For the first time ever, a major Australian brand has used an ancient indigenous language as part of a mainstream marketing campaign. For a taste of how Australians sounded tens of thousands of years ago, check out the new Qantas ad screening down under. The ad sees 13-year-old Tyus Arndt sing the first verse of Peter Allens famous I Still Call Australia Home in the ancient dialect Kala Lagaw Ya, which is still spoken in the Torres Strait Islands. Tyus and his fellow choristers from the Gondwana National Indigenous Childrens Choir, the Australian Girls Choir and the National Boys Choir switch to English for the latter verses.
According to Paul Smitz and Barry Blake in Australian Language and Culture, Kala Lagaw Ya is an original indigenous language of the Torres Strait: “Kala Lagaw Ya is spoken by the people of the western islands of Saibai (and thus now in Seisia and Bamaga), Dauan, Boigu, Mabuiag, Muralag, Badu, Moa (Kubin) and Narupai, and the central islands of Masig, Purma, Yam and Warraber.” Kala Lagaw Ya is related to Aboriginal Australian languages, whereas Meriam Mir, another language of the Torres Strait (spoken on eastern islands rather than on the western ones), belongs to the Trans Fly family of languages from the Papuan coast. Several thousand people are thought to still speak Kala Lagaw Ya today, often as a first language.
It was from the Torres Strait that the first significant indigenous land rights victory was fought when in 1992 the High Court overturned the notion of terra nullius the legal term that stated that Australia was empty of inhabitants prior to European arrival. The case saw Eddie Mabo, of Murray Island, recognised as the owner of his traditional land. The Mabo ruling, as it came to be known, opened the door for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to claim the ancestral land.
Breaking New Ground
The ad has generated considerable debate on media websites such as Mumbrella, and reviewers have praised it for its integration of ancient and modern Australia. Qantas directors should be ashamed of presiding over such an obscene, retch-inducing executive payout, yet their ad people deserve credit for taking an ancient Australian tongue and putting it on our prime-time screens, wrote Tim Dick in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The advertisement also features some key ancient historical sites, such as the UNESCO World Heritage site Purnululu National Park, and Cathedral Cave in the Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland. Aborigines are known to have inhabited the Carnarvon Gorge area for more than 35,000 years prior to European arrival, and extensive artwork remains within the cave system.
This is the latest instalment in long-running series of Qantas ads, all set to the Peter Allen song and featuring distinctive sites in Australia and around the world. The Great Wall of China makes an appearance here, while previous ads have featured Rome and numerous other heritage sites.
Stealing the Show
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the scenery is the boy leading the choir. Tyus Arndt hails from Thursday Island, the administrative centre of the Torres Strait Islands, between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea. His ancestors are thought to have arrived from the islands of todays Indonesia some 70,000 years ago.