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November 2006

Carmel O'Shannessy has just lodged her doctoral thesis Language contact and children's bilingual acquisition: learning a mixed language and Warlpiri in northern Australia in the Sydney eScholarship Repository (D-Space) at the University of Sydney. It's on the emergence of a new language, Light Warlpiri, in the multilingual community of Lajamanu in northern Australia, and on how children acquire this language as well as one of the source languages, classical Warlpiri. It's the first time anyone's looked carefully at mixed languages in Aboriginal Australia, let alone documented the acquisition and development of such a language. A major theme is how children differentiate between the input languages. She's got some very interesting results on how adults and children distribute ergative marking differently in the two languages, but show similar word order patterns in both. The correlation between ergative marking and word order patterns is stronger among children - and Carmel suggests the children are leading language change here.

Go click! It's a ripper!


Wendy Baarda's 2003 report The design and trial of an interactive computer program Lata-kuunu to support Warlpiri school children’s literacy learning, can now be read here. It's a report on a project she did as part of an M.Ed. at the Northern Territory University.

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Please ignore this, I'm mucking around with technorati

Technorati Profile

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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There's an interesting post up on slashdot today about a legal battle between the Mapuche people of Chile and Microsoft. It seems that the tribal leaders of the Mapuche are unhappy about Microsoft working on a Mapudungan version of their Office suite of software.

Slashdot is a geek oriented web site that likes to track court cases against Microsoft. Cultural group ownership is a slightly left of field topic. The site generally advocates open source software and more liberal IP laws, so it was interesting to read the attitudes of the commenters on the main article.

UPDATE: 25/11/06
Mark Liberman of Language Log weighs in.
UPDATE: 27/11/06
See a second post by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log, and also see Jane Simpson's post for a thorough and very interesting analysis of the Australian situation.

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Yesterday brought two good news stories: an Indigenous linguist has been honoured as the Northern Territory's Australian of the Year, and the first relic of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt's last journey has been authenticated.


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".


If you had $350 to teach kids one word of an Indigenous language, what would you do with it?

• pay a skywriter to write Janapurlalki "eagle" over an Eagles grand final footy match in Tennant Creek?

• pay a cheersquad of 5 people to chant Ja na pu rlal ki at the Eagles footy game?

• buy 35 t-shirts printed with wawarta "clothes" and give them to the kids?

• pay someone to reprogram a Barbie doll to say "Ooooh wawarta!"?

• provide two big loaves of damper bread with, spelled out in raisins, kantirri "bread" or marnukuju jangu "with raisins", once a week for a year?
• pay a language speaker to work with the children once a week for 4 weeks. And record the classes.

• pay a PhD student a scholarship for three years plus preparation, evaluation and testing expenses to work with speakers on devising a curriculum, lesson plans and teaching materials ( oops - only a very cheap PhD student in a very poor country - thanks Ilan!)

Now you've got $80,000 to get the kids using 230 words. Would you spend it on 230 reprogrammed Barbie dolls? Or on weekly school language classes for fifteen years? Or on a multi-media CD?

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I wandered into the office today to see Jane and Mark with a large map of part of the northern territory rolled out on the floor, discussing the issue of iso-glosses, and boundaries. Maps maps maps. They're just everywhere at the moment!


Following on our previous posting.....

The Fifth International East Nusantara Conference (Kupang, Indonesia, 1-3 August 2007) has an important theme for speakers of many endangered languages: Language and Cultural Aspects of Tourism and Sustainable Development. I don't know of work on this for endangered languages (apart from the negative - we can't share our language with outsiders because outsider tourist operators might use it and take business away from us) . So it'll be very interesting to hear the results.

Here's a call for papers from John Haan.


It was a perfect cool and sunny Canberra afternoon. Some of the Wednesday Lunch Linguists wanted to avoid spending it on marking. And so we headed off to Peter Bellwood's seminar at ANU, Early farmers and the spread of languages in South Asia. This was partly based on a paper he gave at the Harvard Kyoto Roundtable in 2005 [1]. Prehistorians can tell grand stories, and this was grand by their standards - wheat, barley, rice and the linguistic history of the whole of India and Pakistan.

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Last week, one of my favourite blogs, BoingBoing, had an interesting link to a new web based research tool. I've been having a go over the weekend.

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Check out the latest Language Archives Network News [sorry Dave!]newsletter here. It's got helpful information on how the Max Planck Institute (Nijmegen) can help you set up a local archive, a system of cataloguing linguistics information (IMDI) about your recordings, and on getting permanent unique resource identifiers for stuff stored on the web. And it's also got an article on recording information about plants and animals in the field that you might read in conjunction with Tom's post on this topic.


The present Australian government's approach to coordinating and delivering (funding for) general services to Indigenous people has failed on its first trial. That's the conclusion drawn in an article on a leaked report by Bill Gray (Chris Graham and Brian Johnstone in the National Indigenous Times). So, what happens about coordinating and delivering money for maintaining and documenting Indigenous languages in Australia? How much is spent? Does more go on documenting than on maintaining and supporting education? I got asked these questions the other day, and had to admit surprised ignorance. (Hey, I SHOULD know. I'm a tax-payer). Here's a start on answering - based on web-trawling.. and maybe some readers can add to it - help, is there an econo-statistician handy?

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In spite of a few early setbacks — including the workshop venue being eaten by termites — the Pearl Beach Papuanists' Workshop, or perhaps I should say the Itinerant Papuanists' Workshop, was held last weekend.

Everyone had something interesting to say at the workshop. We heard from a range of people from SIL field linguists to PhD students to professors. The weekend was filled with intensive (and exhausting) discussion of many different aspects of Papuan languages and linguistics. Our exhaustion was kept at bay, however, by the New Guinea Fair Trade coffee that Tom so thoughtfully provided.


Biwa is a generic term for long-necked, plucked lutes in Japan (written with the same characters as the Chinese pipa, also a plucked lute). Almost all biwa traditions involve oral narrative or poetic recitation with biwa accompaniment. Frank Davey, PARADISEC’s Audio Preservation Officer, who has been carefully digitising and listening to Hugh de Ferranti’s vast collection of field recordings of various biwa traditions (HDF1) over the past few months, describes the music as having a raw, powerful quality that speaks directly to the listener’s emotions. I asked Hugh about his long-standing involvement with the biwa tradition.


The making of contemporary Aboriginal learning and literacy: Ngaanyatjarra engagement with changing western practices was a seminar given by Inge Kral today at the Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research. The seminar raised questions about reading and writing practices in Indigenous communities, and about the survival of small Indigenous communities faced with increasing demands from governments for paper work.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.


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