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"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.

The first and perhaps most obvious reason is to increase the documentation of languages by discovering and examining old sources on them. That was demonstrated by Harold Koch's paper on George Augustus Robinson's elicitation of vocabularies in the region where Canberra now is. A locked door kept me from Chris Ballard and Nick Thieberger's paper, which considered a recently uncovered 1871 translation of St John's Gospel which may shed light on the questions as to whether the language of later Bible translations reflects a spoken lingua franca on Efaté, Vanuatu, or a ‘compromise literary dialect’.

To this concern can be added the importance of seeking 'truth'. Linguists need to know how reliable an old source is. Two papers on Daisy Bates (Bill McGregor and David Nash) showed that, despite her romantic and self-serving inventions about her own life, the notes in her papers on Kimberley and south-western Australian languages are, allowing for phonetics, pretty reliable. Her 90-plus boxes of material are well overdue for assessment and selective publication.

In contrast with Bates, Peter Lanyon-Orgill's confabulations about his life were of a piece with his confections of vocabularies and the fictive persons who appeared in his works, as Ross Clark showed in a fascinating, devastating and very funny account of Lanyon-Orgill's life. Distressed wood in fake antiques was his analogy for the way that Lanyon-Orgill modified words from existing word-lists. Lanyon-Orgill even made up a fake Hawaiian word-list which contains words for birds such as swallows - introduced to Hawaii long after the word-list was supposed to have been collected.

Exposing such forgeries isn't just an antiquarian hobby - it saves other people time, labour and groundless enthusiasm. If historians had known of the linguist Paul Geraghty's 1983 exposure of Lanyon-Orgill's fake word-lists of Pacific languages [1], or of Peter Newton's scepticism [2], one poor scholar, Keith Vincent Smith, mightn't have got so enthusiastic, when he came across Lanyon-Orgill's fake word-lists of the Sydney language supposedly collected by people on the Endeavour. As Ross Clark pointed out, Smith took these word-lists at face-value. He used them to build up an account of relations between the visitors and the Eora [3], which was then taken up in an exhibition on the Eora (State Library of NSW exhibition on the Eora [.pdf]). And no doubt, if unchecked, others will add more storeys to this house of cards.

However, understanding relations between Indigenous people and sojourners/colonists/invaders/linguists is another reason for studying the history of linguistics. Hilary Carey gave a paper on Lancelot Threlkeld and his Awabakal teacher Biraban aka Johnny McGill, in which she discussed Evangelion ureni ta Jesu-umba Chris-ko-ba upatoara Louka-uemba [St Luke's Gospel, translated into the Hunter River language, aka Awabakal], an illuminated manuscript commissioned by George Grey. The only copy is in the Auckland City Library. This has portraits of both Biraban and Threlkeld, showing a recognition of the importance of both men in the translation.

Threlkeld's grammar and vocabulary was the first published grammar of an Australian language, and its influence can be seen in some later grammars and word-lists. We got into a bit of a discussion about how to compare the works of early recorders of languages in terms of accuracy of documentation and elegance of analysis. It needs doing; otherwise non-linguists are likely to misunderstand the significance and influence of the work and ideas of particular language documenters. For example, if a language documenter produces a sketch grammar of a few pages, accompanying a dictionary and set of sentences, a non-linguist may think that the grammar is insubstantial. But a linguist can look at the sentences, compare them with the grammar, and with the translations, and work out whether the author had a good understanding of the language.

Another reason is to learn from the history of ideas about language, how they change and develop, how they influence one another. Sylvia Mackie's paper (which I also unfortunately missed) of the workshop discussed this for recent history - looking at Ken Hale's notion of the adjoined relative clause, how it related to his generative grammarian contemporaries' focus on embedded relative clauses and how it prefigured later interest in adjoined relative clauses as a stage of grammaticalising relative clauses. Another example was provided in Paul Sidwell's paper on the classification of Austroasiatic - he demonstrated how classifications of genetic relations were published without the evidence behind them, and how this led to uncritical acceptance of the classifications.

An interesting example came from the effect of the introduction of ideas about phonology in the 1950s. This struck me when listening to David Moore's paper on the history of work on Alyawarr, and Anders Ahlkvist's paper on Nils Holmer's Celtic dialect work (Holmer also worked on several Queensland and New South Wales languages). Once people had been dazzled by the elegance of phonological analyses, they tended to criticise people such as T. G. H. Strehlow and Holmer, who gave a more phonetic rendition of languages. In fact you need both - the variations recorded by Strehlow probably represent genuine variation in pronunciations, the recording of which is as essential as a good phonological analysis for giving a coherent picture of the language.

All this has led to the coalescence of a group of people into the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific. Watch out for the Society's next conference next year.


[1] Geraghty, Paul. 1983. Review of Book: "Captain Cook's South Sea Island Vocabularies" by Peter A. Lanyon-Orgill. Journal of the Polynesian Society 92 (4):554-559.

[2] Newton, Peter John Frederick. 1987. More than one language, more than one culture : scholarly and popular ideas about Australian Aboriginal languages from early times until 1860. M.A. (Hons.). Macquarie University, North Ryde, N.S.W.

[3] from Selected Bibliography of Material on the Dharug/Daruk/Darug Language and People held in the AIATSIS Library [.pdf]

Local call number: p SMI
Personal Author: Smith, Keith, 1939-
Added Author: Lanyon-Orgill, Peter, 1924- Captain Cook's South Sea Island Vocabularies
Title: 1770 : the Endeavour lists : forgotten words from Botany Bay / by Keith Vincent Smith
Publication info: 2003
Physical descrip: p. 32-37
Annotation: Discusses a manuscript containing three short lists of words collected from Aboriginal people in the Botany Bay area in 1770 by crew members of The Endeavour; argues that these lists along with a words told to Benjamin Bowen Carter by Maroot the elder at La Perouse in 1798 and words collected by Robert Brown at Mill Creek, Georges River on 2 October 1803, confirm the dominance of a single language in the Sydney area; also argues that there were friendly meetings between Cook's crew and Indigenous people
Source: AQ : Journal of Contemporary Analysis, Vol. 75, issue 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2003)
Language/Group: Dharug / Daruk / Darug language (S64) (NSW SI56-5)

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