Archive for the ‘Australian Linguistics’ Category.

Kenneth L. Hale Award: Claire Bowern (Yale University)

Excellent news! Claire Bowern (see also Anggarrgoon) has been awarded the Kenneth L. Hale Award. Here’s the LSA’s commendation.

Claire Bowern and her work is the embodiment of the qualities that the Linguistic Society of America would like to see in a Hale award winner. Claire has been involved with documentation of the Bardi language in Australia since 1999, beginning while she was still an undergraduate at Australia National University. She led an oral history project, producing a large corpus of the language. She has published academic material and community materials both, including a gazetteer, narratives, a dictionary, and a learners guide. The nomination letter says that ‘Claire Bowern and her work represent the true spirit of Ken’s devotion to endangered languages in particular and linguistics at large. Her work is an inspiration to all of us, and especially to young scholars in our field.’
This award is presented in recognition of exemplary work on the documentation of Bardi, a highly endangered language, with outstanding contributions to the community and to linguistics.

CALC (Central Australian Linguistic Circle) meeting

Central Australian Linguistic Circle (CALC) 2013 

Monday 9 September 2013, 8:30 am – 4:00 pm

Venue: Desert People’s Centre Function Room (next to the Irrarnte Café), Desert Knowledge Precinct, South Stuart Highway, Alice Springs



8:30 am          meet at Desert People’s Centre Function Room, set up, introductions

9:00-9:30      Cathy Bow, Charles Darwin University The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

9:30-10:00    Margit Bowler, UCLA Majority Rules effects in Warlpiri vowel harmony

10:00-10:30  a session on educational linguistics and language-learning resources:

Susan Moore and Megan Wood, Department of Education and Childrens Services, The Australian Curriculum and Aboriginal languages

Michael LaFlamme, Publisher, Institute for Aboriginal Development Press, The Potential role of apps and picture dictionaries in language development

10:30-11:00        morning tea

11:00-11:30   Gavan Breen, IAD Dictionaries, Kaytetye and Warumungu

11:30-12:00   Margaret Carew, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Iltyem-iltyem: a new resource for Central Australian Sign Languages

12:00-12:30   Samantha Disbray, Charles Darwin University, Bilingual education programs in central Australia: A broader evaluation

12:30- 1:30          lunch

1:30-2:00       Mary Laughren, University of Queensland, Polysemy or vagueness in some Warlpiri quantificational terms 

2:00-2:30       David Moore, University of Western Australia, Alyawarr Motion

2:30-3:00       David Nash, ANU and AIATSIS, Alternating generations again again

3:00-3:30         afternoon tea

3:30- 4:00      Myf Turpin, University of Queensland Verb-final word order in Alyawarr song-poetry

Morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea available from Irrarnte Café

Organiser: David Moore <moored03 AT>

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.

Researching child language in the field: October LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of the last week’sLinguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

A number of linguists in Melbourne have recently begun documenting child language in the field. In the November 2011 LIP we discussed what you need to think about if you want to document child language and why you might document child language as part of a broader language documentation project (see blog at The most recent LIP, led by Lauren Gawne and Birgit Hellwig last week, revisited the topic of child language documentation. This allowed those who have recently returned from the field to discuss some of the problems they faced and how they dealt with them. In particular, we looked at the gap between what is possible in remote fieldsites and some of the assumptions in the field of child language acquisition about what type of data is needed to study child language development. The quantity and frequency of data that can be collected in remote fieldsites is quite different to what can be done in the developed world. The limitations can be quite simple. For example, not being able to get accurate information on children’s ages.

To kick off the discussion we looked at ethics, from a personal point of view. The previous LIP on child language was criticised for focussing too much on the requirements of institutional ethics boards at universities, schools etc. So we discussed what types of decisions researchers had made to satisfy their own ethical concerns. A number of researchers said that they had no plans to make their recordings public. This goes against the current trend to make recordings of endangered languages as open as possible, given community consent.

