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[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.

Organiser Bill Palmer from University of Newcastle, outlined how all of these linguistics disciplines are reliant on each other and emphasised that linguists must ensure that the streams of communication remain open through collaboration. The topics presented provided fuel for thought (see full program and abstracts here) and this was attested by vigorous debates in the post-talk discussions which spilled over to the tea and coffee breaks. Often organisers had to get us back on track but being Pacific-focused linguists we all upheld the notion of “Island Time” with aplomb.

Of particular note, René van den Berg (SIL PNG) evaluation of SIL’s recent work in Pacific linguistics provided a launch pad for dialogue on why it is extremely important for a conscious global effort to ensure that language materials are accessible to all regardless of affiliation (check out here for an example of some of their work). As PARADISEC’s Nick Thieberger stressed, we now belong to an interconnected digital age and there is really no longer any excuse for not having comprehensive, searchable and interactive databases for all the research that has been done to date. It would disastrous to lose irreplaceable records of extinct or highly endangered languages. But also it would be a huge waste of capital expenditure over the last 100+ years to lose field notes and recordings from these periods.

As for the “direction” of Oceanic Linguistics? There are indicators that linguistics in this region still has a lot to contribute. There are languages being (re-)described such as Whitesands, Lelapa, Apa and Navahaq and there are many more to to do. Juliette Blevins (MPI Leipzig) showed that Oceanic phonological and morphological diversity within a well-defined language sub-group provides linguists with an excellent testing ground for theoretical claims. This idea was supported by syntacticians and typologists alike in their presentations. The younger post-grad participants (me included) showed that PhD, Masters and Honours students are still getting involved in the region and that Oceanic linguistics still has the capacity to engender interest and provide a platform for linguistic investigation (including two talks on the “rite-of-passage” possession description).

However as a stern warning to us all, to those interested in language revitalisation and those who are in charge of distributing funds for language documentation and description. Winifred Bauer from Victoria University shared her extensive experience of Māori language maintenance in New Zealand. She stressed that the viability of endangered languages can change extremely rapidly and that in NZ Māori, revitalization have not been as successful as first thought. For people working in endangered languages and cultures hopefully we can learn from this and document as soon as possible and be more informed in our attempts to help communities retain their indigenous languages.

Comments

Here's the link to the SIL PNG site: http://www.sil.org/pacific/png/index.asp (the one in the text goes to a USyd Exchange Server).

Thanks! My bad. Fixed it now.
Jane

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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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