Introducing CLIP: Canberra Linguistics in the Pub

[note: we expect a better gender balance in 2014]

Canberra Linguistics in the Pub [from Piers Kelly]

7.45pm, Sunday 23 November 2014

The Castle Room, King O’Malley’s 131 City Walk, Canberra.

No need to register but it may be helpful to click ‘join’ on this page so we get a sense of numbers. We already have a great bunch of interstate and international language people coming so it promises to be fun.

Myths, memories and microhistories: Analysing narrative in language documentation

Fieldworkers who collect linguistic data often end up recording stories that are particular to their field site or which have a special significance for the speakers of the language under analysis.

Stories may take the form of stylised traditional narratives that are sung or recited by respected narrators. More often, perhaps, they take the shape of informal commentaries on past events in the community, and personal histories.

This Linguistics in the Pub is an opportunity to discuss some of the challenges and benefits of collecting narratives in the process of language documentation.

What genres of narrative do linguists collect?
In what ways might speakers choose to make use of the documented narratives at a later time? Eg, land claims, family histories, syllabus development, cultural/linguistic revitalisation? What are the risks and rewards?
How might other scholars — folklorists, oral historians, ethnographers — analyse the same narratives after they have been documented? Do linguists need to be aware of methods or standards in narrative documentation to make this material more accessible?
Is it hard to extract good ‘naturalistic’ language data from narratives?
Linguistics in the Pub is a casual event with no planned speakers, program schedules or guest lists. There is no need to ‘be a linguist’ to participate.

King O’Malley’s is a fake Irish pub named after a fake Canadian who enacted prohibition in Canberra between 1911 and 1928. Read about him here.

Depopulating remote Australia

In 2006 shifts in government policy caused me to write a a post about the likely effect on remote communities. It ended:

Why does the Government want Aborigines off Aboriginal land? Some probably believe the story that moving to town will make Aborigines ‘fit in’ better with other Australians. But it’s hard to forget that once Aborigines are off their own land, it will be much easier for others to get access to the land. Develop it, mine it, bulldoze it, oh whatever. And the royalties the Aborigines receive will go to pay for patching up the fringe camp societies.
Yes, Aborigines will be refugees. And they’ll be treated the same way that refugees are treated in Australia. With one exception. We can’t deport them.

Today, thanks to Bob Durnan, I read an article (paywall alert!) which shows the desire of the Western Australian government to hasten the depopulation of remote Western Australia, supported by Senator Nigel Scullion. Reason? Costs too much to support them there. No comparison is given with the costs of supporting people to live in fringe camp societies. How do you justify encouraging people to move from dry communities into grog-sodden fringe camps?

Are the WA Government and Federal Government preparing for the likely costs of this removal to the people in the fringe camps, newcomers and old-timers? We don’t know, according to Fred Chaney, senior Australian of the Year for 2014, and longterm advocate for Indigenous people, in an open letter quoted in the article. And so often ‘we don’t know’ means – worst case – ‘someone doesn’t want us to know’, or – best case – ‘no one has thought it worth thinking about’.

Issues in the documentation of newer language varieties

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Linguistics in the Pub on Wednesday 29th of October, 2014 centred around the theme: Issues in the documentation of newer varieties. Felicity Meakins (University of Queensland) led the discussion. The announcement and short background reading are here.

This session marked the 5th anniversary of Linguistics in the Pub. Organiser Ruth Singer would like to extend a thank you very much to all participants, including ‘retired’ co-organiser Lauren Gawne. Lauren’s gap has been partly filled by the Monash PhD students coalition: Harriet Shepard, Jonathon Lum, Alan Ray and Jonathan Schlossberg (University of Newcastle) will be co-organising when they are not in the field. Interstate/international visitors – don’t forget let me know when you’re coming to Melbourne so we can have you along too!

In the past few years, there have been several studies on the emergence of newer language varieties, particularly within the Australian context. Some of these studies have even captured the imagination of the popular media (e.g. However, documenting new varieties may be fraught with practical and ethical issues in addition to those which normally apply when engaging in language documentation.

Felicity Meakins pointed out that new linguistic varieties emerge with new generations. This raises problems, as youth speech is generally stigmatised by older generations. Communities are often uninterested in – if not downright hostile towards – the idea of documenting youth speech. It may be the case that in the eyes of the community, documenting youth varieties is seen as conferring a sort of legitimacy to them, which the community believes is unwarranted. This is especially understandable within an Australian context, where the embracing of a new language variety may come at the expense of the traditional language. So how does one go about documenting a variety considered non-standard?