Just to give an example, I have decided to keep access to my recordings of child language closed, until the children are 18. If they are happy for me to open access to their recordings after they are 18, I will do so. However since I am currently recording children in groups at least 3 people, it is likely that in many cases I will not be able to contact all participants so the recording will remain closed. One of the issues we returned to a number of times in the evenings is that our recordings are often made in open environments, which means that many people wander through the field of view. This is in contrast to mainstream child language data, which is usually made in a room through which only a limited number of people pass by. It was mentioned that the CHILDES language database is a great example of an open access archive but it lacks much data from endangered languages. CHILDES contains data recorded from many different studies of child language acquisition. However to upload data to CHILDES you must have the consent of every person who appears, even if just walking past. This is not going to be possible for many recordings of endangered languages in remote areas. It is often difficult to find a room to record in and even if one is found, it is likely that many people will pass through it.

Some of the other assumptions about child language acquisition research that can prove difficult in remote settings:

  • that a mother and child pair form natural conversational partners (they may rarely engage in idle chit-chat)
  • that adults typically play with children (it may be the case that children typically play with other children, not adults

Since it is often difficult for a mother-child pair to engage in conversation in front of the camera, some suggested structured tasks, such as those used at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Although others pointed out that this makes it difficult to study language socialization, because you are asking people to engage in a culturally foreign activity. Others suggested identifying local games that could be used in language acquisition research.

One big problem in applying the standards of child language acquisition research to remote contexts is the difficulty of obtaining recordings of the same child over regular intervals. Many of the linguists attending the LIP session work in Papua New Guinea and Australian Aboriginal communities. They pointed out that children and often their whole families move around much more than they had expected. The set of children living in a community may barely overlap from one fieldtrip to the next.  In addition, some child language researchers recommend making recordings every 2 months or so, and it is not possible to do this in remote settings. The limitations are partly financial and partly due to the time needed for the linguist to travel to the remote location from their home.

There was quite a bit of time devoted to the technology used to record children, who are rather more mobile than adults. One researcher recommended the use of teddy-bear shaped backpacks for children. These can carry the heavy transmitter of the radio microphone. Everyone agreed that noise is a big issue. Even if there is no wind, which small radio microphones don’t handle well, children’s motion invariably causes noise. One researcher only recorded in areas without many leaves as the noise of these being crushed beneath children’s running feet was too loud.

Birgit Hellwig discussed some of the data from her recent 2 month fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea which she did with child language acquisition specialist Evan Kidd (ANU). She said that by the end of the 2 months, the community they were visiting had more or less gotten used to the cameras and exactly what it meant to have child language researchers in the community. One thing that Birgit emphasised is that what participants need to do is not as obvious to them as we might think. Birgit gave a lovely example in the use of the frog story task. The frog story ‘Frog: where are you?’, is a short children’s picture book without any words. Children were asked to tell the story in their own words. It became apparent during the course of Birgit’s 2 month fieldtrip that changes in how children told the story from week to week were related to narrative practices in the community. The story was circulating in the community, just as any story does, and changing slightly over the course of time. Rather than each new child that particpated in the task telling the story afresh, ‘in their own words’, each told it as it was in its current form in the community. This resulted in remarkable convergence between tellings that were recorded around the same time.

It became clear from the discussion that we can’t expect to do research on child language in the same way as it is done in more controlled environments. We will not get comparable quantities of data for each child. However, whatever we do record is likely to be really interesting. We only have data on child language for a small number of languages, so anything will help.

And another new book and conference

Moving from Nigeria to Australia… We in Australia owe thanks to Maïa Ponsonnet, Loan Dao and Margit Bowler, who have shepherded the Proceedings of the 42th ALS Conference – 2011 to publication online on the ANU Research Repository in close to record time. Papers on lesser-known languages (old, new, created) include:

On Australian languages (old and new)
Taking to the airwaves. A strategy for language revival, by Rob Amery

Grammar rules, OK? What works when teaching a higly endangered Aboriginal language versus a strong language, by Mary-Anne Gale

Body-parts in Dalabon and Barunga Kriol: Matches and mismatches, by Maïa Ponsonnet

On created languages
I can haz language play: The construction of language and identity in LOLspeak, by Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan

The morphosyntax of a created language of the Philippines: Folk linguistic effects and the limits of relexification, by Piers Kelly

On other small languages
Simplifying a system: A story of language change in Lelepa, Vanuatu, by Sébastien Lacrampe

Non-referential actor indexing in Nehan, by John Olstad

The expression of potential event modality in the Papuan language of Koromu, by Carol Priestley

