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from Robert Mailhammer
14 June 2010

When I started working on Amurdak in 2007, I was told that the last speaker of that language had just passed away. I wasn’t discouraged by that at all, since I had spent virtually all of my previous linguistic life examining “real” dead languages, some of which we don’t even have records of. However, it soon became apparent that it was very frustrating trying to make sense of Amurdak without being able to go to a speaker and ask them about who killed whom in a particular story or what the 2nd person non-singular future tense of a particular verb was, all of which slowed down the investigation of Amurdak considerably.

However, it was known that there was at least one partial speaker of Amurdak, who lived on Croker Island, and who was also an accomplished songman of an Amurdak song series, but I never got a chance to go and work with him.

Then in late 2009, there was some indication that there might be another (partial) speaker of Amurdak in Darwin and there was also some money to go and find out. With the kind and generous help from Bruce Birch, Nick Evans and Sabine Hoeng, supported by the DobeS Iwaidja Documentation Project, plans were made to travel up to Croker Island to firstly help Bruce with some Iwaidja transcriptions and secondly to find out about this “new” speaker, and thirdly see whether I could work with Charlie Mangulda, the Amurdak songman.

When I arrived in Darwin in early May 2010, Bruce and I met up with that potential last speaker and it became quite clear that I wouldn’t get very far. On top of this we received news that Charlie Mangulda wouldn’t be available for consultation, which was particularly disappointing. But we had heard that a relative of one of Bruce’s consultants supposedly could translate the stories from the text collection Rob Handelsmann and I had published a few weeks earlier* and Sabine and Bruce had distributed among the Amurdak-affiliated community into Iwaidja when she listened to the CD. So the plan was at least to see about that.

With Bruce as an extremely generous and kind host and expert mentor I set out on my first fieldtrip...
After the first session with Rae Giribug, the above-mentioned relative, it became obvious that the story was true. Much like a professional interpreter she was translating a 20-year old recording from Amurdak into Iwaidja, one of the local languages. She could say back the words in Amurdak, translate words from Iwaidja into Amurdak and I was even able to ask about specific grammatical forms! So working nearly every day, we managed to transcribe and translate three narratives, which had been previously untouched, and we also filled in some blanks in existing transcriptions. On top of that I started trying out my theoretically and passively acquired Amurdak and by the final day of my stay we had little conversations in a language that I had only known from recordings from last century. We had started the resuscitation of Amurdak as a means of communication!

It was a truly wonderful experience. In addition, there was a clear indication that perhaps also other community members might be able to understand at least some Amurdak. When listening to a recording one man said something like: “I understand that lingo right through”. It remains to be seen how much can be made of this, but on top of Rae Giribug, there are two other members of the community with a reportedly even better knowledge, one which I missed and another elderly lady, who is rather difficult to get hold of. There was even a bit of an Amurdak-rush happening, as many people in the community have Amurdak affiliations, and I handed out CDs, copies of our text collection and copies of the draft dictionary. As Peter Austin pointed out (and see here too), this case is a really good argument for disseminating language material back to the communities, because without the CD that comes with our text collection this discovery would not have been made.

* 2009 Amurdak inyman - Amurdak language: Six stories in Amurdak told by Bill Neidjie and Nelson Mulurinj, Jabiru: Iwaidja Inyman [Robert Mailhammer and Robert Handelsmann] available from Skinnyfish Music, Darwin.



what a great story -- thanks for sharing it. I totally agree with you about the importance of feeding material back to communities in ways that they can access and how we might get really unexpected outcomes like the one you describe.

What about the supposed "last words of Amurdak" recorded by the National Geographic Expedition of 2007 (see also this pdf report)?

Thanks, Peter; you may remember the controversy about the video that was released back then. At any rate, they certainly didn't record the last words in Amurdak; that statement was definitely premature.

Hi Robert,
awesome. Love this story.
Long live Amurdak.

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