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November 2010

[ from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
24 November 2010

I have a soft spot for La Trobe University (LTU) in Australia.

LTU is where I got my first tenured job 30 years ago (just over two years after finishing my PhD -- ah, those were the days) and still the place I have worked the longest in a somewhat peripatetic academic career (summarised here. I went there in 1981 as first full-time head of the Division of Linguistics and by the time I left in 1995 the Linguistics Department was booming under the leadership of Foundation Professor Barry Blake. We had an excellent group of colleagues (several of whom went on to professorships themselves) and great students, including this blog's Nick Thieberger, now at Melbourne University and Hawaii.

After this time linguistics at La Trobe changed its complexion somewhat. In January 2000 the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology (RCLT moved from the Australian National University to La Trobe as an independent research facility not directly associated with the Linguistics Department. As the document [.pdf]) outlining RCLT's history up to 2006 puts it:

"Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, La Trobe had one of the leading linguistics departments in Australia (indeed, this was a major reason that RCLT sought to relocate here). The Department was then considerably weakened by retirements and resignations."

In 2008 RCLT itself saw leadership changes that led to retirements and resignations at the end of the year as the former Director and Deputy Director left to move to another Australian University.

And now the good news. RCLT and the Linguistic Department have recently hit the research jackpot with several successful large grant applications, including two highly competitive and prestigious Future Fellowships. These are five-year posts that, according to the Australian Research Council, were set up:

"to promote research in areas of critical national importance by giving outstanding researchers incentives to conduct their research in Australia. The aim of Future Fellowships is to attract and retain the best and brightest mid-career researchers."

Congratulations to Future Fellows Birgit Hellwig, who will be working on 'Verb semantics in the Baining languages, East New Britain (Papua New Guinea)' and Steven Morey, whose project is 'A multifaceted study of Tangsa: a network of linguistic varieties in North East India'. (Congratulations also to the only other linguistics Future Fellow, Mark Donohue of ANU).

These positions are bolstered by Yvonne Treis, who has an ELDP post-doctoral fellowship to work on a grammatical description of Basketo (Baskeet), one of the little known Omotic languages spoken in South Ethiopia, and Anthony Jukes, who will start a post-doctoral fellowship at RCLT in 2011 as part of an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project 'The languages of Minahasa: documentation, description, and support'.

Well done La Trobe Linguistics!


[ from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
22 November 2010

This month the eighth volume of Language Documentation and Description (LDD8) hit the streets (you can order it at a 25% discount, and also get 25% off any of our other volumes ordered before 31 December 2010). It's a special issue on documentation of endangered oral literatures and is guest edited by Imogen Gunn and Mark Turin of the World Oral Literature Project (WOLP) at Cambridge. This is the first time we have had a guest edited issue, but it won't be the last.

Planning for the next three issues of LDD is already under way: LDD 9 is scheduled for mid-2011 and will be edited by Julia Sallabank. It will contain papers on endangered languages and sustainability, arising out of a workshop she and Friederike Luepke organised earlier this year, together with other papers and book reviews. LDD 10, scheduled for December 2011, will be a special issue on documentation of endangered languages and musics and will be guest edited by Jan-Olof Svantesson and colleagues of Lund University. LDD 11, scheduled for mid-2012, will be edited by Oliver Bond and Stuart McGill and will contain papers on issues in applied documentation for African languages.

Back in October 2002 when I first started work at SOAS and was planning what became the Endangered Languages Academic Programme (ELAP) I had a vision that we could start a publication series for the newly emerging field of language documentation (this was just one year after DoBeS began its main phase, and the same year that ELDP was launched). ELDP was holding the first grants meeting of its International Panel in February 2002 so I hatched the audacious plan to ask the panel members if they would stay in London for an extra day and present talks on language documentation in a workshop format. They all kindly agreed and then when Colette Grinevald (from Lyon), Dan Everett (who was at University of Manchester at the time), Eva Csato (Uppsala) and Nick Ostler (Foundation for Endangered Languages) heard about the workshop they offered to come and give talks too. I then asked David Crystal (author of the book Language Death who I had met in Australia in 2000) if he would present a public lecture to kick off the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, which he did on 28th February 2003. In retrospect this was all a bit crazy -- we had no staff other than myself and Zara Pybus, the then newly-appointed Administrator of ELAP, and we were also trying to write and get approved a new MA programme with all its constituent modules, plus appoint staff, recruit students, and so on. To add to the craziness, all the workshop presenters agreed to write up their papers for publication and did so within six months. SOAS colleagues Lutz Marten and Justin Watkins refereed them all, and Zara designed and formatted the whole lot so that in December 2003 we published Volume 1 of LDD.

Over the past eight years we have sold almost 2,000 copies of LDD (Volume 1 is still our best seller at 480 copies so far, with a respectable 50 copies per year still going out the door) and we normally sell around 500 copies in total annually. I think this is pretty respectable for what is effectively a "spare time" operation, as we have no dedicated publication staff and each volume is edited and published on top of our other usual obligations.

LDD is a small, though useful, source of income for us and helps support MA and PhD students through offering them paid part-time editorial work on production of the volumes that are edited at SOAS. On several occasions I have been asked why we charge for LDD rather than making it freely available, like the online journal Language Documentation and Conservation. The simple response is that we do keep the price of LDD as low as possible (try finding another similar linguistics publication of 250-300 pages that sells for GBP 10.00!) and that income from sales is the only way we can pay for editorial support and first class design and layout (by Tom Castle who does publication work on top of his usual day job as Digital Technician). This is particularly the case now that support for ELAP from Arcadia Fund finished this year (Arcadia will continue to support ELDP and the Endangered Languages Archive until 2016).

