> September 2008 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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September 2008

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
28 September 2008

I was interviewed last week for PRI's the World: The World of Words for a podcast that was published on 26 September. The interviewer, Patrick Cox, who is based in Boston, contacted me after reading my Guardian Top 10 Endangered Languages and seeing a copy of the book 1000 Languages which I edited and which was published in North America on 1st September.

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The 26th of September 2008 is the annual European Language Day, and this year is the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which among many other good things recognises "regional or minority languages as an expression of cultural wealth".

So, when and where better to hold the Foundation for Endangered Languages' annual conference, than in Fryslân? It's all happening from September 24 to 27 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, at the Fryske Akademy, (who incidentally sponsor a Frisian spell-checker for MS Office - yes!)

The abstracts are on the web [.pdf]

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

Along with the use of mobile phones for fieldwork and dictionaries (noting that the latter wouldn't work (yet) in Africa due to the lack of 3G phones that could run the required software), another information and communication technology that has applications in endangered languages research and language support is radio. In Australia the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) has been in operation since the1970's and is well known for its promotion of central Australian Aboriginal languages.

I have recently heard of two other more grass roots instances of community radio stations broadcasting in indigenous languages. At a workshop on "Engagement and Activism in Endangered Languages Research", Maurizio Gnerre of Universita Orientale in Naples spoke about the use of radio in two Latin American communities, as his abstract states:

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Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS

The issues of the engagement of social science researchers in direct involvement in community activism, integration of activism with research and scholarship, and ways to ensure wider communication of our research results were topics of a one-day meeting held in Chicago last week. The Interdisciplinary Institute on Engaged Scholarship and Social Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) organised a workshop entitled "Engaged Scholarship and Social Justice: Transcending the Campus, Transforming the Academy" on 12th September.

The topics explored at the workshop were:

  1. How do we translate our scholarship and research findings into an accessible language that allows us to then engage in discussions and debates with a diverse range of communities? Can we write books and dissertations that working class friends and relatives can actually read?
  2. How do we reconcile notions of 'objectivity' with our own passions for and commitment to issues and communities? Can you love a subject and still analyze, research and assess it as a scholar? Should we be accountable, responsible or concerned with the application and outcomes of our research?
  3. How do we forge creative new methodologies that help us ask new questions and get at new insights and information? How does pedagogy reflect politics? What's the connection between what we teach and how we teach it?
  4. Where does 'utopia' and imagined futures fit into our work as social scientists and scholars in the humanities, and as teachers and students? Is our job to help students acquire skills and to better understand the known world, as well as to 'dream' of what we can only imagine?

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Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
17th September 2008

The telephone has a deal of history as a device for collecting data on languages. For example, the English language Switchboard Corpus was collected from telephone conversations in 1990-91 and, according to the manual:

"is a corpus of spontaneous conversations ... [c]ollected at Texas Instruments with funding by DARPA, ... [and] includes about 2430 conversations averaging 6 minutes in length; in other terms, over 240 hours of recorded speech, and about 3 million words of text, spoken by over 500 speakers of both sexes from every major dialect of American English"


Quite a number of researchers working on minority and endangered languages have also used phones to make calls from their offices or homes to their consultants in the field to collect data and/or check data and analyses. I recall Frank Wordick, author of The Yindjibarndi language [published 1977 by Pacific Linguistics, C-71 -- for more on Yindjibarndi go here], saying in the mid-1970's that he spent many hours calling his main consultants in Roebourne when he was back in Canberra following fieldwork in order to check aspects of his data. He even suggested he found it easier to distinguish retroflexes on the phone compared to face-to-face.

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Indigenous voices of the language to come together in the International Year of Languages

Federation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Languages (FATSIL)
2008 Annual General Meeting & Indigenous Languages Forum

Theme 2008: Same kinship, different languages

Place: Watermark Hotel, Gold Coast, Queensland

Dates: 29th and 30th October 2008

Deadline for proposals: 29th September
Contact: Sone McKendry, sone AT fatsil.org.au,
fax 03-9602-4770

More information here [.pdf].

