Old language materials: Elkin, Capell and gorilla linguists

A visit to the University of Sydney Archives soothed my sorrow over a Sydney Morning Herald article (13/11/2006 p.10). In this article it’s said of a semi-phonics-based literacy project in Tennant Creek that:
“..Aboriginal languages have been approached by linguists as some kind of historical artefact, but this method makes them usable in a way that has the potential to transform literacy education in indigenous communities”.
This shows a basic confusion between what linguists do – prepare spelling systems, dictionaries and grammars – and what teachers do – devise ways to teach language using the dictionaries and grammars as references, and maybe using the spelling systems if they’re teaching reading and writing. What’s puzzling is the implied criticism in the phrase “some kind of historical artefact”.

So what were we off to the Archives for? Yes! In search of historical artefacts! We wanted to admire the collection of papers of the anthropologist A. P. Elkin. From the 1920s until his death in the late 1970s he carried out fieldwork in many parts of Australian, and corresponded with many other fieldworkers. Elkin’s papers include, among many other things, major collections of material from the Kimberley and Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales, as well as correspondence, field notes, and other research material on Papua New Guinea.
There on the table in the Archives office on Level 9 of Fisher Library was a small brown notebook which contains, in fading pencil, Warumungu and Warlpiri words, and notes on ceremonies held at Phillip Creek N.T. in 1953. And there are associated photographs and sound recordings. Linda Barwick wrote up a careful description of the contents, arranged digitisation of the sound recordings, and took copies of the Tennant Creek material back to Tennant Creek, to the Nyinkkanyunyu cultural centre there. The people in Tennant Creek probably wouldn’t have known about got the material if Linda hadn’t done this. And the Tennant Creek collection is just one of many collections in the Elkin material.
Brief descriptions of the papers are in .pdf files on the web (go to the University of Sydney Archives, then to Personal Archives, then E for Elkin) ,and some of the annotations are incorporated in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) library catalogue Mura, but many are not. In particular many of the notebooks have a rough index of the contents, and these aren’t included in the files. If you go to Mura and search for the language “Bangerang”, you won’t learn of “P.130 A P Elkin Series: 0048 Field notebooks and other research material relating to Aboriginal Tribes in Victoria”. But AIATSIS is the first port of call for many Aboriginal people tracking down their family history and details of their family’s languages.
What’s needed is a much more detailed and searchable on-line catalogue of the Elkin papers at the University of Sydney linked to Mura. This would allow Indigenous people from Australia and the Pacific, as well as researchers, to find material on their languages and societies, which could be valuable in language and cultural work. PARADISEC and Peter Newton have provided a good model for such a catalogue, with the online listing of the Pacific papers of Elkin’s colleague, Arthur Capell.
(If you want to find out more about the Elkin papers, you can make an appointment from 9-1 and 2-5 Monday to Thursday. Phone: (02) 9351 2684 Fax: (02) 9351 7304 E-mail: archives AT mail.usyd.edu.au.)
Back to historical artefacts. There’s a lot to learn from comparing language records made in the 1900s with those made in the 1930s with the 1950s and so on. The comparison can show a great deal about how languages change, and what the effect of a dominant language like English is, as well as other diffusion patterns e.g. I think that comparing the first anthropological records of the Tennant Creek area with more recent records shows that the terms for in-laws have undergone some interesting restructuring over the last 100 years, and possibly reflects changes as to which neighbours were most influential.
At one stage it was fashionable to dismiss previous work on languages. Muscle-bound gorilla linguists would bench-press strange sounds and morphological weirdnesses, and beat their chests:
“Here, let me tackle this language! It’s amazingly hard, but..” [grunt] “I’m up to it – not like the wimps who tried before!”
In fact when there are few records of a language, and few speakers, every record counts. Almost every observer will have recorded different words, or different senses for words. They may vary in how they record the pronunciation of the words, but, since most early observers didn’t catch all the distinctive sounds of the language, different attempts at recording words can be used to reconstruct more accurate renditions of the sounds. And all of these data can be used with present-day speakers, both for checking and for memory-jogging. (Memory-jogging can occasionally cause problems if the words are “ticklish” – e.g. I found most words for stars were off-limits – but most words in old sources aren’t).
I haven’t heard Aboriginal people dismiss words as being obsolete or out-of-date; instead it’s been “That’s a hard word, we used to hear old people say that word” and there’s great interest in keeping those words.

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