In addition to community approval, there are other practical problems with gaining access to youth speech. One linguist pointed out that opting to work with younger people violates cultural norms, as elders are considered the keepers of cultural and linguistic knowledge. In addition, when recording speakers, the observer effect may come into play, as the stigma of the new variety in combination with the presence of an outsider may cause people to switch to a more standard variety. Also, it may be problematic to record in some places where youths normally congregate, such as schools, because these locations are associated with using a standard variety. For this reason, one linguist who works with young people said that she prefers to record at home. Another linguist reported some success with leaving the recorder at the scene and observing from a distance, to minimise the effect of the observer’s paradox. Despite these problems, another linguist reported that elders at the Indigenous Australian community where they worked, did approve of younger community members working with linguists, as it was perceived that this work “kept them out of trouble”.

In terms of documentation methodology, Felicity Meakins pointed out that not all traditional elicitation practices are as successful when working with new linguistic varieties. While elicitation of narratives is standard documentary practice, it can be the case that narratives are not associated with the new way of speaking. Additionally, while older speakers are often quite comfortable rattling off a story off the top of their heads, younger speakers may struggle when put on the spot in this way. For this reason, fieldworkers might find more success with structured tasks such as a picture-matching game or with using narrative-elicitation aides like the Frog Story (Bamberg 1985; 1987) or Pear Story (

However, attitudes in the speech community are not the only obstacle to documenting newer linguistic varieties. It was noted that often (contact-influenced) language change in minority languages are depicted by the linguist as a case of the language “unravelling” (e.g. Schmidt 1985 on Dyirbal). It was noted that there is often a failure for linguists engaged in language documentation to apply the same sorts of Labovian-style sociolinguistic methodologies enjoyed by majority languages. Innovations are often described as a language undergoing “simplification” when in reality this need not be the case. For example, while traditional Gurindji consistently displays ergativity, in Gurindji Kriol ergativity is optional in many situations which means speakers have to learn when and when not to employ it, presumably a more complex cognitive task. It is therefore important for documentarians to remember that “mistakes” are likely systematic changes in progress. Though one may regret the influence of European languages on minority indigenous languages, it is necessary for language description to be impartial, and remain separate from advocacy efforts.

It is worth noting however, that it is not necessarily the case that emerging varieties are stigmatised. Speakers of Australian Kriol (Roper River Kriol) in Ngukurr, Northern Territory are proud of their new language and that the community is content to promote it and for outsiders to observe it. This contrasts with the experience of most other linguists working in Australian Indigenous communities, for whom use of Kriol was not accepted by the community. In some communities, even Indigenous outsiders are discouraged from using the local Kriol. It was suggested that Ngukurr people’s positive attitude may stem from the positive attention Roper Kriol has received from linguists and the media in the past. Ngukurr is known as the birthplace of Roper Kriol and the community is quite proud of this fact.

Given the effect linguists have had on the language ecology of Ngukurr, it is important to be mindful of how documenting a language can interfere with the language ecology of a community. Another example is the terms, ‘Gurindji Kriol’ and ‘Light Warlpiri’ which are exonyms coined by linguists, but this terminology has been adopted by the respective communities. Furthermore, one cannot enter a community with preconceived notions of what is acceptable and how best to behave. As always with fieldwork, one has to adapt to the desires and needs of the community one is working with.

This LIP celebrated the meeting’s fifth anniversary and was also the final LIP of the year due to a proliferation of conferences and end of year social functions Nov-Dec. We look forward to discussing more linguistics and drinking more beer with you in 2015!

Bamberg, M. (1985). Form and function in the construction of narratives: Developmental perspectives. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Bamberg, M. (1987). The acquisition of narratives: Learning to use language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schmidt, Annette. 1985. Young People’s Dyirbal: an example of language death from Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The 2014 ARC Cup

An astonishingly good ARC Cup run for Indigenous Australian languages. Onya! Good news for horses from PARADISEC, ELAC blog contributors and the new Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

Amidst this joy, deep sympathy to the many people working in linguistics who put in terrific projects that didn’t get funded.

This is the field for Indigenous language work as I see it – if I’ve missed anyone, lemme know.

