Languages in crisis

Next week, on 7 June in Canberra, will be an event Languages in crisis, at the National Press Club. It’s billed as a “National Languages Summit, calling for simple, effective measures to utilise and develop our national language capacity”. It’s organised by the Academy of Humanities, and they’re going to launch a Research Paper. BUT, … Read more

Sorry Day

National Sorry Day, the fortieth anniversary since the Referendum, and here’s the Government’s response. Today the Prime Minister implied that “the right to live on remote communal land and to speak an indigenous language” keeps Indigenous people poor. But there is no causal relation between speaking an Indigenous language and living in poverty. In country towns across Australia many Indigenous people live on welfare and speak English.
And on Saturday, Sorry Day, I read that the Govenment is offering the 70 traditional owners of Ngapa (Water) country on Muckaty Station (NT) about $60,000 a year for the next two hundred years to experiment with storing nuclear waste on their land. Or alternatively, $171,000 today to each Ngapa clan member. That’s before tax, lawyers and accountants’ fees and administrative costs. And traditional owners (all family) of neighbouring country have said that they don’t want the future value of their land decreased by nearness to a nuclear dump.

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Laughing at the powerful

Summer brings out stories about humour in the media. A right wing commentator complained that Australian cartoonists only lampooned rightwing politicians (ignoring the fact that we have a conservative far-right Government). “How the hell did we get here?” ABC TV 6/1/07 presented the Australian baby-boomers’ top 20 TV comedy shows – mostly Australian but including some British (Yes Minister, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers) and American. Number 1 was M.A.S.H., and the show host said, reflecting an irritatingly widespread attitude, that it was surprising to find an American show with such an Australian sense of humour. Look out, however, for the start of a new claim – that the Australian sense of humour (whatever that is) may actually be an Aboriginal sense of humour. I saw it last week in an article, The joke’s on us by Shane Brady in the Sydney Morning Herald (2/1/07).

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Sovereignty over languages and land

Assertion of intellectual property rights over languages is happening. Here’s an FAQ in a public archive for Australian Aboriginal material (ASEDA, AIATSIS).

Q: Why do speakers restrict access to material in their languages?

A: Many speakers of endangered languages consider that their language is their intellectual property, passed down to them from their ancestors. If it is made freely available to others, then their rights in that language can be diminished. Usually they do not want strangers to use words and sentences of their languages in an inappropriate way, and want to be consulted prior to public use.

At Language Log, Mark Liberman has a couple of comments on Tom’s recent post about this with respect to the Mapuche people’s complaint against Microsoft, and following Geoffrey Pullum’s post on the same topic.

If this idea were really to be accepted into the system governing the usual laws of property, I suspect that the consequences would surprise and displease many of those who start out supporting it . For some discussion, see “The Algonquian morpheme auction” (3/3/2004).

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Desert: forcing Aborigines off their land

Pretty soon the remote areas of Australia will be uninhabited. Drought and high fuel prices are forcing farmers and graziers off their land. And these, together with Government policies, are forcing Aborigines off their land. Along with the departure of the people will go their languages and societies. Gary Johns writes in The Australian (11/10/06):
“The Government has begun to stop supporting a recreational lifestyle in the name of preserving a culture.”
Apparently Aborigines are to be ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’ (Johns’ words) in fringe camps around bigger towns. He thinks this is a Good Idea.

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Bush School: The Warlmanpa and the Bakers

There was an engaging documentary Bush School on SBS tonight, about Warrego School in a ghost mining town out of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. It started a few years ago with eleven Warlmanpa children from the Mangarlawurru [Mungalawurru] Aboriginal community travelling 80 km each day to get to there. They’re still going, singing their lessons in the bus. They attend 100% of the time, achieve national benchmarks in English literacy and numeracy, focus on horse-riding and swimming. The school is working hard to combat the hearing loss that most of the kids suffer from (ear infections have meant that several of the children have hearing aids). And they’ve sent one of their brightest students to study at a private girls school in New South Wales.

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Lost in the relief over the ceasefire in Lebanon, the dropping of the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006, and the proposed conscience vote on stem cell research, another bill has passed that will greatly affect the lives of many speakers of Aboriginal languages. This week the Senate has been discussing the ABORIGINAL LAND RIGHTS (NORTHERN TERRITORY) AMENDMENT BILL 2006. Go to Hansard for Tuesday 15/8/06 and Wednesday 16/8/06 for the speeches by Senators Christopher Evans, Rachel Siewert and Andrew Bartlett which bring out the likely consequences of the bill. The Age has an article on it [thanks!], but there’s not much else. Working in the Northern Territory in the 1980s, I provided linguistic evidence for the Warumungu land claim, and was able to see the effect that the success of that and other claims had. People took greater control of their own lives and futures, and one effect was increased interest in, and effort to maintain, their own languages. It was clear that land mattered to people, and, on the negative side, could lead to violent disagreements between groups. The implementation of the Native title legislation has made this much worse. But this bill has the potential to create even more disagreements.

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Census night

How did you interpret the intent of Census Question 22 “Does the person ever need someone to help with, or be with them for, communication activities?” What’s ‘Australian’ ancestry (C.Q.18)? As always, census forms raises concerns of interpreting the questions, and interpreting the answers to the questions, especially when the forms are being filled out by speakers of other languages.
Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald has a short article on the physical problems of doing the census at Wadeye, in particular the fact that they have “hired eight Wadeye residents who translate the questions for people into their local language and then fill in the answers for them.” A good start. The mention that John Taylor was there as an observer took me back to his excellent co-authored paper “Making sense of the census: observations of the 2001 enumeration in remote Aboriginal Australia.”

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Notes from the launch of the AIATSIS Digitisation Project

On Thursday 29 June 2006 I joined heaps of overcoated people in the large, airy Reading Room of the Australian Institute of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
(AIATSIS) in Canberra. We were celebrating the launch of “Indigitisation” – a three year funded digitisation program for sound, text, film, and photographs. The view of lake, sky and trees and some determined ducks was a distraction from the speeches, but some things stuck – 40,000 hours of sound recordings of Indigenous languages to digitise, lots of expensive machines, some enthusiastic staff, and as yet no off-site backup. Storage problems mean they’re not digitising everything at 24-bit, 96 kHz. They’re planning to deliver some sound files through the web, where communities have given permission. So in future you should be able to click on some on-line catalogue entries and download sound files.
The AIATSIS Library staff showed “Collectors of words” – a web presentation of the nineteenth century word-lists of Australian languages from E. M. Curr and Victorian and Tasmanian languages from R. B. Brough Smyth . They’re available as pdfs, organised alphabetically according to the place the words were attributed to, and linked to maps. A nice feature is the linking to the AIATSIS catalogue, so that you can find other materials referring to the same language group. Unfortunately the pdfs are only images – you can’t search for text in them. If you want text copies of Curr, go for the transcribed copies in AIATSIS’s electronic text archive ASEDA. These aren’t yet linked to the scanned images – a job for the future!

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