by Nicholas Smith who calls the CD a "testimony to Sandy's extraordinary memory; a memory saturated with the rich oral traditions of Pilbara Aboriginal life"). Sandy also recorded stories in Ngarla and one called Marlkarrimarnu Nganarna Witijayinta 'Playing with a Dangerous Thing' can be read here. He was also much involved in Native Title issues. I had the good fortune to meet Sandy about 15 years ago when Alan Dench and I visited Brian and Helen Geytenbeek in Port Hedland.

Since 2008 Sandy worked with Torbjörn ("Toro") Westerlund of Uppsala University who is writing a grammar of Ngarla for his PhD (his MA Sketch grammar is available here[.pdf]). As Toro says of his thesis in a recent email: "it now may not turn out to be as detailed in all respects as I had hoped".

RIP Sandy Brown.

Note: Thanks to Toro Westerlund for checking a draft. I alone am responsible for the content of this post.


Sandy was also a great supporter of the language centre in Hedland (Wangka Maya) from before its first funding. A photo of him can be seen in this blog entry on the Ngarla Native Title claim (he is second from the left in the second photo) http://perezsez.blogspot.com/2007/06/ngarla-dude-or-what-to-wear-at-this.html

The Ngarla determination was a happy occasion. Sandy presented his Ngarla dictionary and led the singing. The frivolity of my photo series of that event (linked above) is in contrast to the sadness of his passing. I didn't know him well - he was a source of advice to me about fishing and home maintenance, and was very popular with the kids I worked with.

Well, this does not mean the end of Ngarla! Do not hesitate to start a revival mouvement! Other areas have shown that this is possible!

Do not wait to introduce school programs until a work-out is ready, but just begin with it soon.

Languages should be protected as endangered animals, but before it's late!

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