Erich R Round
Project Summary
This project aims to harness the insights of dissipating information, to discover language histories by bringing together two high-definition technologies: powerful, computational statistical engines pioneered in genetics; and fine-grained, statistically optimised observations of language structure. It seeks new insight into how languages reveal history, and how cultural groups speaking the Uralic languages of Eurasia and Australian Aboriginal languages diverged, spread and interacted, from a distant past to the recent present.

Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis; Inge B Kral; Jennifer A Green; Jane Helen Simpson
Project Summary
Verbal arts are central to social interaction. In the Western Desert Ngaanyatjarra and Ngaatjatjarra people use special speech styles to mark particular occasions and life transitions. Led by Ngaatjatjarra linguist, researcher and educator Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis, the research team aims to build on a corpus of these endangered oral traditions. Following in- depth linguistics analysis the project aims to implement strategies to revitalise these endangered styles through dynamic contemporary applications thus reintegrating them into the language socialisation framework of youth. The project aims to assist Aboriginal people to safeguard their heritage and contribute to a wider public appreciation of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Payi Linda M Ford
Project Summary
This research aims to develop and implement suitable Indigenous frameworks for the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of the recordings of ceremonial performances in the Wagait-Daly region of the Northern Territory of Australia. The focus is a body of recordings, made by early anthropologists and missionaries, of final mortuary ceremony performances. The ceremonial performance is a key process for integrating Indigenous knowledge from many different domains, a socially powerful site of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country, kin and identity. The aim is to extend the power of ceremony in order to benefit Indigenous people’s identity and Australia’s shared history in the future.

Sally A Treloyn, Nicholas A Thieberger, Mary Anne Jebb; Kimberly Christen; Andrew M Dowding
Project Summary
This project aims to investigate Indigenous song traditions of the western Pilbara through current practice and legacy recordings. It aims to show how public song traditions were used through the twentieth century as tools to manage environmental change. By recording and documenting songs and histories, and curating and developing an online collection of song-based digital heritage items with a virtual landscape interface, the project is expected to produce knowledge about the role of digital collections and cultural mapping in supporting the sustainment of endangered song traditions. It also aims to develop tools for use by communities and researchers to secure legacy, crowd-sourced and newly created records of intangible cultural heritages for the future.

Robert Amery and Jane Helen Simpson
Project Summary
The Ngarrindjeri language of the Lower Murray of South Australia was richly documented in the nineteenth and mid- twentieth centuries. The largest body of texts (163 texts in Berndt and Berndt, 1993) is a treasure-trove of language and cultural knowledge from the 1940s, but has received little linguistic attention, because of difficulties in interpreting writing conventions and because of the inadequate translations provided. Through systematic linguistic analysis and reconstructions, this project aims to shed light on how Ngarrindjeri changed over the 100 years since first documentation, how clan languages differed, and how Ngarrindjeri texts and sentences were structured. It is expected to provide important insight into the variation expected in language contact situations.

Mark Harvey, Myfany Turpin, Michael Proctor
Project Summary
This project addresses a central question about language. How well do we understand the structure of syllables and words? The project aims to examine the Australian language (Kaytetye), the unusual word and syllable structure of which suggests that models of syllable and word structure may require significant revision. The project aims to consider the implications of Kaytetye sound structure for general theories of phonology, and more importantly for ideas about universals in language. The project involves extensive documentation of Kaytetye, which is an endangered language. The project is expected to provide a detailed description of Kaytetye sound structures and articles addressing the implications of these findings for phonological theory.

Felicity H Meakins; Robert J Pensalfini
Project Summary
The linguistic cradle of many Aboriginal children in remote Australia is a multilingual setting involving considerable mixing between languages. Children bring this linguistic background to the task of learning English. This project is the first investigation of a trilingual Indigenous community, Elliott (Northern Territory), where children grow up hearing Jingulu, Mudburra and Kriol. It aims to examine how people at Elliott manage multiple languages and how these languages have changed through mixing processes such as creolisation and code-switching. Exploring this dynamic language ecology is crucial to tailoring educational programs to suit the needs of Aboriginal children. It is expected to place Australia at the forefront of studies of complex language change.

