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August 2008

1st Call for Papers for a graduate student colloquium on Language Documentation, to be submitted as part of the 1st International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation at the University of Hawai'i, March 12-14 2009. This colloquium, organized by and for graduate students, will provide an opportunity for graduate students to share their research and experiences. The main conference website is at http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/ICLDC09.



The appalling war in the Caucasus is the subject of an article "Barriers are steep and linguistic" by Ellen Barry in the New York Times, 24/8/08 [thanks Philip!]. She looks at it from the point of the view of the languages of the region (mostly Georgian - about 4 million speakers, Abkhaz and Osetin with about 100,000 speakers each according to Ethnologue), and interviews several linguists (One of them, Bill Poser, has a useful post (plus Map! ) on Language Log about the linguistic background to the article, which has attracted some interesting comments on linguistic diversity and political clashes ).

Most of the quotations from linguists show their helpless grief over the fate of the people whose languages they study. There's the odd statement to take issue with - e.g. the claimed lack of language documentation in the Soviet era. It was no worse than in America and Australia at the same time, and for some (not all) small languages in the USSR it was better - they got orthographies, material published in their own languages and recognition.

Here's how the article ends.


In late August, the sun, blue skies and daffodils turn a person to cleaning up the old (spring-cleaning, grave-tending, proof-reading), and starting up the new. The new this time is a grammar-writing workshop that Nick Evans has started at the Australian National University.

Thirteen of us (ANU students, staff, visitors and hangers-on) met today for the first meeting. Each of us confessed/asserted/laid out something about the grammars we hope to work on (ranging from biblical Hebrew, to languages of Timor and PNG, to some (like mine on Warumungu and Kaurna) that have been waiting for a lo-o-o-o-ng time.

Nick's idea is that the group will work on a 4 week cycle

  • Week 1. Orientation to the topic (presented by one or more of the convenors)
  • Week 2. Reading of two or three key papers.
  • Week 3. Critical presentation by selected participants of how this issue is treated in one or more of their 'adopted' grammars [Adopting grammars means looking at a grammar of a language related to the one you're working on, and one which is quite unrelated.[2]]
  • Week 4. Presentation by two or three selected participants of special problems they are facing in working up this part of the grammar of the language they are researching.

1 comments |

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
23rd August 2008

I just got back to London after 9 days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the invitation of Dr Lucia Galluscio, Instituto de Lingística, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires. Lucia is one of the leading researchers on indigenous languages of Argentina, having worked for over 30 years on a range of languages including Mapundungun (spoken by the Mapuche in southern Argentina), and Mocovi, Tapiete and Vilela (from the Chaco region in the north of Argentina - she leads the Chaco DoBeS project). Lucia is also a staff member of CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas), the national Argentinian research agency, modelled on the CNRS in France, and has held a Guggenheim Fellowship among other awards.

I was invited to participate in four events while I was there:


[From our woman in the Victoria River District and Manchester, Felicity Meakins]

"Humans have an in-built ability to do mathematics even if they do not have
the language to express it, a research team has suggested. A study in Australian Aboriginal children, whose languages lack number words, found they did just as well as English-speaking children in numeracy...." (BBC)

This study [1] compared Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa kids with English-speaking kids from Melbourne between the age of 4-7 years. Check out the article for the tasks the kids were made to do.

In essence, though, the Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa kids didn't perform any differently from the English kids. So the results from this study contradict similar studies from the Amazon [2].

I am kinda curious though about whether they had any age-related differences. Surely 5-7 year old Warlpiri and Anindilyakawa kids are already being exposed to English and English counting - unless perhaps they are in transition bilingual programs. They might find some differences with the 4 year old Warlpiri and Anindilyakawa kids in that respect. A bit more info about the kids' language input might validate the findings a bit.


I've been feeling the need for an Australian corpus for a long time - do people really speak the way I so confidently say to our students that they do? Maybe not...

