Rejoicing at AUSTRALEX

AUSTRALEX held its biennial conference in a surprisingly green Adelaide, and the tall gums were filled with birds rejoicing. It was the biggest AUSTRALEX conference I’ve ever been to, a range of speakers from around the world, the first one with parallel sessions, and by far the greatest media coverage of any Australian linguistics/lexicography conference – around 16 news items. Amazing, and good work by the promoter, Ghil’ad Zuckermann!

The theme of this conference was Endangered Words, and Signs of Revival. What is an endangered word? Is it a word in a language for an idea that no other language has a word for? Is it a word in an endangered language? Is it both? Do they include the ephemeral words and phrases (e.g. the current Free free the refugees which I remember years ago as Free, free the ACT from, from the bourgeoisie). What does it mean to revive words? What habitats do endangered words survive on in? e.g. David Nash‘s paper noted that some words of Indigenous languages survive in scientific names – as Nicotiana rosulata subsp. Ingulba which J.M.Black named in the 1930s using the local Arrernte name for the plant. Discussion of this led to the mention of a fossil python, preserving a possibly ephemeral cultural reference: Montypythonoides).

Revival was front stage at the start, with a welcome to country and a speech in Kaurna by Jack Buckskin (Jack is starring in a recent film about his work). As if this wasn’t terrific enough, he followed it with a song he’d written in Kaurna, and played the didgeridoo (paying respect to the northern Australians who play it). It was a great tribute to what waking up a language can do.

The conference concluded with a related event that I really really regret missing — on Saturday, Kaurna people, descendants of the first missionaries, current Lutherans, linguists and lexicographers visited Pirlta Wardli (Possum house:the place where the first missionaries worked). They got together to recognise and celebrate the work those missionaries did on documenting Kaurna language and teaching Kaurna children to read and write their own language. There was a prelaunch of a Kaurna Learners Guide by Rob Amery. The event was supported by the Yitpi Foundation, which Tony Rathjen set up, and which has been a great and quiet supporter of Aboriginal languages.

Coming together at AUSTRALEX helps us realise that we can learn from each other. Dictionary-making seems at the outset so simple – how hard can it be to make a list of words and their meanings? And so many of us rush into it, and then discover problems, and have to think up solutions to them, when all the while other people have been dealing with similar problems. So it was great to see the makers of dictionaries for small endangered languages in discussion with people who mine the web to create huge corpora. There were talks on production of dictionaries and workflow (e.g. Lauren Gawne on two dictionaries she’s worked on – Lamjung Yolmo and Kagate) and on beginning dictionaries – Norah Zhong‘s dictionary of Western Yugur). Both papers raised the question of sources and corpora – so it was nice to set this against Julia Robinson‘s fascinating discussion of changing practice in searching for antedatings and historical evidence for the Australian National Dictionary. (Which raised in my mind the question of whether the privileging of literary sources is a legacy problem for English dictionaries on historical principles).

There was also a strong sense of history at the conference, paying tribute to the work of early word collectors – Luise Hercus described her first realisation in 1962 in Victoria, that there still were speakers and rememberers of many languages, and then how she devoted herself to recording them, and what they wanted recorded, which very often were songs and the places associated with the songs.

Archival work also featured, Mary-Anne Gale paying tribute to the organisation of Boandik materials by Barry Blake which Boandik language revivers have made considerable use of. Going to another country entirely, Lars-Gunnar Larsson described how much Ume Saami (southern Sweden) material had been recorded in the archives, and described how careful analysis of archival sources on Ume Saami had shown that there were village dialects, which differed systematically, rather than there being random chaotic variation in a language attrition situation. He also raised the question of conflicts between archival material and the later material on which Ume Saami revival has been based – [a dictionary of material collected during World War 2 by a German linguist, Wolfgang Schlachter, who was nearly blind. He lived with a Saami family who defended him when Swedes wanted to arrest him as a German spy.]

Similar kinds of conflicts are probably what led John Hobson to suggest returning “to a gentler model of prescriptivism” that will help communities trying to get revival underway. Few people can learn spelling, grammar etc under the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. Related to this are the difficulties raised by Peter Mühlhäusler for the new languages/English varieties of Pitkern and Norf’k of how to prepare a dictionary for a non-standard language, where families argue about what words to include – a situation familiar to many people working on small languages, whether traditional or new. (Worst pun of conference -description of Mühlhäusler, a ferret enthusiast, as Professor Eferretus).

I was particularly taken with the work on creating new terms, whether for Boandik (Gale), Kaurna (Jasmin Morley) or more generally in John Hobson‘s paper where he presented a resource for communities wanting to create new words – basically a list of strategies for doing this, and examples of it. Over the borrowing/copying strategy, Wanda Miller emphasised that linguists have a responsibility when they go out to communities to speak with the elders about copying words, and if a word is copied, then in our resources and books acknowledge where that word is taken from. John Hobson reported that a trial release to some University of Sydney Master of Indigenous Language Education students this year was greeted with praise. You can find the resource online here.

AUSTRALEX 2015 is probably to be held in New Zealand, home and exporter of many great lexicographers.

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