Ilana Mushin and Roderick J Gardner
Project Summary
An enduring problem in Indigenous schooling is the discrepancy in outcomes compared to mainstream children, but little is known about one crucial factor: the role of Indigenous ways of speaking and their ways of engaging with knowledge and learning. This ground-breaking project aims to compare preparatory school students in two urban settings: a mainstream school and a school with high Indigenous enrolments. The project also seeks to examine learning in children’s homes to establish how the flow of knowledge is managed in Indigenous and mainstream families. By investigating these four settings, it is expected to provide important evidence for understanding how language and cultural ways of knowing contribute to the discrepancy in schooling outcomes.

Myfany Turpin on Sand goannas in central Australian languages -

From Myfany Turpin

Picture © Myfany Turpin

The names for ‘sand goanna’ (Varanus gouldii) in the languages of areas where they are found often correspond to two ethnospecies. Photographed here are the small arlewatyerre and the large aremaye, both from near Barrow Creek, NT, as they are called in Arandic languages (Arrernte, Kaytetye, Anmatyerr and Alyawarr). On this day my companions successfully hunted both in close proximity, so I thought I’d see if there were differences in the scientific taxonomy that could improve my translations of ‘small sand goanna’ and ‘large sand goanna’ respectively.

However it turns out that the nomenclature surrounding these lizards is as difficult to navigate as their burrow:

“… the animals referred to here as sand goannas or goanna x (V. flavirufus) are usually called V. gouldii gouldii in the literature. The desert sand goanna V. flavirufus flavirufus is usually called V. gouldii flavirufus. The animals known as V.panoptes in the literature should be called V. gouldii, and the animals known as V.gouldii in the literature actually belong to V. flavirufus. In older literature the name V.gouldii could describe the nameless actuality, V. gouldii gouldii, V.g. rubidus, V.g. horni, V. flavirufus or V. rosenbergi.” Extract from A Little Book of Monitor Lizards © Daniel Bennett 1995. Viper Press, UK

Wikipedia paints a much simpler picture:
• Gould’s goanna – V. g. gouldii
• Desert sand monitor – V. g. flavirufus

Both exist in the arid interior of Australia, but V. g. gouldii also exists across most of Australia.

For Kaytetye speakers, the main difference between their ethnospecies is size and frequency: arlewatyerre is smaller and common while aremaye is big and less common (five of the former and one of the latter were obtained on this day). Such highly localized knowledge is absent in the descriptions of the two subspecies, which say that size, pattern and colour vary depending on the region.

One comment by Bennett suggests that the smaller one could be V. g. flavirufus:

“The habit of standing bipedally is well documented for Gould’s goanna, but my impression is that V. flavirufus flavirufus is less inclined to adopt a bipedal stance than Gould’s goanna or goanna x, probably on account of its smaller body size.”

Where was my inner herpetologist when I was in the field to tell me to ask if they were both bipedal? But then another comment by Bennett, coupled with my scant first-hand experience of the holes of these lizards, suggests that the larger one could in fact be V. g. flavirufus:

V. flavirufus flavirufus (and probably other closely related races) often shelter in shallow burrows that terminate just below the surface”

Again, where was my inner herpetologist to measure burrow depth? The odds stack up even more for the larger one as being V. g. flavirufus when we consider another observation by Bennett:

“The sand goanna [V. g. flavirufus] is restricted to sandy soils whilst Gould’s goanna [V. g. gouldii] prefers harder substrates.”

Kaytetye speakers say that the larger lizard tends to be found in coarser sand. There is also a totemic site for the larger lizard that is on a creek bed. However, the one we got yesterday was not in what I considered to be particularly sandy soil. But then again, what exactly is ‘harder substrates’? Time to consult the inner geologist…

In summary, a brief comparison of their scientific descriptions on the web did not enable me to decide if the two ethnospecies correspond to the two subspecies of Varanus gouldii, and if so, which ones. All in all, Bennett paints a bleak picture of the knowledge of these two subspecies:

“some people believe that the desert populations (V. flavirufus) form a separate species from the animals in more mesic areas, and that the latter animals (which now have no valid scientific name) may be a complex of more than one species. This makes any description of the group ridiculously complicated. Biochemical comparisons of the group throughout Australia are needed to properly resolve these very serious taxonomic problems.”

Stay tuned for updates from the herpetologists on this one. The difficulty in navigating the Linnaean nomenclature, coupled with the fact that most linguists do not have the necessary local biological expertise, point to the need for us to foster relationships with our cousins in biology if we are to seriously document the vocabulary of Indigenous languages.

