Author Archive

Recording Aboriginal conversation with video

In 2006 Tom Honeyman began an e-thread on the benefits of and complications relating to using digital video to record natural conversation in a fieldwork setting (see also here, here and here and here). For several years I have been trying to record conversation without actually being present to monitor the recordings. It can be quite tricky because there are so many variables. Mostly I haven’t been completely satisfied with the results. I began by using straight audio, partly because it is easier to bring it off successfully but then the visual information was sadly lacking. My first attempts with video were not very successful, partly because of inadequate equipment. I had a large imposing camera with a huge tripod. The resultant recordings were far from naturalistic. Three years ago I said that I hoped for success adapting techniques reported here, for audio, to video. It has taken a while to provide an update because even with a smaller camera, I felt I hadn’t got the mike placement right, or the images were overexposed, or they weren’t clear enough to see people’s faces easily. In fact I’ve been getting sick of trying to transcribe this sort of material. On my latest fieldtrip I was determined to do a really good recording. This meant getting outdoors in the bush, away from the sounds of ceiling fans, vehicles, aeroplanes and whippersnippers.

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Yuwali in front of Yimiri.jpg
Last night I saw a fascinating documentary about a group of Mardu people’s first contact with Europeans. As Australia entered the space race the group of about twenty women and children found themselves literally in the firing line. In 1964 a rocket, the Blue Streak, was about to be launched from Woomera in South Australia. The ‘dump zone’ for the rocket was the area of the Percival Lakes in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. A pair of patrol officers was dispatched to the area to make sure that the region was uninhabited. Of course it wasn’t. Pretty soon they found recent fires and human tracks.

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Black Day for Indigenous Languages in NT – Felicity Meakins

[from Felicity Meakins, 2009 ARC recipient]
The bad news about Australian languages continues with the announcement by the NT Minister for Education and Training, Marion Scrymgour of a NT schools restructure which will place the emphasis on English and will essentially wind back two-way education.
“… I’m … announcing today that the first four hours of education in all Northern Territory schools will be conducted in English,” Ms Scrymgour said.
“Ms Scrymgour said she recognised the requirement for all schools to teach all classes in English for the first four hours of each day would be contentious. I support preserving our Indigenous languages and culture – but our Indigenous children need to be given the best possible chance to learn English.”
This announcement follows the results from her Department’s 2004-2005 Indigenous Languages and Culture in Northern Territory Schools [.pdf] report which showed positive outcomes for children taught in the two-way model.
How does it help children who don’t understand English, to spend the first 4 hours of every day listening to English? Most NT schools are already English-only schools, and there’s no sign that it improves children’s written English more than in bilingual schools – indeed the evidence from Scrymgour’s own department report is that the outcomes are marginally better in bilingual schools.
Consultation this year for the Regional Learning Partnerships between communities and schools also showed that most communities wanted language taught in the school either through two-way learning or an ILC (Indigenous Languages and Culture) program.
But it’s not about research, results or education even, it is all about ideology as usual.
How about having a look at the 2004-2005 report, and the press release by the Minister for Education, and if you feel moved to send her informed agreement or disagreement, e-mail her at Marion.Scrymgour AT

Murriny Patha’s ‘Elided Progeny’ Construction

Murriny Patha is fun. Especially if you like “kintax” (Evans 2003), cause it’s got it in spades. Murriny Patha keeps delivering weird phenomena that require unconventional nomenclature (see for instance Walsh 1996). “So what”, I hear you asking, “is the ‘elided progeny’ construction?” In Murriny Patha it constitutes a subclass of what are clearly a group of “triangular” referring expressions, whereby a person-referent is referred to via “triangulation” – that is indirectly, via another person or persons. The most common of these are possessed kinterms: my father, your uncle, their cousin etc. The person that the kinterm is anchored to is frequently termed the propositus. Other classes of people may also take a propositus: e.g., John’s bank manager. Arguably all kinterms are anchored to a propositus, regardless of whether the propositus is expressed overtly or not. Thus when an adult addresses a child, “Hey, where’s daddy?”, the altercentric kinterm Daddy has an implied 2nd person propositus. However the same adult, when talking to another adult, may use egocentric kinterms with an implied 1st person propositus i.e., “Mum is driving me mad.”