And language and music
Musicolinguistic artistry of niraval in Carnatic vocal music, by Mahesh Radhakrishnan

And the problems L1 speakers of Australian creoles face
Sad Stories. A preliminary study of NAPLAN practice texts analysing students’ second language linguistic resources and the effects of these on their written narratives, by Denise Angelo

Editing proceedings is an arduous task, but wonderful for the discipline – the world gets to see papers early, people are more inspired to go to the conference, and so there are more opportunities for fruitful collaboration: a virtuous cycle which repeats again at this year’s Australian Linguistics Society conference being held in Perth. Check out the presentations and abstracts – some fabulous-looking papers!

Crowd-sourcing and Language documentation: September LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of the last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

The most recent LIP included a demonstration of the Ma! Iwaidja phrasebook and dictionary app developed by the Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project (publishing as Iwaidja Inyman). The app and its planned stage 2 development to include crowd-sourcing of linguistic data, were used as the starting point for a discussion of the possibilities of crowd-sourcing in language documentation. The discussion was led by Bruce Birch of Iwaidja Inyman. Software developer Matthew de Moiser also took part, from the company Pollen Interactive, which developed the software. There was also a good mix of staff and students from all over: the Centre for Research into Linguistic Diverstiy (CRLD), La Trobe; Monash, RNLD staff and also two participants all the way from NSW: Rob Mailhammer (UWS) and Tiger Webb (Macquarie/ABC radio).

Crowd-sourcing is a way of gathering content for websites. The most familiar example of crowd-sourcing to most readers will probably be Wikipedia. The content is provided by willing volunteers and in the case of Wikipedia, it is also moderated by a volunteer community. Now that speakers of endangered languages are becoming more connected to the internet, via mobile phones, laptops and other devices, the possibilities for using crowd-sourcing to gather language data are becoming apparent.

A summary of the potential benefits of crowd-sourcing methods for language documentation was given in the initial LIP announcement (taken from an abstract of Bruce Birch’s):

The opportunities for language documentation presented by smartphone apps are that they allow people to record, annotate and upload language data as well as metadata in the form of audio, video, images or text. The process allows users of the apps to take advantage of the spontaneous opportunities for data collection which frequently arise, but which are often missed in the context of traditional fieldwork tools and methods. Crowd-sourcing facilitates the involvement of large numbers of native speakers of all ages in the documentation process without the need for high levels of literacy and computer literacy.

Bruce introduced some of the challenges and benefits of crowd-sourcing through a discussion of stage 2 of the development of the Ma! Iwaidja app, which he is currently working on. The aim is to create an interface which minimises the need for text literacy and technological literacy as much as possible. The current app, now available in iTunes, provides a phrasebook and 850 word dictionary. This is searchable and there are sound files for each phrase and word. It is also possible to record new phrases and words and store them on your own device.

The aim for stage 2 is to enable users to upload new words and phrases and share them with one another. It is hoped that speakers will be able to record themselves speaking for a few minutes about the meaning and use of any new words; essential information for a new dictionary entry. After being uploaded to a server, the new data would be curated and available as updates to users. Note that this model is a little different to Wikipedia as there would be a committee (the current Iwaidja language team) who would make decisions about what new data to incorporate into the app. One of the challenges would be how to fund this ongoing work, curating the new uploaded data.

Everybody was very impressed with the app as it is currently available. And so of course those working on their own dictionaries were keen to find out whether they would be able to use the software to make apps with their own language data. The good news is that the data was imported from Toolbox format. At some stage it should be possible to either buy the software (and put the data in yourself), or pay to have an app for another language built using the existing architecture. Bruce mentioned that it should be possible to get a phrasebook for under $5000. He and Matthew de Moiser definitely seemed interested in producing similar apps for more languages. There is a Mawng phrasebook app in production already and plans to create apps for other languages of north-west Arnhem Land (Australia) as well. There is also interest from the Northern Territory interpreters centre to produce a phrasebook with 100 phrases in 17 languages.