Human rights, language rights and the Northern Territory Government

Rumour has it that the Northern Territory Government is proposing to scrap the one remaining linguist position in the southern part of the Northern Territory. This position has been going since the mid 1970s, and the occupants have worked with Indigenous people and schools to create shared understandings of Indigenous languages, of the needs of school-children for understanding what happens in the classroom, of the needs of Indigenous teachers for support and training. They have produced amazing materials in Indigenous languages for classrooms, curriculum materials and reference documentation, some of which is archived and available in the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages.

Rumour also has it that the reason for scrapping the position is because there is “no need for any linguistic expertise in Central Australia and the Barkly schools”.

But rumour doesn’t have it that the kids have all staged a revolution and started speaking Standard English.

Nor has rumour passed on in whispers evidence that their NAPLAN results have suddenly reached those of middle-class Australian non-Aboriginal children. Nor that their results will get better if their teachers know less about their languages.

And fact, not rumour, indicates that wilful blindness to children’s language needs violates the language rights of indigenous peoples – see the UN’s declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. Articles 14 and 15 are fine statements of language rights, and of the need for states to provide resources to back up the rights.

If rumour is right, then Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are losers again.

Continue reading ‘Human rights, language rights and the Northern Territory Government’ »

David Nathan on EL Publishing’s first month, about Open Access, and being Open about Access

David Nathan writes

EL Publishing is a new online publisher which was launched on 18th July and which will publish a journal, multimedia, and monographs, focussing on documentation and description of endangered languages. EL Publishing has an international editorial board and operates a fully double-blind peer-review process for all submitted materials.

EL Publishing is best known for the journal Language Documentation and Description (LDD) which has been published annually since 2003. Until July 2014, LDD was produced in printed form only, but the launch of EL Publishing saw it become an online and Open Access journal as well. In conjunction with the launch, all 110 previously published papers plus LDD volume 12 (a thematic issue on language documentation and archiving) were released; LDD 12 is the first volume to undergo the full review process.

Access statistics for the first month

In its first month, the EL Publishing website had about 4,000 visits and nearly 15,000 pages were viewed. Site visitors downloaded 3,162 papers – an average of 100 per day, suggesting that the majority of visitors downloaded a paper. On the EL Publishing statistics page, you can see a list of the most-downloaded papers. These were, as one would expect, heavily skewed (seven out of the top ten downloaded papers) to those appearing in the newly released volume (which is also featured on the front page of the website). Excluding these LDD 12 papers, the top ten accessed papers were from volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 – an excellent spread indicating that the papers and the topics they address have remained relevant. For the full statistical report, see the EL Publishing statistics page.

On Open Access

Access is a widely-discussed topic at the moment, both from an openness perspective and in relation to data protection and privacy. The openness perspective recognises that much research and other knowledge is publicly funded and/or a public/shared asset. The privacy perspective recognises that individuals have a right to own and control their personal information and performances.

EL Publishing has adopted an Open Access (OA) policy in support of broad access to the results of research across the field. We have embraced OA in its strongest form, currently (but unofficially) known as Platinum OA. Platinum OA means that authors are not forced (unlike in most versions of the ‘Gold model’) to pay the publisher to ensure free access to their work. EL Publishing is proud to join other Platinum OA publishers on languages, including Language Documentation and Conservation, and Language Science Press.

Presumably the category Platinum OA is not officially recognised because it is more genuinely disruptive of established power and commercial paradigms in academic publishing than the widely-advocated ‘Gold’ and ‘Green’ models. Recently, the ‘Gold’ model has come under criticism because of the "many categories of authors likely to be disadvantaged", including those from less wealthy countries, those without appropriate (and wealthy) affiliations, and those without suitable grants or access to funds (which will often mean humanities/social science and early-career researchers and postgraduates). In other words, the model skews publishing towards areas where payment can be more easily raised. A second problem with ‘Gold OA’ , less widely noted but rapidly escalating, is that while it shifts the (often exorbitant) payment burden from libraries and readers to authors/funders, by leaving financial gain in the mix it provides a range of "business opportunities" to a wider and less principled array of web-based entrepreneurs who can exploit academic desperation. Jeffrey Beale lists over 600 of these "predatory publishers" and argues that they corrupt open access. By distilling the OA agenda into 3 ingredients – academics’ need to publish, web dissemination, and financial gain, then sugar-coating these with free access rhetoric – mainstream OA proponents invite such developments and might be throwing many authors to the wolves both financially and academically. Even when run by reputable publishers, ‘Gold’ OA will encourage publishers to find new kinds of enticements to make authors pay ("three for the price of two", or frequent author points, perhaps), which may or may not represent value for authors but maintain publishers’ control over the dissemination process.