Anyway at the last Australian Linguistics Society (ALS) conference, there was a meeting on establishing the Australian National Corpus initiative. As a result, they're planning an HCSNet Workshop on Designing the Australian National Corpus to be held in Sydney (4-5 December 2008), as well as getting the National Audit of Language Data in Australia rolling. The call for papers for this workshop will be distributed very soon.

If you want to add your name to their statement of common purpose (attached below) and be on the mailing list, contact Michael Haugh [m.haugh (AT griffith.edu.au)] or Cliff Goddard [cgoddard (AT une.edu.au)]


[From our man in Hawai'i and Melbourne - Nick Thieberger]

The Australian government has millions of dollars that it will be spending on what it calls the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support new technologies in research in Australia.

"Through NCRIS, the Government is providing $542 million over 2005-2011 to provide researchers with major research facilities, supporting infrastructure and networks necessary for world-class research."

DEST released a paper outlining what it called 'capabilities' which it proposed to fund, and they were ALL in the sciences, including lots of shiny pointy instruments (synchrotron, new telescopes and so on) to do the whizzbang experiments that are so popular and capture the imagination of politicians. While the physical science community has amazing capacity to pull in big research dollars, there are not that many of them, and even fewer who actually want to use each of these very expensive instruments.

On the other hand, the Humanities, Arts and Social Science (HASS) community is huge, and also does the kind of work that, in the main, is immediately relevant to those who fund it (taxpayers). So, in the consultation that followed, the clamour of HASS proponents resulted in a new 'capability' being added to the 'roadmap', but without any funding (yet) associated with it. There will be an 'Innovation White Paper' announcement before the end of 2008, and the current roadmap leads to the White Paper.

All of this is important for us, as it is the bucket from which national infrastructure like a National Data Service may be funded, and where policies on standards for data repositories like PARADISEC will be set. It is where funding will come from for the national computer facility that houses the online version of the PARADISEC collection.

3 comments |

I could whinge for hours & hours & hours about the time&labour-wasting process of getting ethics clearance for - wait for it - the dangerous act of giving students questionnaires about everyday language use on everyday subjects. You have better things to read.

Among which could be the Linguistics Society of America's draft statement on ethics. It contains some interesting ideas, links to codes of ethics in related disciplines, and, most helpfully, it's in a blog format, so people are commenting on pieces of the proposal. The comments are fascinating.

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
8th August 2008

I took a couple of weeks off recently for my summer holidays during which I started reading an "airport book" (picked up at W.H. Smith's in the new Heathrow Terminal 5 under one of those ubiquitous "buy one get one half price" deals also offered by Waterstones, Blackwells and Borders throughout the UK -- even my local Tesco supermarket offers 50% discount on trade paperbacks). It is called The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Penguin Books, 2007), and what attracted me to shell out my 6 pounds (sorry, readers in Australia) was the subtitle The Impact of the Highly Improbable and the blurb:

"This book is all about Black Swans: the random events that underlie our lives from bestsellers to world disasters. Their impact is huge: they're nearly impossible to predict; yet after they happen we always try to rationalise them."


Loved the fireworks.
Loved history on and through paper.
Loved the moving movable type.
Loved the delighted athletes of the world.

Loathed the goose-stepping soldiers.
Loathed the mass synchronised movements.
Loathed the rhythmic grunts.

Bit worried about the cute young people in ethnic minority dress.
Hope that unity doesn't mean homogeneity.
Hope that harmony comes from welcoming difference.

Wish Crouching Tiger Roy and Hidden Dragon H.G. were doing the TV commentary.

"A history of neglect and a neglect of history" was Nick Evans' summary of some gaps in work on Indigenous languages in Australia on Friday, as he launched a new collection of papers Encountering Aboriginal Languages: Studies in the history of Australian linguistics, edited by William B. McGregor. Gaps that we authors hope we've shoved fingers into...

Nick listed several reasons for linguists being concerned about the history of linguistics, most of which were demonstrated by papers in the workshop that preceded the launch, the Inaugural Conference of the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific (SHLP), held at the Australian National University on Friday August 1.


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