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In a previous posting “Modern Grammar from nineteenth century mission materials” Jane Simpson refers to the 2005 University of Adelaide doctoral dissertation, The language of the chosen view: the first phase of graphization of Dieri by Hermannsburg Missionaries, Lake Killalpaninna 1867-80 by Heidi Kneebone who, she says “takes linguists to task for NOT looking at early grammars of the languages they're working on”.

Now I don’t have a copy of this dissertation and only had a few hours in Canberra recently to skim through a copy lent to me by Luise Hercus. I was impressed by the historical work Kneebone had done with Lutheran sources (some written in an old German handwriting that is incredibly difficult to read, at least for me) and how she turned up materials written in Diyari by native speakers that I had not seen before. But since the thesis makes claims about my own research on Diyari, spoken in northern South Australia, and appears to suggest that the language I recorded thirty years ago from the last generation of fluent speakers was in part a missionary creation, I would like to take this opportunity to make a couple of points.

Firstly, I did look at many of the Lutheran missionary documents, including all the Killalpaninna mission publications, and gave an assessment of them in a chapter in my thesis which was completed in 1978 (it is not referenced in Kneebone’s dissertation, and the relevant chapter was not included for reasons of space in my 1981 published grammar that she did look at). Secondly, there is no reason to believe that spoken Diyari used by the people I studied with in 1974-78 was created by the German missionaries (a view incidentally also promulgated in the 19th century by Trooper Samuel Gason, who spent years at Mirra Mitta and studied Diyari, publishing some quite detailed materials in the Curr 1886 collection). Gavan Breen and I have worked on Ngamini, spoken next door to Diyari and closely related to it – this language shows highly similar grammatical structures to Diyari (including the complex switch-reference system of cross-clausal reference – if the Lutherans invented that then I am truly impressed!). Reuther recorded vocabulary in Ngamini (along with several other eastern Lake Eyre languages) but surely no-one would claim that the missionaries “invented Ngamini”. It follows then that they didn’t invent spoken Diyari.

The written genre of Diyari is a different kettle of fish – clearly here the missionaries did have a role in creating the orthography and written style, especially as represented in letters and postcards that were written by Diyari native speakers even as late as the 1950’s (as evidenced by letters that ended up in the possession of the late Ronald Berndt which he gave me access to in 1978). I have published a little on this topic [1], though there is more to be said. In addition to the extensive work of Reuther that Jane suggests should be taken into account, there is a bulky manuscript translation of the Old Testament into Diyari dating from around 1915 that deserves careful study. It shows some interesting and consistent differences in transcription and structure from the earlier missionary materials that Kneebone used.

On the general issue of modern linguists using older sources, the late Terry Crowley and I discussed in print (in Nick Thieberger’s edited collection Paper and Talk) how careful use of older materials can be helpful in reconstituting data that can be compared to and/or supplement materials from contemporary speakers or semi-speakers. John Giacon has done this rather successfully with the Gamilaraay language programme.

The issues Jane raises at the end of her post about research and publication methods for pre-modern sources are indeed important ones. Bill McGregor has adopted a particular solution in the monumental editing job he did on Nekes and Worms' Australian Languages recently published by Mouton de Gruyter. As Bill says (on pages 33-34):

"Revisions to the text of Australian Languages are primarily in style and format rather than content. I have refrained as far as possible from interfering with the content except in the caser of obvious inadvertent errors … It is not my editorial duty to check every factual claim, to modernise the terminology, or correct the spellings of words in Aboriginal languages; however in cases where I believe the authors to have erred, an explanatory endnote is appended. Doubtless there are places where the transcriptions of words and sentences are wrong (although they are on the whole reasonable accurate). I have not attempted to retranscribe the words in modern practical orthographies accepted by speakers, communities, or schools. On the other hand, I have adopted the policy of using, wherever possible, the currently accepted spellings of the language names”


Bill also mentions that he reorganised lists and paradigms into more readable tables, corrected the authors’ non-native English, and made other cosmetic changes to increase the readability of the resulting text. However, he is concerned to note (on page 35) that:

“These editorial decisions are of course subjective, and at times I may have over-stepped the bounds of interference laid out above, in the interests of producing a comprehensible piece of writing.”


This trade off between faithfulness to the original and comprehensibility is an interesting issue to explore in more depth.

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