It was clear from the discussion that there is a lot of interest in the potentials of crowd-sourcing technology and apps for fieldwork and language documentation in general, so no doubt we will be hearing more about them from Bruce and other’s working on apps in LIPs to come.
The iOS version of the Ma! Iwaidja app is now available for download from iTunes for free (android to follow):


Kim Scott and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

Kim Scott gave a talk in Melbourne last night titled “Language & Nation”. (you can see a video of the talk here). His writing has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Western Australian Premier’s Book Award among other honours. Last night he described the way in which his work has been intertwined with a rediscovery of the rythms and meanings of his ancestral language, Nyungar, from Albany in Western Australia. He works with the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project to, as he put it, ‘creep up on an endangered language’ through community meetings, creating artwork, and visits to country.
Continue reading ‘Kim Scott and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project’ »

Endangered linguistics in Australia?

Alongside endangered languages and cultures it is starting to look like Australia may also have endangered linguists and linguistics.

According to press reports (see also here) La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, plans to stop teaching linguistics at the undergraduate level, resulting in 4 staff positions being what the consultation document calls “surplus to our curriculum requirements”. Apparently, post-graduate research will continue via the recently revamped Centre for Research on Language Diversity now headed by Adam Schembri.

I have great affection for La Trobe Linguistics as it was where I got my first tenured academic position (as Lecturer and Head of the (then) Division of Linguistics in July 1981) and the place where I have (so far) worked the longest (14.5 years before I left in 1995 to move to the University of Melbourne). The 1980’s and 1990’s were the halcyon days of La Trobe Linguistics and the Department was a dynamic and vibrant centre for research and teaching, and a breeding ground for a significant number of staff and students who went on to distinguished careers. In the last few years the Department has shrunk considerably (only David Bradley and Marija Tabain remain as regular staff) and has had strong competition from Linguistics at both Melbourne and Monash University. Hopefully the CRLD can keep the discipline alive at La Trobe if the university does carry out its current plans.

PS: As an outside and distant observer, the situation at Sydney University also looks pretty dire — only two non-applied linguists remain there (Bill Foley and Toni Borowsky) and it may be that descriptive and theoretical linguistics is endangered there too.

Book launch: Kaytetye Dictionary

At the Aboriginal Languages Workshop at North Stradbroke Island last month, as usual there were things to celebrate. I had the honour of helping launch the Kaytetye Dictionary*. Book launches are a lovely way of thinking about and celebrating people’s work and ideas. Here’s what I said, more or less.

Things I love about this dictionary

1. it’s alkenhe (big) and contains elperterre (hard language).

2. It has lots of audiences: community members, linguists, scientists, teachers, people who want to learn the language. And the compilers, Myfany Turpin and the Kaytetye linguist, Alison Ross, have done their best to help all of these audiences. This is a dictionary that we will all learn from, not just for the encyclopaedic knowledge of Kaytetye it embodies, but also for how to present dictionary information.

3. I was trying to think of a metaphor to describe the Kaytetye Dictionary project. And I came up with the quandong tree (not a tree from Kaytetye country but not far off…).

Quandong tree: fruit
The bright red fruit looks pretty and it’s delicious. So I dip into the Kaytetye dictionary anywhere and I find things I love, I just keep on eating. Here are some:

Pronunciation: Arandic languages have a spelling system which takes a lot of getting used to – but the introduction to the dictionary is a real winner. It explains the system, demonstrates how sounds are made, gives respellings that will help English speakers, and even fuzzy spelling search clues. One thing I really like is the cross reference to words that sound similar arerre ‘collarbone’ and ararre ‘white bread’ are cross-referenced to help you distinguish between them.

Words: The dictionary includes not just traditional words but words for new things, words which show Kaytetye as a living language, one that a speech community uses to talk about things like batik wax, atnkere, and not-so-everyday things like guardian angels, arremparrenge. It also includes placenames, and a map with around 100 place names including country names. Yes!

It includes words for things which are very hard to elicit without the wholehearted deep involvement of native speakers. The clitic =akwele is glossed as:
“Of course, certainly; shows you are sure that what you are saying is true because you are speaking from your own knowledge, experience of authority” and then as a second sense:
When someone is repeatedly telling you something, akwele shows that you have heard what the person is saying and suggests that they don’t need to keep on about it.

ayntengarrenke is glossed as “Crawl back to someone after rubbishing them”. Not the kind of word that comes up in elicitation sessions..