So it is worth asking if those who advocate (or enforce) OA are acting responsibly. This question is particularly relevant for language documentation, where virtually every practitioner and archive recognises that that documentation material potentially contains knowledge and performances that are personal, secret, sacred, or even dangerous. Keren Rice (2006), for example, notes:

Studies of a human language … must be conducted with respect for those who participate, with sensitivity as to their well-being, and with concern for consequences of publication or sharing of results (p. 134)

I suspect that there would likewise be general agreement among field linguists about texts that were given to them – material that individuals or the community desire to have kept private must be kept so (p. 147).

(See also my previous blog post on the topic and this one on ‘Open access and intimate fieldwork‘.)

And it may be a concern that the largest repository of endangered languages documentation, ELAR, is now subject to a funder’s OA policy requiring "free, online, open access" to all to "digital documentation of near-extinct languages … and endangered cultural practices". Ruth Singer notes the following regarding the imposition of a blanket rule for open access:

community members and linguists may not always be in favour [of] this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited [DN: note that grants are given by ELDP, rather than ELAR] (Singer 2014).

On being Open About Access

Even ignoring the abovementioned academic, financial, methodological and ethical issues, simplistic versions of OA can easily fail to provide effective access to those who are least advantaged (whether authors, researchers, documenters, performers or readers/users). For example, our 12 years of experience with LDD has shown that there is a significant number of people who prefer to receive printed materials (over 2,500 copies of LDD volumes have been sold, and indeed we have already received orders for the printed version of the new LDD 12 via the SOAS online bookstore despite its free availability online). Reasons include lack of access to or skills with computers or internet, remoteness from or unreliability of supporting infrastructures, lack of means of onward distribution to students (e.g. where only photocopying is available), as well as diverse personal styles of reading, learning and curation of knowledge and resources. In other words, in such cases, only printed materials offer any kind of access to knowledge. Five hundred years of book-based practices (and the associated capabilities and infrastructure) cannot be replaced overnight. Print-on-demand services offer one part of loosening monolithic publishers’ control but they still involve costs (which can remain prohibitive, or require credit card transactions which are typically refused from some countries). Thus, several hundred copies of LDD volumes have been directly donated to various departments in African and Asian universities. Donation-funded book distribution offers an appropriate way of providing access in such cases and can be made sustainable through raising financial contributions to support further book printing and postage. This example drawn from LDD experience exposes simplistic OA agendas to the accusation of largely being ethical-flavoured rhetoric to support a shift to electronic dissemination with its very low distribution costs (see also Singer 2014 for the use of OA to reduce workloads).

Further, OA can be used to hide the true cost or value of resources. OA alone is no guarantee of either delivery or efficiency, even with cheap online distribution. If an online OA resource actually receives few or no accesses then its actual marginal cost per usage – for authoring, processing, cataloguing hosting etc. – is very high.

This brings me to the main point of this post. A comprehensive OA policy would not only provide free open access, but also openness about access. If materials are not actually being delivered to those who will most benefit from them, OA might be just a hollow slogan, a sleight of hand to protect invested parties and existing practices, without transparency and accountability for actually providing open access!

Discussing OA problems in an article celebrating one month of successful dissemination of Language Documentation and Description is not a contradiction. Linguists know that languages and their users have mechanisms for managing public vs private information. There is no reason why publishers and archives cannot respect, and indeed support, a diversity of access models to suit the nature of the materials and the needs of knowledge providers. EL Publishing values being transparent about the actual rates of access/downloads of its academic papers (just as ELAR was transparent about restrictions on access to protected materials and the process of negotiating access to them). Ideally we would also like to measure and report on the qualitative value of materials accessed by users, but this is a relatively unexplored territory.

David Nathan thanks Peter Austin and Jane Simpson for helpful comments on this post.

Note: the views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of EL Publishing.


