> December 2008 - Transient Languages & Cultures
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December 2008

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

Due to the hard work of Mike Franjieh who is doing a PhD on a language of Ambrym, Vanuatu, the Endangered Languages Project at SOAS now has an on-line catalogue of the more than 300 books and journals we have acquired over the past few years. The materials in our collection come from several sources, including:

  • donations by publishers, such as the Atlas of the World's Languages that we launched two years ago
  • donations by colleagues, including ELDP grantees, of outputs from their research projects, such as Adivinanzas en mixteco a collection of stories in Mixteco, from Mexico. Some of the materials in this part of the collection are otherwise difficult to find in Europe
  • MA dissertations written by students in the MA in Language Documentation and Description, including original work with native speakers of endangered languages, such as Aromanian, Bajjika, Dolpo, Dulong, Khasi, Khorchin Mongolian and Uighur

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Late in the nineteenth century, probably on the left bank of the Hawkesbury River, Tilly Clarke and Annie Barber took the trouble to teach a surveyor, Robert H. Mathews, something of their language, Darkinyung. He wrote down words, sentences and phrases in his No. 7 notebook, and published a little about it. The notebook is preserved among his papers in the National Library of Australia. This is the main surviving written source for the Darkinyung language.

On Monday 15 December, at the Ourimbah campus of Newcastle University, the Darkinyung Language Group launched Darkinyung grammar and dictionary: revitalising a language from historical sources, by Caroline Jones. It's another terrific Muurrbay/Many Rivers product. At the launch, Darkinyung people were centre-stage, but celebrating too were Wiradjuri, Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr, non-Aboriginal people, and the staff of Muurrbay and Many Rivers who made the publication possible.


[from Jeremy Hammond, one of our men in Ourimbah]

A conference on Oceanic linguistics has been held over the last three days at the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle (Australia). The goal was to investigate the current state of research into Oceanic languages and cultures and to highlight their important role in current linguistic science. Participants from a diverse variety of institutions (including Australian, Dutch, Canadian, NZ, Pacific and French universities) converged to display how Oceanic languages are still worthy of attention from all areas of linguistics. Documentation, description, typology and linguistic theory were all addressed over the three days. Languages presented ranged from the West Papua “Birds Head” languages to the Polynesian Niuean with many more in-between.

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Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal declaration of human rights (UDHR). On the UN's website you can find translations of UDHR in 337 languages. Given Ethnologue's current claim of 6,912 living languages, there's a long way to go. But they claim it is the "most translated document in the world" (I'd've thought Genesis probably beat that). Recent additions include Seselwa Creole French, Sierra Leone Krio and Cook Islands Maori. And you can hear it read in 60 plus languages [1] on the World Voices site. They're mostly large languages, apart from Chamorro, Gaelic and Icelandic, and there are no Indigenous Australian languages - not surprising, since translating it would not be easy.

According to Amnesty Australia, "Australia is the only Western democracy without a Human Rights Act or similar human rights protection". They are running a campaign for human rights protection. Ditto Get-Up. An Amnesty supporter, Julian Burnside, writes:

"I once shared the formerly popular view that we don't need a Human Rights Act in Australia, but events of the past decade convinced me otherwise. They revealed that we cannot rely on our rights being protected by the common law. In Australia's constitutional democracy, the parliaments are able to set aside the common law if they choose to do so." Human Rights Defender 27,4, Dec. 2008-Feb.2009: p.9.

So, to language rights. These have come to attention recently with the decision by the Northern Territory Government to introduce a standardised curriculum into primary schools which will make it difficult to run properly managed bilingual programs using Indigenous languages as the medium of instruction. "The first four hours in English", a few words uttered by a Minister in Parliament, can change irrevocably how Indigenous children experience school, and the use of their languages in school, and will probably cause the irreversible loss of their first languages.

The Minister could not have made a decision so quickly, if Australia accorded recognition to Indigenous languages officially. She would have had to consider the educational evidence for and against using the Indigenous language as a medium of instruction, and there would have been public debate before the policy could be implemented. This would have been an excellent thing, because there is no magic bullet for improving Indigenous children's knowledge of spoken and written English. It has many many causes, from massive hearing loss, to poverty, to truancy, to lack of good ESL teaching, to failure by Governments to spend equitably on Indigenous communities. But bilingual education isn't one of the causes.

There's a stupid opposition made in the media between 'a rights agenda' and 'basic services'. As if pushing for recognition of human rights somehow gets in the way of providing basic services. In fact, what recognition of human rights does is require governments to reflect a little before forming policies which damage human rights.

UNESCO has a general site on language rights. Here's Australia's position as I see it. Corrections, improvements etc gladly received!


Re-awakening languages: Theory & practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages

Proposals are invited for an edited volume that will include contributions from a broad range of authors involved in the revitalisation of Australian languages. If you, your colleagues or your students are participants in Indigenous languages revitalisation anywhere in Australia you are strongly encouraged to contribute.

The book will be independently edited by a panel consisting of John Hobson (University of Sydney), Kevin Lowe (NSW Board of Studies), Susan Poetsch (NSW Board of Studies) and Michael Walsh (University of Sydney) and be published by Sydney University Press (SUP). It is intended that the final product will be a significant Australian resource comparable to Hinton & Hale (eds.) (2001) The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice.


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