> January 2008 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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January 2008

During the recent federal election we frequently saw one of the most peculiar exceptions in Australian spelling practice, the name of the Australian Labor Party, where Labor is spelt without a u even though most Australians would include a u and write this word as labour in every other context. Although the spelling of the name of the Labor Party is exceptional today, it is not an isolated aberration but is rather one of the last remnants of variation that existed in spelling practice in Australia in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century but which has since disappeared. There may have been social and political factors that drove this variation but today the story that lies behind this variation is very difficult to piece together.

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A theatre production by Ngapartji Ngapartji (who run the interesting online Pitjantjatjara course I posted about in 2006) is having a sell-out run at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, with amazing reviews (links here) (e.g. The most important Australian work to inhabit our theatres for a long time. AussieTheatre.com).

(Information: Belvoir St Theatre on (02) 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au | www.sydneyfestival.org.au)

[Update 4/2/08 - this has led to more publicity for the plight of Indigenous languages, e.g. here on the ABC]

They are also having a public forum on Australian Indigenous languages Can you say 'how do you do' at Uluru? together with Big hART.

WHEN: 6-7pm, Wednesday January 30th 2008
WHERE: Belvoir Street Theatre. Belvoir St, Surry Hills, Sydney
HOSTED BY: Prof. Larissa Behrendt - Research Director, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS

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

There is an article in Tuesday’s Education supplement of the The Guardian newspaper with the byline “Bowling Google a googly" about Tara Brabazon, Professor of Media Studies at Brighton University, who recently gave her inaugural lecture there. Professor Brabazon hails from Perth and the interview article makes much of her Australian connections (including her 2002 book Ladies Who Lunge that includes a discussion of another Australian academic export to the UK, Germaine Greer).

At the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago two weeks ago, among the assembled linguists were seven Australians now established overseas:

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[From our man back from the Netherlands, Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

We had an interesting discussion about documentation corpora in the course I taught last week for the LOT winter school at the Universiteit van Tilburg.

In the course I took the somewhat strong view that a documentary corpus minimally consists of: (a) media or text recordings (inscriptions), with (b) time-aligned transcription, and (c) time-aligned translation, and (d) relevant metadata about the documentation and communicative context. Thus, on this view, the 150 hours of untranscribed video collected by a project that one of the students is involved in is not part of any corpus (though it might be what Himmelmann (2006:10) calls 'primary data' ("recordings of observable linguistic behaviour and metalinguistic knowledge"), or what OLAC calls 'a resource', and it might become part of the corpus when it is worked on in the future). Neither is the audio recording of a 6-person conversation that another student made in Sri Lanka that neither he nor his consultants are able to transcribe. Media recordings without transcription or translation thus do not constitute data by themselves and don't document anything. This view of what a corpus is also appears in the DoBeS guidelines as presented in Brugman 2003, available here, and on the HRELP website. A corpus can be enriched by annotation (see Bird and Liberman 2001) with the addition of linguistic information like morphemic analysis, morpheme-by-morpheme glosses, part of speech tags etc (see Schultze-Berndt 2006), or non-linguistic information like kinship relations or cultural practices etc (see Franchetto 2006).

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[From our man back from Chicago, Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

At the recent Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago, Sandra Chung from University of California Santa Cruz gave an invited plenary address on the topic “How much can understudied languages really tell us about how language works?” She argued, among other things, that data from understudied languages should play a crucial role in the development of linguistic theory since only by including them can we get a full picture of the array of phenomena found in human languages that need to be taken account of. She illustrated her talk with examples from her work on Chamorro, an endangered Austronesian language spoken on Guam.

During the question time following Sandy’s talk, one person commented something along the following lines (I paraphrase, since I was rather stunned to hear the opinion being openly expressed before a linguistics audience, and don’t recall the exact formulation):

“Linguistic research needs to concentrate on working with corpora and for the sort of languages you were talking about, like Chamorro, you will never be able to put together a corpus of sufficient size to be able to do anything meaningful. We should give up on the small (and disappearing) languages and concentrate on ones where we are likely to be able to get a decent sized corpus.”

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[Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, reporting on a joint poster presentation with Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia) and David Nathan (SOAS) at the 2008 LSA annual meeting]

They came. They saw. They chuckled. Some snickered, and a few laughed out loud. A couple even went “what the … ?”

Such was the range of reactions to the poster which Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia), David Nathan (SOAS) and I presented at last week’s Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago dealing with the topic of commodification of endangered languages, ie. their reduction to things to be counted and standardised, and their treatment as if they were a tradeable commodity.

At David’s suggestion we decided to adopt a satirical approach using the metaphor of a newspaper front page to deal with what is, of course, a very serious topic. It was the only (deliberately) funny poster at the LSA this year, and probably ever. Ten points to avid readers who get all the allusions and jokes. View thumbnail of image or full size poster here.

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One of the "pleasures" that come with being known as a specialist in Australian Aboriginal languages is the string of requests one gets to translate various things into "Aboriginal", especially names for pets, houses, boats or even children (one of my favourites happened when I was at La Trobe University and someone called wanting a translation for "Happy Anzac Day"). Sometimes the reverse holds and the "meaning" of a word "in Aboriginal" is asked for. Nowadays there are websites devoted to this task, such as this one which promises: "Thousands of ABORIGINAL NAMES for your DOG, CAT, HORSE, PET AND CHILD! From Chinaroad Lowchens of Australia". This site at least mentions "these names/words are taken from several different Australian Aboriginal Languages", though none is mentioned by name.

Recently, David Nash pointed out to me that an Aboriginal word, which he identified as coming from the Diyari language, had made its way onto a koala at the Planckendael Zoo in Belgium (located near Antwerp). The zoo established an "Australia" section in May 1998 where various Australian animals are exhibited, including koalas, each of which has been given an "Aboriginal" name. Information about the koala names can be found in both Dutch and French, Belgium being officially bilingual. Here is my translation of what they say:

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