Beale, Jeffrey. nd. Scholarly Open Access: Critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing. Blogging website and resources. [accessed 3 Sept 2014]

Rice, Keren. 2006. Ethical Issues in Fieldwork: An overview. In Journal of Academic Ethics (2006)
4: 123-155

Singer 2014. Sharing the load? Problems with the "lone depositor" model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives. Blog post at Endangered Languages and Cultures blog, 6th August 2014.

Sharing the load? Problems with the ‘lone depositor’ model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Traditionally collections in endangered languages archives are identified with a single depositor. This depositor is typically a researcher, who is not a member of the community in which the recordings were made. This depositor decides on access restrictions to the materials, ideally in consultation with the community. There are a number of quite separate problems with this position, for those who manage archives and for those who find themselves in the position of lone depositor. In this era of collaborative fieldwork, we can also ask whether the lone depositor model is the best one for communities who speak endangered languages. One suggestion is to make collections open access so that the depositor does not need to be contacted. Another suggestion is to name a number of depositors for each collection, so that no single person has sole responsibility. In this LIP we will discuss potential solutions to the problems of the lone depositor model in the light of participants experiences as depositors and archivists.

On the 14th of March 2014, we held a LIP discussing one solution to this problem of the lone depositor. It is possible to remove some of the responsibilities of the depositor by the archive insisting that all or most of the collection is open access. This means that the depositor need not be contacted in order to obtain permission to access materials in that collection. This lightens the workload for both archive managers and the depositor. It also makes it much faster and easier for the general public and the community of speakers to access the collection. However, community members and linguists may not always be in favour this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited.

Other issues come into play when we are dealing with data that has already been recorded. Much linguistic data was recorded before the advent of digital archives. In many cases depositors now have to decide whether the permissions given for access to the recordings in the past can be extended to allow online access to digital recordings. It is not always possible to consult the original speakers. The speakers on the recordings may have died or the depositor may have moved fieldsites and not have the opportunity to return. This places a responsibility on the depositor to make a decision. In this session a good suggestion was the idea of depositing the consent forms that were obtained for a recording in the archive too. We discussed the way that depositors have to continue to communicate with community members and sometimes, go against the original wishers of the individual who made the recording after they have died.

A participant discussed a quandry they have – a deceased speaker didn’t want any community members to access her recordings, but did give researchers permission to use them. The descendants of this speaker now wish to access the recordings – what should the depositor do? One suggestion was to follow the wishes of the descendants, over the wishes of the deceased speaker. Another idea was to put a moratoriam of 20 years on the recordings.

In response to the blog of the March 14th LIP on open access, an issue mentioned to me by a number of archivists is that they often cannot contact depositors. If a collection’s access restrictions require contacting a lone depositor this renders the entire collection closed. The lack of communication may be because the depositor fails to respond to emails, is dead or in some way incapacitated. A number of the new linguistic data archives are large and international. This makes them quite different to the national and regional archives also used by linguists. Archivists of national and regional archives can maintain close ties to networks of researchers and communities in their area. However, managers of international archives cannot be expected to be connected to the vast networks of linguists that work in each area around the world. However these networks can be used to help archivists get in touch with a linguist, after that linguist changes institution, email address or leaves academia.  It is also much harder for international archives to communicate directly with the relevant community of speakers, as archivists may not have the local knowledge to work out the best way communicate with people living in a remote area. They may not share a common language the community of speakers and may lack cultural understanding about how authority for recordings are handled in the community.  These are some reasons why, despite the problems, linguists are often the point of contact for archives, rather than the community of speakers.

One solution suggested at the March 2014 Linguistics in the Pub is for multiple people to share responsibility for a collection, referred to as ‘stewardship’ by those who manage responsibiltiies for open source software. The joint depositors could share the responsibility using a consensus model. Or the person who might have been the ‘lone depositor’ can be at the top of a hierarchy of responsibilities. If the highest ranked depositor is not contactable, the next in a chain can be contacted, etc.  Or responsibilities could be organised according to expertise, musicologists for music recordings, linguists for elicitation data, etc. The essential requirement for the depositiors in the group would be that they have some understanding of the context in which the recordings were made. Ideally through having made some of the recordings in the collection and having worked with the community for an extended period of time but if not, through having worked in similar situations and understanding potential issues that might arise. We discussed this at LIP and some of the linguists had already used this strategy, with a particular researcher the ‘head’ depositor and others to be contacted if the ‘head’ researcher could not be contacted. This may not completely solve all archivists problems, as it means there are in fact potentially more depositors to communicate with but communicating with depositors is always going to be a large part of the work in running an archive.

