> January 2009 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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January 2009

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS

27 January 2009

On 27th and 28th February we will be running a workshop at SOAS in London to discuss theoretical and practical issues concerning beliefs and ideologies on endangered languages, with a special focus on the implications they have for language support and revitalisation.

Language ideologies have been described by Jan Blommaert as 'socioculturally motivated ideas, perceptions and expectations of language, manifested in all sorts of language use'. He goes on to suggest that 'there is now a widespread recognition of language ideologies as a crucial topic of debate when it comes to assessing the motives and causes for certain types of language change'. The study of language ideologies and beliefs may therefore provide insights into the reasons for language shift and/or revival, and may help to determine the success or otherwise of language revitalisation projects. At the workshop we will be looking at several issues:

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Over at the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries, we've finally got the first version of Wunderkammer, our software for displaying multimedia electronic dictionaries on mobile phones, ready for release. We've also developed the application wkimport, which allows electronic dictionaries in a variety of formats to be imported relatively painlessly into Wunderkammer.

The packages for importing dictionaries, a demonstration Wunderkammer dictionary, all the source code and plenty of documentation are available at the Wunderkammer website: http://www.pfed.info/wksite There's also an online demo of a Wunderkammer dictionary that shows off some of what Wunderkammer can do without having to download it to a mobile phone. The emulator for the online demo does not always load properly, but it should work in most cases. If the online demo doesn't work, just try the real demo on a mobile phone.

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Today's Honours list [.pdf] gives Indigenous Australians something to celebrate - Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year and the award of a Companion of the Order of Australia to Faith Bandler.

And for Indigenous languages, there are two awards of Members in the General Division of the Order of Australia to celebrate:
1. the late Dr R. Marika, "For service to Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas as an educator, linguist and scholar, through the preservation of Indigenous languages and the promotion of reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding"

2. the Reverend Dr Bill Edwards, who has worked for over 50 years with Pitjantjatjara people, learning the language, helping with documentation, with schooling, who pioneered the teaching of Indigenous languages at university, and who still helps out as an interpreter in hospitals and gaols.

Both awards come in the shadow of a government decision which goes against what both Bill and Dr Marika have fought for. Bill has protested about the NT Government's decision to close bilingual education in a letter to the Australian.

Dr Marika died before the decision was made. But in her 1998 Wentworth Lecture [.rtf], we can see what she would have said about the destruction of her hopes for two-way education.

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40 years ago in Adelaide I didn't even know the name of the people whose country was officially invaded on 28 December 1836. Last Christmas walking in the city, I saw:
tindo.jpg

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David Nash

How English acquired the word wombat is another story which began in early Sydney, after dingo (1788) and before boomerang (1820s).  The way that the form and denotation of wombat came together for the colonists is notable for its convolutions, and for the record we have of some of the twists along the way.

The intriguing story of the European discovery of the common wombat Vombatus ursinus was assembled recently by museum specialists Pigott and Jessop, focussing on how "the Governor's wombat" comes to be in Newcastle upon Tyne.  There was a string of coincidences, with one sequence leading to general adoption of the word wombat for this marsupial.  It spread also through the genus Vombatus (É. Geoffroy 1803) (with the synonym Wombatus (Desmarest 1804)) which was an early incorporation of an Australian word into a biological genus name — and through Family Vombatidae (Burnett 1829), up to Suborder Vombatiformes (Burnett 1830) and superfamily Vombatoidea (Archer 1984).

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Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
12 January 2009

About a year and a half ago I joined Facebook (see my blog post from July 2007 about it and other Web 2.0 applications). At first, it was just a bit of fun, but over the last few months, especially during the end of year holidays, some aspects of Facebook (FB) have attracted my attention in terms of what it can be used for in relation to endangered languages.

It seems I am not alone in becoming a bit of a "FB junkie" recently. Blogger Tom Leverett, who teaches English as a Second Language as his day job, has recently posted that:

"Like many people, I have found myself drawn more and more often to Facebook over [the term] break. Have free time? Check in and see what any of my extended friends are saying, doing, posting, etc. Late at night, I might troll through lists of friends' friends, finding people I grew up with or went to college with; next thing I know, I'm finding out what they're doing every day, or chatting with them. I keep up with my children, in various cities: what they do, what they say, what they say about me ..."

and:

"I know enough about it to know that millions of people are doing this just like me, though my tech colleagues are less likely to be doing it, than just my everyday friends, other teachers, social people attracted to FB like moths to light."

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Peter K. Austin and David Nathan
Linguistics Department, SOAS
6th January 2009

The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) was established at SOAS in January 2004, with the first deposits accepted in late 2005. Our initial priority was on preservation but recently the ELAR public catalogue was released and it will soon extend to providing access to materials (where permissions allow). To date, ELAR has received over 50 deposits and stores about 4 terabytes of data. Audio recordings make up about 60% of this (both in terms of the total number of files and the total volume of data).

ELAR was established primarily to preserve and disseminate data collected by grantees from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) and by staff and students from the Endangered Languages Academic Programme (ELAP). Because language documentation is an emerging area that relies a lot on new techniques and technologies, ELAR also provides training, advice and support to ELDP grantees, ELAP staff and students, and others through international training workshops (see, for example, the various organised by ELAR and taught by ELAR and ELAP staff and students and additional experts). ELAR staff also manage the research facilities of the Rausing Room, the Linguistics Resources Room, and the pool of fieldwork equipment available to ELAP staff and students.

ELAR now has four staff, with David Nathan and Ed Garrett being card-carrying linguists and IT professionals, and technicians Tom Castle and Bernard Howard having specialist skills in digital and analogue audio techniques and equipment.

With these resources, skills and experience, ELAR is able to help people who want to archive resources for endangered languages, including individual and retired researchers who may not have alternative sources of equipment or advice. Dietrich Schüller, the former Director of the Austrian Phonogrammarchiv, has warned in a recent paper[.pdf] that the great majority of the world's human cultural heritage is sitting unpreserved and uncatalogued on the shelves of individual researchers. We can help these researchers with preparing materials, including digitising and converting audio, as well as providing advice and training in how to create metadata and cataloguing information.

Over the last few years ELAR has collaborated with a number of individual researchers in preparing their materials for deposit:

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I was sad to learn that Geoffrey O'Grady [1] has died - on 28th December at home in Victoria, British Columbia. He was a fine linguist, who documented Australian languages (Nyangumarta most extensively), wrote the report with Ken Hale that started bilingual education in the Northern Territory, and loved with a great passion the work of understanding relationships between Australian languages. Above all, he was a generous and kind man. He is survived by Alix O'Grady, his wife and collaborator for over fifty years, and their two daughters.

More about his life and work can be found in: 'Geoffrey O'Grady: pioneer of Australian linguistics' in his aptly titled festschrift Boundary rider: studies in the lexicology and comparative linguistics of Australian languages, edited by Darrell Tryon and Michael Walsh (Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, out of print but available as a .pdf $37.80)

[ Update: an obituary has appeared here.]


[1] BA Hons thesis, 1959, University of Sydney, Significance of the circumcision boundary in Western Australia. PhD thesis, 1963, Indiana University, Nyangumata grammar

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