And the gloss leads to another thing I like: Myf and Alison have used a lot of everyday language from Central Australia which will make it more useful to Kaytetye people. So, – you’ll find mpwarle arlwar-atnenke glossed as ‘busting for the toilet’.

Quandong tree: roots and branches
Like a quandong tree,the roots and branches are what produce the dictionary – and that is the fieldwork, and the resulting collection of tapes, transcriptions and linkages between example sentences and speakers that underlies the dictionary. This dictionary is just a fraction of what’s contained in that collection, which has already produced the Kaytetye Picture Dictionary. If you find something missing, it’s almost certainly in the massive underlying collection – e.g. following the practice of the other Arandic dictionaries, examples are not sourced, but that information is in the underlying files.

Quandong tree: root sustaining
A special thing about quandong trees is that, to start growing in the first place, they have to have initial sustenance from the roots of trees growing around. And for dictionaries, that sustenance is generosity. This generosity has manifested in many forms.

First are the more than 70 Kaytetye speakers who gave their time and enthusiasm to work with Myf and Alison on the dictionary. Many have since died, and the dictionary honours their work.

Second are the earlier researchers on Kaytetye and on Arandic: Ken Hale, Harold Koch, Grace Koch, and Gavan Breen, who freely added the material they’d collected to form the basis of the Kaytetye dictionary.

Third is the community of Alice Springs, an amazingly collaborative place, where Myf was able to collaborate with natural scientists who have worked to identify plants, animals, reptiles. (but she did say in her speech that some insects had proved hard to label, and the best they could suggest for witchetty grubs was that she let them hatch to see what they turned into..)

Fourth is the wonderful Alice Springs collaboration on picture dictionaries, learners guides and reference dictionaries published by IAD Press. A whole grove of them has grown up since the early 1980s. Through the efforts of Gavan Breen, Veronica Dobson, Cliff Goddard, Jenny Green, John Henderson, Robert Hoogenraad, Jim Wafer, David Wilkins and many others, there are materials such as picture dictionaries, learners guides and reference dictionaries for Mparntwe Arrernte, Alyawarr, Anmatyerr, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri…. and each dictionary compiler has built on the dictionaries of the past, so that the Kaytetye Dictionary draws on the information and good ideas of the previous dictionaries.

Finally there is the generosity of the compilers. Myf talked about Alison Ross and how she had worked with her grandmother and had produced several hundred written definitions in Kaytetye. I talked about Myf. She has over many years published an enormous amount of analysis and documentation of Kaytetye that is of great benefit to the Kaytetye community as well as to linguists. In 2000 she produced A Learner’s Guide to Kaytetye. IAD Press, Alice Springs, NT. In 2003 came the text collection Growing Up Kaytetye. Stories by Tommy Kngwarraye Thompson. (It’s one of his paintings that provides the beautiful cover of the dictionary). In 2004 she and Alison Ross produced the Kaytetye Picture Dictionary, and a CD Awelye Akwelye: Kaytetye women’s songs from Arnerre, Central Australia. (This was distributed by Papulu Apparr-kari language and culture centre, Tennant Creek. Recordings by Grace, Koch, Linda Barwick and Myfany Turpin, commentary by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross. Somewhere along the line she produced a Kaytetye version of Sesame Street. Oh and by the by she fitted in her PhD thesis, Form and meaning of Akwelye: a Kaytetye women’s song series from Central Australia: University of Sydney PhD, 2005.
And now, this enormous dictionary. In today’s academic climate this has been an extraordinarily generous act. And it’s been a family act – one of the three proof-readers was Myf’s mum.

Alkapertawe! (finished, completed, done)

*Claimer: I’d gone out and bought a copy as soon as I saw it…before being asked to launch it…

Yet another 40 years on

This month marks the 40th anniversary of my first venture into linguistic fieldwork and my first data collection on an Australian Aboriginal language. Looking back it was a kind of crazy way to start my career, but nonetheless one that got me set on a path that has given me the chance to work on 12 Australian languages and meet and learn from some amazing people.

Like the story of how I started Linguistics at ANU that I told last year, this one has an accidental component, but one affecting someone else, not me. This will become clear later.

