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God and languages are in the air. The Australian Federal Government is cross with a radical Islamic sheik who preaches in Arabic (translator spooks required!). The sheik points out, correctly, that many churches advertise services in Korean, Tongan, etc., and this causes no offence (= no drain on the spook translator budget). The NSW State Opposition leader wants immigrants to Australia to learn a subject called "English as a first language", not "English as a second language". "Second", he thinks doesn't reflect the importance of English. Maybe he wants immigrants to talk to their gods in English. Clearly, what linguists think a first language is is not yet a mainstream thought.

And linguists have been debating our connections with missionary linguists, language work done by missionaries, and linguistic software built by the missionary linguist organisation SIL (Semantic compositions (11/1/07) on the panel at the LSA and Anggarrgoon). On one side there are people saying that missionaries roll Dalek-like through the societies of the speakers of the languages they study and do bad things, and so their work is irredeemably sinful. On the other side people say that linguists are also a Dalek species, and so, what the hell, if the SIL software's good and the linguistic descriptions are good, use them. (Setting aside Earthlings who say that both species of Dalek are only into extermination).

And there's the position taken by Heidi Kneebone in a 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. PhD dissertation, Linguistics, University of Adelaide (noted at OzPapersOnline )[1]. Kneebone takes linguists to task for NOT looking at early grammars of the languages they're working on.

Of course Kneebone's right - had we but world enough and time... which the average language documenter doesn't. Getting recordings of living speakers must take priority over deciphering German handwriting and nineteenth century meta-language for language description.

However, early materials are often interesting, and raise questions of interpretation.
--How well did the missionaries understand the language? (Good reason for reading their diaries)
--What language were they documenting? (Ditto)
--Do the extant materials reflect what speakers said, or do they contain sentences constructed by the missionaries in accordance with their beliefs about the structure and meanings of the language? (Rule of thumb: if the sentences concern God, Adam, sin or Jesus, treat with great caution..)

Kneebone raises another question - what influence did the recording of the early language have on the later language? She suggests that the missionaries to the Diyari had so much influence through literacy, church work and conversions that they changed the language into a "mission form of Diyari". She goes on to suggest that this mission form influenced the language recorded by Peter Austin with the last speakers in the 1970s and 80s (A grammar of Diyari, South Australia 1981 Cambridge University Press). Since Austin's description of Diyari doesn't look remarkably different from other Pama-Nyungan languages with different contact histories, Kneebone's hypothesis awaits testing against the linguistic evidence. This would require examining the immense Diyari language material assembled by J G Reuther and Otto Siebert, which are outside the scope of her thesis.

The useful assemblage and analysis of early Diyari materials in Kneebone's thesis could provide the jumping-off point for someone to do a proper grammar and dictionary of nineteenth century Diyari varieties using the Reuther materials. Without Reuther (and maybe even with him) the early materials are too scanty to provide evidence of change, since differences in forms used in a primer in 1870 and a letter in 1910 could result from many causes other than mission-influenced language change. But, a decent grammar and dictionary of the nineteenth century variety could be compared with Peter Austin's grammar to see if there is much language change and whether it follows the patterns of language change elsewhere in Australia.

Another question is raised by Kneebone's decision to use only the nineteenth century orthography (Dieri rather than Diyari), and to use the nineteenth century grammatical terms, rather than Austin's. It's a decision to think about - placing presentation of the material on its own terms above the information that could be gained from clear comparison with later materials. Suppose you're working on a language where there are only nineteenth century records - how would you construct a proper grammar and dictionary of this language? What would you do if there are analysis and recordings made 100 years later? Of the 'same' language? Of different but related languages?

[1] Some of the ideas in this thesis will probably appear in Heidi-Marie Kneebone and Peter Mühlhäusler, in press, Nineteeth century missionary notions and practices of literacy. London: Routledge.


Great post.

It's a decision to think about - placing presentation of the material on its own terms above the information that could be gained from clear comparison with later materials.

Hmm, that's like a meta-meta-description! I've been told so many times 'describe the data in it's own terms', that I guess it follows to describe another description in its own terms!

I want to see the original - no question about that! But what if the original author couldn't hear retroflexes and interdentals, so that there are an awful lot of homophonous suffixes?

(*@&&$#!! Did I really type 'it's'?)

I completely agree with the need to be critical of errors in previous transcriptions and descriptions! Especially my own!

But I hope a meta-meta-description would have a comment like 'Earlier Describer failed to hear/note the different place of articulation for apico-alveolars and lamino-palatals. This is most likely due to speaker variation/ED's lack of linguistics training/ED producing this work in the early stages of field career/the lack of an 'r' key on ED's typewriter.'

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