From our long-term knowledge transferrer, Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS

15 September 2008

At the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) conference held at the University of Essex last week, there was a discussion session with Professor Shearer West, recently appointed Director of Research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). During the discussion she emphasised that "knowledge transfer" is now an essential expectation of all AHRC grant applications, where "knowledge transfer" means "ensur[ing] that the research we fund can be used to make a difference beyond academia". Apparently the AHRC feels that researchers in Arts and Humanities in the UK have been traditionally rather poor at disseminating their knowledge outside the ivy towers and wants to push them more in this direction. Specifically, this includes:

  • promot[ing] the interests of arts and humanities research and its value to our social, economic and cultural life
  • increas[ing] the amount of high quality research supporting special exhibitions, resdisplays and conservation

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This arrived in the e-mail - and would be a great opportunity for an Indigenous researcher interested in languages to work with the fabulous audio-visual collection at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra, or to engage with the Government on language policy.

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The inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Award (Non-Fiction) has been won by Philip Jones for his book Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers (Wakefield Press, 2007).

[ Update 6/10/08 And the book has now also won the Chief Minister's NT History Book award against some fine competitors, including the author and Anna Kenny (Muslim cameleers), Darrell Lewis (Murranji track), Alec Kruger's autobiography, and Amanda Nettlebeck and Robert Foster on murderous Constable Wilshire].

The book is a pleasurable mingling of history and reconstructed ethnographic fragments, presented as a series of stories about encounters between Aborigines and non-Aborigines from 1788 to the early twentieth century. Each chapter is a reflection on an artefact in the collection of the South Australian Museum. These are the stories that are shrunk into a single line caption in a museum display. The stories are about the people involved - the maker, the collector, their friends, associates and relations - bringing in the history of the artefact and the wider context in which it was collected, and what this may say about the relations between Aborigines and non-Aborigines.

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I raved on about how good OZCLO was in an earlier post.

So, now here's your chance to get involved....

Call for Expressions of Interest

OZCLO – Australian Computational and Linguistics Olympiad 2009

The Inaugural Australian Computational and Linguistics Olympiad (OZCLO) was held earlier this year at the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney. The three winning teams from the State rounds in both states competed to solve problems in Icelandic agreement, finite state automata, Mayan hieroglyphs, Manam Pile directionals, and spectrograms of English in the national round in August. Competitors ranged from year 9 to year 12, and came from both state and private schools. The competition was a huge success and a lot of fun for all involved. We would like to hold it again next year, and are hoping to expand it into other states, depending on the level of interest (we already have interest from Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia). So we are now calling for expressions of interest from colleagues around Australia who would be willing to be involved in next year’s competition.

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Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
7th September 2008

In a recent blog post, Jane Simpson reported on opinions expressed by a group at ANU meeting to discuss grammar writing:

"We all agree it's a good thing to publish glossed texts so that readers can check out the hypotheses proposed in the grammar, and expressed by the glossing."

I'd like to inject a note of caution here. It seems to me that many times published texts, with interlinear glossing or not, and especially those that derive from transcriptions of spoken language, have often been fiddled with (or to put it more politely 'edited') on their way from recording to printed page. This is also often true of published texts that are based on written originals produced by literate native speakers. It is rarely the case that, as Wamut commented about Jeffrey Heath's work on Ngandi at the end of Jane's blog post:

"What is especially great, is that when you go back to Heath's archived field recordings, the spoken texts are there in pristine form, that is, the spoken text and written text correlate perfectly" [emphasis added]

Heath adopted the same principle of "perfect correlation" in his published work on other languages such as his 1980 Nunggubuyu Myths and Ethnographic Texts which clearly states in the introduction: "in the texts presented here I have not 'weeded out' false starts, intrusive English words, or grammatical errors by the narrators".

