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[From Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

On Wednesday last week (25th April) during Endangered Languages Week at SOAS there was a presentation on the "Dawes online" project at SOAS which aims to make an interactive digital facsimile of William Dawes' notebooks of the Sydney language available on the web. The project has produced high resolution digital images of the notebooks written by Dawes in 1790 and is developing searchable transcriptions of the manuscripts that will include the linguistic analysis made by Jaky Troy (published in 1993) along with topic maps (using the XTM standard for XML topic maps). This will enable users to search by topic, such as “animals” or “names” as well as linguistic topics, such as verb paradigms.

This project brings together knowledge and skills from archive studies, philology, linguistic analysis, and information and multimedia technologies. It is one of the more technically sophisticated of a series of projects that have emerged over the past several years to work on archival materials of Australian and Pacific languages, especially languages that have no or very few speakers. This work has parallels in the richly elaborated studies of Old English manuscripts published by Bernard Muir of Melbourne University as CDs and DVDs. The goal of both Muir’s work and the Dawes project is to present the original materials in an interactive format along with layers of standoff analytical markup.

A related kind of study is what we could call “second generation language documentation” (2GLD) where it is linguist’s fieldnotes and transcriptions which form the basis for documentation rather than speech events or speaker knowledge (usually because it is no longer possible to access such knowledge or events). Paradisec has photographed over 10,000 pages of fieldnotes on a wide range of languages for 2GLD purposes using the system developed at the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre This includes Arthur Capell’s notes on Pacific languages.

The late Stephen Wurm was an active participant over many years in preparing his fieldnotes for such 2GLD. Wurm worked with Maryalyce McDonald on Galali (published in 1979) and with Suzanne Kite (published in 2004). Between 1975 and 1978 Wurm also passed on to me his fieldnotes on Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay, Malyangapa, and Guwamu from eastern Australia, which I have been typing up and analysing in my spare time using the Toolbox program. I presented a paper (.pdf) about the data models I use for Malyangapa at an E-MELD workshop in 2003; essentially the same models are being applied to the other languages.

We are fortunate that Wurm took the trouble to work directly with McDonald, Kite and myself because his raw fieldnotes are difficult to make sense of. He wrote language data in an adaptation of the IPA phonetic script but his glosses were in a shorthand that only he could read (he once told me that it was “Hungarian shorthand”, though I have not been able to check this). He tape-recorded some of the data for each language, however because of a shortage of tape not all example sentences were included (and certainly no glosses were), and there is no indication in the notes which were and which weren’t. With his help, and careful analysis, it has been possible to make a great deal from the fieldnotes. For Capell, and Dawes of course, all we have are the notes.

The importance of paying close attention to one’s fieldnotes was pointed out thirty four years ago by Ives Goddard who wrote:

“most descriptive linguists probably feel that their finished grammars have a greater validity, in some sense, than their raw fieldnotes. But the field notes are the primary documents, the nearest thing to the actual speech events there is, and they should always ultimately be deposited in a suitable library or public archive, together with explanatory information on dates of fieldwork, relevant characteristics of informants, changing transcriptional conventions, and indexes. Only if this practice become more general can the present situation be improved, in which numerous cases of possible informant errors, artifacts of elicitation methods, misprints, and miscopyings remain forever undetected or in doubt because of the impossibility of checking them against the primary documents” Goddard (1973:86).

Today, in addition to written fieldnotes we have audio (and possibly video) recordings of language documentation sessions as our primary documents, along with time-aligned transcriptions and annotations. It seems to me incumbent on those of us compiling language documentations now to remind ourselves of Goddard’s advice, especially in relation to “explanatory information”. We can also learn from the experiences of 2GLD research, and from projects like Dawes online, so that we can try to do our best for the future philologists who may wish to make sense of our notes and recordings.

Goddard, Ives. 1973. ‘Philological approaches to the study of North American Indian languages: documents and documentation’. In Thomas A. Sebeok, ed. Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol 10. The Hague: Mouton.
Kite, Suzanne and Stephen Wurm 2004 The Duungidjawu language of southeast Queensland: Grammar, texts and vocabulary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics
McDonald, M. and S.A Wurm 1979 Basic materials in Wankumara (Galali): Grammar, sentences and vocabulary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics B-65
Troy, Jakelin 1993 The Sydney Language. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics


My Nhirrpi page is also the result of Stephen Wurm's field notes. We went through them together in 1998 and he gave me the tape he'd made with Mrs Miller.

Incidentally, the McDonald and Wurm grammar is Wangkumara (or rather, Punthamara), not Garlali. The speaker they worked with gave them his "favourite" language, not the one they asked for.

Thanks for the PARADISEC plug. Readers might be interested to know that some of Wurm's Solomon Islands language materials, including transcripts made by native speakers of stories they recorded for him, have also been digitised by PARADISEC using the AUSTEHC's system, as for the Capell collection. Unlike the Capell material, which is difficult to associate with relevant audio in our collection, much of the relevant transcript material from the Wurm collection is able to be directly associated with the matching audio. The web location for those interested is here. Norwegian researcher Åshild Næss delivered a paper on the significance of this collection at our conference on Sustainable Data from Digital Fieldwork held in December 2006. The paper is accessible online through the Sydney e-Scholarship Repository.

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