Yan-nhaŋu in the National Year of Reading

What a good decision in today’s Australia Day honours to make Laurie Baymarrwangga Senior Australian of the Year 2012! Read Claire Bowern’s post for an appreciation of her and her work documenting the Yan-nhaŋu language and getting it written down. She sounds a delightful person.

2012 is also National Year of Reading. Everyone with a reading-scheme in their revolver will be lobbying the government for funds to smelt and fire their silver bullets. Will the glitter of silver blind officials to the evidence as to whether they can hit the target?

How about for a change we read Yan-nhaŋu, Warlpiri, Enindilyakwa, Arabic, Vietnamese…? And for an even greater change, fund the production of reading material and decent language enrichment programs in these languages? Which brings me to a quibble about the description of Ms Baymarrwangga’s achievements:

Speaking no English, with no access to funding, resources or expertise, she initiated the Yan-nhangu dictionary project. Her cultural maintenance projects include the Crocodile Islands Rangers, a junior rangers group and an online Yan-nhangu dictionary for school children.

‘initiate’ is a slippery word, which then slithered into the ABC report as’establishment’.

Another is her establishment of the Yan-nhangu dictionary project, without any funding, resources, expertise or the ability to speak English.

This is a dangerous inaccuracy. Others were involved in the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary work who had access to resources. Ignoring their contribution lets governments off the hook. They want us to believe that love is all you need to maintain a language and create an online dictionary for it. Not schools, not interpreters or translators, not curricula or interesting stuff to read, not web-hosting or software, not linguists or programmers, nothing that needs paying for. Certainly nothing that would cost as much as some of the silver bullet reading-schemes.

2 thoughts on “Yan-nhaŋu in the National Year of Reading”

  1. Hi Jane,
    Your post got me thinking about who’s been involved with the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary project and what it’s cost. Here’s a short summary:
    . Yan-nhaŋu community members: 5 people on and off over ten years, including not only Baymarrwaŋa but Margaret Nyuŋunyuŋu, Rita Gularrbanga (who actually did the first YN draft dictionary on her own at Milingimbi LPC, but her arthritis stopped her from being able to type), Rayba Nyaŋbal, and Rita and Margaret’s mum, who died in 2006. All contributed to the dictionary, and Rayba and Margaret also translated for me before I learnt enough Yan-nhaŋu to work with the elders who don’t speak English.on my own.
    . Bentley James, who’s done a huge amount of work with the Crocodile Islands people. He compiled a dictionary in Toolbox, which was also edited and added to by Salome Harris, when she was at Milingimbi (she’s been a linguist at Katherine Language Centre, but I’ve lost touch with her recently). Bentley got his PhD from ANU recently in anthropology.
    . I did a lot of editing of that Toolbox file, and roughly doubled the headword entries. I got funding from the ELDP and later the NSF (grant 844550) to do fieldwork on Yan-nhaŋu, which included both lexicography and general documentation work. The ELDP grant was ₤7000 or so, and the portion of the NSF grant that went on Yan-nhaŋu was about $10,000. Yan-nhaŋu speakers were paid for their time while working with me, but most of the work overall was voluntary.
    . Two of my Rice students, Vica Papp (now post-doc at Canterbury) and Michelle Morrison (now assistant professor at CASL) did an independent study course with me on lexicography and their project included substantial editing work on the dictionary. My Australian Languages class at Yale in 2008 workshopped the learner’s guide.
    . The NLC and NAILSMA have been involved a bit too, mostly in projects for studying marine ecology and including flora/fauna identification.
    . Milingimbi School and their Literature Production Centre, headed by Milmilany, has been quite supportive of the project too; they gave me housing and a place to work when I was at Milingimbi, for example.

    So yep, there’s a lot behind the scenes, and I take your point about funding, but none of this would have happened without Baymarrwaŋa. More funding would have been great but for Yan-nhaŋu, and I suspect for many other languages, the critical problem is a shortage of the right people with the right skills, and the fact that the people with the right skills are overcommitted. Almost all the Yan-nhaŋu women were also working day jobs (Margaret at the credit union and helping with the Chookie dancers, Rayba at the school, Rita and her mum were heavily involved in weaving for the arts centre). I also have a lot of commitments that don’t involve Yan-nhaŋu.

  2. Thanks for this excellent list – helping clarify what a massive team effort a good dictionary/language project is. When someone like David Pugsley gets a well-deserved gong for treating and preventing renal failure in Aboriginal communities, we all know that he is not alone – there are health workers, nurses, hospitals, transplant arrangers, kidney donors and so on backing him. So too with language work.

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