[Update: The new ELDP new grantees contract requires depositors to appoint a delegate, who will take responsibility for their collection, if the depositor cannot be contacted]

Another strategy which would greatly help where lone depositors become uncontactable would be to make the informal networks of linguists and other researchers who work with communities in the same region more visible. If I can’t get in touch with an Australianist for example, I know their close colleagues and can contact them to find out if they are overseas or in the field. One of the local archivists I spoke to mentioned that a particular linguist was terminally ill and not able to discuss access to her collections, so access to those collections was not possible. The archivists were aware of this so although it was a problem, it was not a mystery why she was not contactable. Similarly in a local context, such as amongst Australianists, there are often key individuals, like the linguist David Nash (ANU) who maintains extensive networks with other Australianists, and if all else fails can always be relied on to track down a difficult-to-find linguist.  The ‘social network’ aspect of the ELAR archive seemed to build on these existing networks to some extent – it is not clear how much this aspect of the interface has been used, or how long it will persist.

As always when discussions of ethics come up there were many individual issues discussed:

  • Parents give permission for us to make recordings of children – what happens when they are adults, should I seek permission again?
  • Young women traditionally participate in ceremonies topless – should I keep access to these recordings restricted?
  • What to do if a naked child wanders past the video camera partway through the recording? – pixellating, was suggested as a solution, it is apparently becoming easier
  • Metadata makes it easier to search for recordings of people by name – and this might make online bullying easier – should I use pseudonyms?

As always we also discussed how archiving can be very time-consuming, stressful and thankless (one participant had just archived a few decades of work). How can we make the job easier so more people archive? One participant suggested selective archiving –do we really need to archive everything? It was suggested that just a sample of some texts that can be open access is the best collection. And other stuff such as elicitation will eventually be thrown out as the researcher’s hard drive gets to full. Personally I think unless the data is obviously rubbish could never possibly be useful to anyone, better to archive it if possible. But there are signs that funds are drying up for digital archives and as a consequence, some are getting more fussy.  So researchers who want to keep everything may have to find their own secure backed up storage for data.

So the idea of joint stewardship for collections does have some benefits compared to the lone depositor model.  It offers alternative points of contact for archives – but of course does not solve all our problems!

Playing texts and media—EOPAS again

While I obviously like EOPAS as a model for corpus presentation (see the earlier blog post about it here), I found a renewed enthusiasm for it today as I was checking the meaning of a word in a text I was translating from South Efate. The word lunak does not appear in any of my notes nor in the dictionary, but appears a few times in a story told by the late Kalsarap Namaf. I wrote to Joel Kalpram, who is from Erakor village and speaks the language, and asked him if he knew the word.

Continue reading ‘Playing texts and media—EOPAS again’ »

What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word

Coining a new name from a word taken from an Australian language often has complex implications, even if the naming agency is oblivious to them. When the name is for a place, a suburb or a street or a park, the official approval involves the relevant local government body. Two writers went into some of the issues a few years ago:

  • Tony Birch (2010 [1992]) sees the application of indigenous names to ‘houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities’ as ‘an exercise in cultural appropriation’. He draws a distinction between the restoration of indigenous placenames (such as Gariwerd ~ Grampians in western Victoria), and the fresh application to the built environment of a word imported from some Australian language.
  • Sam Furphy (2002) earlier discussed the role of what he dubbed ‘naming books’: popular twentieth century booklets of lists of ‘Aboriginal words’ such as Endacott (1923), Thorpe (1927), Kenyon (1930), Cooper (1952), which, for all the expressed good intentions of their compilers, have contributed to a homogenised perception of Australian languages: ‘The earliest popular naming books … make virtually no reference to the variety of languages spoken by the indigenous people of Australia, such that an uninformed reader could be forgiven for believing that there was only one Aboriginal language.’ (Furphy 2002:62) ‘Naming books simplify and romanticise Aboriginal words and remove them from their cultural and linguistic context.’ (Furphy 2002:68)

I’ve recently come upon an example which illustrates a combination of both concerns: one where official placenaming has drawn on the notorious naming booklets. Continue reading ‘What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word’ »