Our story begins in March 1972 when I was in my second year BA (Asian Studies) course at ANU and enrolled in Bob Dixon’s Australian Languages course that he was teaching for the first time. We had just started off, getting an overview of the national linguistic scene in the 18th century and starting to study Dyirbal from north Queensland using the draft of Bob’s book that was published by Cambridge University Press later in the year. We raced through phonology (bypassing phonetics — have a look at the structure of Bob’s Dyirbal grammar to get an idea of how he dealt with these topics at the time) and on into nominal cases and verb conjugations. All very exciting stuff, especially as I gained the impression (perhaps wrongly) that so much of this was new and we were learning about exciting stuff that the old codgers like Capell and Wurm got wrong.

The time came for the end of Term 1 and the Easter holidays (Easter Sunday was 2nd April 1972) after which we had our first assignment due. I mentioned to Bob that I was going home to visit my family in Nemingha for the holidays and he said something like “great — you can do your assignment on the Kamilaroi language from that area”. He pointed me to the work of William Ridley and R.H. Mathews (see Austin 2008 for references) and told me that he had spent a few days in the town of Moree in 1971 as a result of his car breaking down on his way back to Canberra from fieldwork in Cairns (the incident is mentioned in Dixon 1984). During his enforced stay Bob had tracked down and interviewed six people and, as Austin 2008 says:

According to his fieldnotes, Dixon found that ‘no one remembers more than a few words’. … Together these people were able to recollect about 150 vocabulary items but no morphology or syntax. Dixon lodged recordings of the first two consultants at AIATSIS Canberra (AIATSIS Archive tape 2615).

Bob gave me access to his notes and the list of interviewees and suggested I go out to Moree (a mere 288 kilometers north-west from where my parents lived) and Toomelah Aboriginal settlement near Boggabilla, a further 125km north of Moree, to see if I could check his materials and collect more data for my assignment. As it happened, my mother knew some social services personnel in Tamworth who put me in touch with a medical team that made regular visits from Tamworth to Aboriginal patients in Moree and who kindly offered to let me go along with them on their April visit. They also organised for me to be accommodated by a local Moree nursing sister and her husband, and to accompany her on a day trip to Toomelah. So I set off, 19 years old and really unprepared, never having (knowingly) met an Aboriginal person before, let alone interviewed anyone or tried to write down what they might say to me. My only phonetics training was a few classes in first year and Bob’s quick overview, and I had zero training in fieldmethods (that came the next year when John Haiman had us working with a speaker of Hua from Papua New Guinea). Bob’s only advice that I recall was to buy some packets of cigarettes (“they like Marlboro”) and offer them to people as an inducement to talk to me — I remember this led to a couple of weird conversations: me “Wanna smoke?”, interviewee “Thanks. Aren’t you going to have one?”, me “No, I don’t smoke”, interviewee “Huh?”.

Anyway, I ended up spending three days in Moree and Toomelah, interviewed five people (only two of whom, Leila Orcher and Ron McIntosh, had been interviewed by Bob) and created my first ever fieldnotes. I left Moree and hitchhiked the long way back to Tamworth (via Narrabri and Gunnedah), somehow managing to catch rides that got me back to Tamworth before dark on the same day. I probably covered 1,000km in the five days but I had had my first fieldwork experience and have never looked back for 40 years.

I managed to complete the assignment for Bob and got an A for it. I went back to Moree and Toomelah in December 1973 for my second field trip, with a car and a tape recorder this time, and re-interviewed and recorded my 1972 consultants plus six other people (for details see Austin 2008). The result was 212 cross-checked vocabulary items and half a dozen sentence-length fixed expressions in Gamilaraay (as it later came to be known) that people remembered their parents or grandparents using (and unanalysable by the interviewees), like yuulngin ngaya ginyi, dhalaa dhuwarr “I’m hungry, where’s my bread?”. My next trip to an Aboriginal community was in 1974 when I accompanied Luise Hercus to South Australia to meet Diyari (Dieri) speakers and be introduced to her style of fieldwork as an apprentice. But that’s another story.

Austin, Peter K. 2008. The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research. In William McGregor (ed.) Encountering Aboriginal languages: studies in the history of Australian linguistics, 37-58. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
[ prepublication version available at]

Dixon, R.M.W. 1972. The Dyirbal language of north Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1984. Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.