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[ from Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, Linguistics Department, SOAS]

At the Australian Languages Workshop 2008 held in March at the ANU field station at Kioloa (recounted in Jane Simpson's blog post) there was an after-dinner quiz organised by Harold Koch. It consisted of a series of trivial pursuit style questions to identify scholars who had published on Australian Aboriginal languages (some recent, some not so recent). The questions went something like this (some of these are ones I remember from Harold's quiz, others I have made up):

Identify the following six people each of whom published on Australian Aboriginal languages and:

  1. also wrote a book on scurvy in sheep
  2. published on middle-Indo-Aryan under another name
  3. prepared a handbook for coroners
  4. was a jackaroo on a station in the north-west of Western Australia
  5. is an expert in Ergodic Theory and has published a book on Multidimensional Continued Fractions
  6. spent time in an Australian internment camp as a Nazi spy during the second world war

The answers to most of these questions are to be found in a new 526 page book published this month by Pacific Linguistics and edited by William B. McGregor entitled Encountering Aboriginal languages: Studies in the history of Australian linguistics. My copy just arrived in London and I am having trouble putting it down, the contents are so interesting.


The book is a collage of historical studies of languages and regions, people and particular linguistic topics (the Table of Contents can be found here [pdf]). As the PL book blurb says:

"Part 1 presents three detailed investigations of the history of work on particular languages and regions. The eight papers of Part 2 study and re-evaluate the contributions of particular individuals, most of who are somewhat marginal or have been marginalised in Aboriginal linguistics. Part 3 consists of six studies specific linguistic topics: sign language research, language revival, pidgins and creoles, fieldwork, Fr. Schmidt's work on personal pronouns, and the discovery that Australia was a multilingual continent."

Bill McGregor points out on page 1 of his overview introduction:

"In Australianist linguistics the main motivations for delving into the past have been not so much to understand the ideas and conceptualisations of past investigators as to utilise and evaluate the language data they recorded ... Little serious attempt has been made to reconstruct the thought of earlier times, arguably the primary goal of the history of science ... or to understand the work of previous investigators within their social and intellectual milieus"

As Bill notes, the period 1910-1960 has previously been presented as the "dark ages" of Aboriginal linguistics, when virtually no proper linguistic work was done. Many of the contributions to this volume show that this is simply not true and point the way to a re-evaluation and proper historicisation of work in Australia. It is to be hoped that this is just the beginning of a whole new research trend into the history of study of Australia's indigenous languages. (Unfortunately the A$121 price of the book means that it probably won't end up in the collections of too many individuals.) Bill and colleagues Hilary Carey and David Moore have opened the way with the formation of the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific which will hold its inaugural conference in Canberra on 1st August this year.

Although there is no chapter in the book specifically on the work of R.M.W. Dixon, former Director of the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University, his presence and influence on the history and directions of linguistics in Australia since the 1970's permeate the volume in a number of ways. In the Name Index, with 40 references, his is the second longest entry (after Arthur Capell with 47 references), and ten of the authors (myself included) studied or taught at ANU during his tenure there. Perhaps it seems too close for some of us who lived through it but a proper historiographic study of Dixon's work and the "social and intellectual milieu" of the last 40 years of Australian Aboriginal linguistics is now due.

PS: No prizes, but readers who can identify the six individuals in the quiz are encouraged to leave their answers in the comments below.


Hmm... I'm slightly disturbed by the trivia quiz. In a time when non-Indigenous researchers come under more and more scrutiny from Indigenous people concerned about our ethics and research practices, things like that trivia quiz do nothing to dispel notions that us non-Indigenous researchers sit around congratulating ourselves on the recognition we've gained from work on other people's languages.

What do you think? Am i being over sensitive or do I have a point?

I know that people do get worried about non-Indigenous researchers, and I'm a trivial -pursuit-avoider. But the questions do show that some linguists have other lives, and perhaps even that they took up studying Indigenous languages out of genuine interest, rather than from a desire to rip people off. Perhaps not internment as a spy, though!

McGregor's book gives a lot of prominence to the Indigenous people who taught linguists about their languages. [Self-promotion, since I've co-authored a paper in that book....]. All too few Indigenous language speakers have mastered the tools of linguistics.

This may not be the place to start this discussion, but the above comments reminded me of a discussion I recently had with an Australian Aboriginal language activist.

She was starting to explore the idea of research as done by indigenous people - not research done by white {insert discipline} scholar on/for/with indigenous communities, but 'by' indigenous scholars, in their own paradigm.

I found it a really interesting discussion, and wondered out loud whether such scholars should be expected (by whom?) to 'master the existing tools and techniques' before setting out to create their own. The analogy I was thinking of is in the creative disciplines, where as I understand it, students are expected to learn their scales, learn the traditional brushstrokes before experimenting on their own, which they are ultimately encouraged to do.

An obvious criticism is of this model is 'why should indigenous researchers be forced through the white research paradigm, into a 'foreign' world view, only to return to relying on their own understanding of the world - and perhaps this time somewhat 'othered' from it by virtue of mainstream tertiary education?

And a retort to the above comes again from the analogy that Indigenous children ought to all learn English for the sake of their own access to the world around them, and that this should not involve forsaking their first language and culture. So too with mainstream education.

Anyone care to untangle me, or, offer an alternative view?

I'm not a big fan of the term 'paradigm' in that sense. What counts here is quality documentation and future usability. Time's too short to play games with worldviews. For better or worse, the 'white research paradigm' gives access to quality recording equipment, understanding it gives access to materials that have been recorded before (and which become increasingly valuable to communities as first speakers decline in numbers), and it provides a shorthand for getting stuff done.

It's a balancing act. Scientific researchers are nosy parkers - sometimes that can be good and cause good things to happen with documentation that would not otherwise have happened. Sometimes it can be bad and reduce the quality of the material that might otherwise have been collected.

Community researchers almost always have a much better understanding of attitudes and relationships and uses of language, as well as of what their friends and family are hoping for from language work. They may have native speaker intuitions about languages. And it is they who will be working with their communities to keep talking the languages.

A damaging situation that can arise is when an outsider linguist comes to be seen as the main source of knowledge about the language. That can cause a loss of confidence among community people, and can reduce their ability to maintain their language. It can lead to resentment, and to the rejection of outsider linguists, which then deprives the community of the good things linguists could do in partnership with them. A Lose-Lose situation.

The ideal situation is when community researchers and scientifically-trained linguists can work together, each learning from the other, and each respecting the other's skills.

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