In many other cases of text publication, I know editing has taken place -- I have done it myself, and some other researchers have admitted to it (though rarely indicating exactly what editorial changes were made -- more on this below). The texts in my 1997 book of Texts in the Mantharta Languages, Western Australia. [Tokyo: ILCAA, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies] were heavily edited, though I didn't mention that in print at the time, and it was only when it came to creating a multimedia Jiwarli website where both published texts and original recordings were presented that I had to confess: "[y]ou may also notice that the Jiwarli texts are not word for word identical to the sound files, as Jack Butler, after recording the stories, made his own corrections in the texts". There was no attempt to deceive here, rather it was Jack's explicit wish that the stories be edited for publication.

As an example, consider published Text 50 (which appears on the website here) and the way it corresponds to the original recording (italics indicates material on the tape which was deleted in the editing process, bold indicates text added during editing, and { x == y} indicates substitution during editing):

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It's yellow everywhere in Canberra - it's Wattle Day. Meanwhile, inside the honeycomb Coombs building at ANU, the grammar-writing group wrestled with Ulrike Mosel's article, 'Grammaticography: The art and craft of writing grammars', in Catching language: The standing challenge of grammar writing (Eds. Felix K. Ameka, Alan Dench, Nicholas Evans, Mouton de Gruyter, 2006, pp.41-68).

The name 'Grammaticography', while way way behind in the 'most elegant word of the day' competition, leads into the nice comparison made by Mosel between preparing dictionaries and preparing grammars. Front matter, macro structure, microstructure and all. It also led to us thinking about the growing fuzziness of the boundary between lexicon and grammar- all those Advanced Learners Grammars with heaps of information about subcategorisation, or the OED with its definitions of suffixes, all those grammars with information about the meanings of words.

One thing that grammars have over most dictionaries however, is the notion of publishing an accompanying set of texts. Falsifiability has traditionally been more of a concern for grammarians than for lexicographers. We all agree it's a good thing to publish glossed texts so that readers can check out the hypotheses proposed in the grammar, and expressed by the glossing. The classic example is Jeffrey Heath's careful analysis of R. M.W. Dixon's Dyirbal texts (HEATH, J. 1979. Is Dyirbal ergative?. Linguistics 17, 401-463) to argue against DIxon's claim about Dyirbal being syntactically Ergative. Can anyone think of further examples?

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Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
1st September 2008

After some delay due to a backlog of other "Top 10s", my promised article entitled Top 10 Endangered Languages appeared on the Guardian website on Tuesday last week. It has been attracting some attention and comment. Several things seem to have happened to the article in the blogosphere:

  1. the content was copied whole (with citation) by a number of bloggers - here, here
  2. only part of the content attracted the attention of some bloggers, eg. Ainu here and here, Ket here, Yuchi here, the loss of cultural heritage here and the parameters I adopted to help me choose here
  3. Claire Bowern was prompted to come up with her own list of Top 10 endangered languages on her Anggarrgoon blog
  4. David Crystal mentioned it on his blog which resulted in a comment linking to Claire's list, and a snappy commentary on Claire's choice of Mapundungun as an endangered language
  5. it was listed on Deliggit.com, which claims to track "the social sites most interesting urls"
  6. it was dug (digged?) on Digg, with 1059 diggs and 154 comments so far. It is currently on the first page of Digg, which is apparently a cool place to be.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
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E-MELD The E-MELD School of Best Practices in Digital Language Documentation

Tema Modersmål Website in Swedish with links to sites on and in many languages

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project: Language Documentation: What is it? Information on equipment, formats, and archiving, and examples of documentation

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Endangered languages of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

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ACLA child language acquisition in three Australian Aboriginal communities

DELAMAN The Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archives Network

PARADISEC The Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures

Murriny-Patha Song Project Documenting the language and music of public songs and dances composed and performed by Murriny Patha-speaking people

PFED The Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries

DOBES Endangered language documentation and archiving, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and sponsored by the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen.

DELP Documenting endangered languages at the University of Sydney

Ethno EResearch Exploring methods and technology for streaming media and interlinear text