The “elided progeny” construction is a kind of kin-based triangulation, but the kinterm corresponding to son or daughter is just missing. These things are very common in Murriny Patha conversation. In fact “triangulation” is generally a very common means of referring to people. I wouldn’t say it’s the default method of referring to persons, but it probably is the preferred choice for “upgrading” reference to persons. So how does this construction work? It’s basically a special case of the Murriny Patha possessive construction.

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Wikid plug

Recently Jangari proudly told me that his Wikipedia page on Wagiman was ranked as “good” by wikimedia. Well they got that right. Check it out, it’s fantastic. Good on you Mali. Give the man a PhD scholarship! He’s clearly ready for big things.

Hey Whitefella, where’s your country?

This morning I read the transcript of Marion Scrymgour’s very moving Charles Perkins address. I was struck by the tragic story of her recently-departed father who was taken away from his parents. He passed away never without ever knowing who his mother was.
As I read this transcript, I got a phonecall from my mum who asked me about whether I’m coming home for Christmas. She lives in Perth. The juxtaposition of these two things made me revisit questions I often ask myself, “Where is home and how do I know that it’s there?” A question I get all the time that I struggle with it is “Where are you from?” Sometimes here in Sydney, I’m able to give a dismissive answer, “Western Australia”, and hope that the person asking the question doesn’t realise how big WA is. But really the question is not so easily dismissed.

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A huge loss

Australia recently lost another of its national treasures. Paddy Bedford was one of the prodigeously talented Gija artists of the East Kimberley. He was doubtlessly one one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced. You can read obituaries here and here (WARNING: Photo) and see for yourself the wonderful legacy he has left behind (a, b, & c).
Lots has been written and there’ll be much more written yet. I just thought he thought he was a beautiful man. When he was young he earned the name Kuwumji, because Kuwumjingarri nginini, ‘he went around combing his hair’. Even as a kid they reckoned he was a dude. But as he got older, he was *the MAN* (WARNING: on left in photo). But more importantly he was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. I have many fond memories of camping on the verandah in Kununurra at Frances Kofod’s house where he had his bed. He would wake up every morning to the view of Kelly’s Knob. Life could be worse.
He was the only person I know who shared my passion for Spaghetti Westerns. We’d sit back with a glass of ‘lemonade’ and cheer while Lee Van Cleef would showem all who’s boss.
One of the main reasons he lived to be 85, or however old he was, is because he was so well looked after by Frances and her son Rowan. He was well-fed and healthy and happy. Apart from being an astoundingly good linguist, Frances is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Nambijin, you’re one of the world’s truly unique individuals. Your loss is all of our loss.

‘Polysynthesis’ in the CA Literature

For some time now I’ve misguidedly thought that there was very little attention paid to polysynthesis in the CA (Conversation Analysis) literature. I now realize how very wrong I was. On the contrary, it seems that polysynthesis and CA go together like love and marriage, but I was too blind to see it. As I digested as much of the literature as I could find, I really only came across one book and three obscure papers by Roger Spielmann on Ojibwe interaction and I thought that’s about where it ends. You see I was having trouble trying reconcile Murriny Patha conversation with what I was reading. Typologically it is just light years removed from everything being discussed. And much of the literature in interactional linguistics is very syntactically oriented rather than morphosyntactically oriented. I had been thinking that conversation analysts had studiously avoided this type of language (Spielmann being the exception). However I must have had blinkers on or something. You know what it’s like when you can’t see the wood for the trees?

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Toolbox on a Mac

My nightmare with Windows is finally over.
Yay! Crossover! It rules!
Late last year my G4 ibook came to a premature demise, probably a victim of all the dust and the ruts on the road to Wadeye from Daly River, which I did enough times to make me and my car age. Can’t have done the laptop much good.
So I bought an Intel mac thinking ‘great now I can run Toolbox‘. I really wasted a lot of time. I didn’t lose any data. But when I discovered what Windows was going to cost me, plus the emulator Parallels, in order to run Windows, it was the best part of A$300. I also spent a lot of time, trying just about anything to avoid paying for Windows after forking out for a new computer (for the second time in my PhD candidature). All that just to run Toolbox which is a freely downloadable application.

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Recording naturalistic conversation just got even easier

Here is a technological update to my previous posting on recording conversation.
I consider myself very privileged to be able to visit the Department of Linguistics at UCSB, where I have been lucky enough to audit a number of courses, including Jack Du Bois‘ course on discourse transcription. Today we were introduced to a very nice piece of equipment, the Edirol R-09 ultra-portable flash ram recorder. This piece of equipment is about the same dimensions as an i-pod, although a bit fatter.

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