We are currently planning for the introduction of an online store for LDD in 2011 and are also looking at developing a new series of e-publications that will include articles published in the journal, as well as other new materials. Stay tuned for more details early next year.


[Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
21 November 2010

At this year's American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting that winds up in New Orleans today, Jeremy Sabloff, President of the Santa Fe Institute, delivered the AAA's Distinguished Lecture with the title The Circulation of Ideas: Anthropology and Public Outreach. According to the AAA blog his talk:

"was effectively a battle cry for anthropologists. Our motto shouldn't be 'publish or perish, but rather, public or perish', archaeologist Sabloff said to a crowd of fellow anthropologists. He noted how other scientific fields have their iconic scholars‚ think Stephen Hawking, or Cornell West, or Jared Diamond. But anthropology? With the exception of the deceased (Margaret Mead) and the fictitious (Indiana Jones), not so much."

The blog author goes on:

"Part of the problem has been university departments' traditional avoidance of the limelight. Worse yet, anthropologists who speak out in the media are often criticized by their colleagues. 'We shouldn't be sniping, but rather supporting, our colleagues who write op-ed pieces', Sabloff said. The lecture, which was as inspiring as it was bold, was met with wild applause, a standing ovation and likely more than a few anthropologists considering their future (however large or small) in the public spotlight."

For languages and linguistics, I think we actually beat the anthropologists hands down when it comes to recognised experts who get called upon to express their views in public forums, including the popular press. In the UK we have David Crystal, public language expert par excellence, while Dick Hudson has worked tirelessly to promote linguistics in education. Geoff Pullum can be relied upon to express an opinion about grammar and language pseudo-experts (or "grammar mavens"), especially via his contributions to the Language Log blog, and John Harris gets called upon whenever pronunciation gets a mention. The US has a range of public figures who have things to say about language, including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Dan Everett, Ben Zimmer, and so on.

In the area of minority and endangered languages, Gregory Anderson and David Harrison (who introduce themselves as "we're The Linguists"), in collaboration with National Geographic and the Living Tongues project, have achieved some prominence in public space around the world (the views of practitioners who are not "The Linguists" differ about the approach taken by Anderson and Harrison, as a snotty exchange in the Comments section of Language Log shows).

Anderson and Harrison's most recent venture, supported by the philanthropic arm of Google, is a dedicated channel on YouTube called "the National Geographic Enduring Voices YouTube channel". The goal is apparently to "allow many of [the world's smallest and most endangered] tongues to have a presence on the Internet for the very first time" so that "researchers, academics and communities can now collaborate more effectively on promoting language revitalization". This is a very worthy goal that is certainly in line with Jeremy Sabloff's call to arms.

So what is actually up there on YouTube, and does it meet the goal of promoting language revitalisation? Perhaps it is too early to say for sure yet, but I personally was disappointed by the available movie clips, especially in terms of their lack of contextualisation and the low production values some of them show. There are around 100 clips available and they range in length from 14 seconds to 25 minutes, with most being 2 to 3 minutes long. Some are "talking head" style lectures (like this one) while others are fascinating insights into local knowledge, like this clip about Koro medicinal plants -- except that it is in English!

One of the most popular clips (with 945 views) is a rap song in Aka performed by Songe Nimasow and Khandu Degio. It is surely popular because it is accessible and entertaining, but one has to wonder how it "promot[es] language revitalisation". The most popular clip (with 1,330 views), and one which I was fascinated to see, is Ganibe Sebo showing how to count in Foe, a language of Papua New Guinea. On several occasions I have heard Bernard Comrie present talks about what he calls "endangered numeral systems" and seen him demonstrate the use of body parts in Haruwai counting, but I had never before seen a native speaker present this. It's neat, but the context for why is is interesting and important rather than just bizarre (why 1 to 37 for heaven's sake?) is not given. Just imagine if the clip had begun with some contextualisation about how knowledge systems, like the use of body parts in counting, are under threat, perhaps even more than languages themselves, how much clearer the material now presented would be. I'm not wanting the clips to be didactic, just contextualised, and their significance clarified.

I could not understand the point of some of the clips, like this one of a Tuvan woman with her head down reading Russian but with no explanation of what it is that she is talking about (perhaps if I spoke Russian it would make more sense?). There is also this clip of a person sitting self consciously in front of an elaborate tapestry speaking about who knows what in who knows what language and for which the only information given is "Ay-Xerel Sambuu Interview". This kind of thing is reminiscentof the "look at the exotic animal" exhibits that zoos used to offer (though they usually had a sign up telling you which exotic animal it was).

So, this YouTube channel is an interesting idea and potentially an exciting place for endangered languages to "be public", but in its current form it falls far short of meeting its potential, in my opinion. I look forward to Anderson and Harrison doing something better in the future with the opportunities it offers.


I recently attended a symposium titled Models for capacity development in language documentation and conservation hosted by ILCAA at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The symposium brought together a group of people involved in supporting language work in the Asia-Pacific region in various ways (see the website for a full list): academic (Institute of Linguistics, Minhsiung, Taiwan, Beijing, China, Goroka, PNG, Batchelor, Australia, Bangkok, Thailand) and community-based (Manokwari, West-Papua; Tshanglalo, Bhutan; Bhasha Research Centre and Adivasi Academy, Gudjarat, India; Miromaa, Australia), using film (Sorosoro, France), or archiving language records (PARADISEC). The aim of the meeting was to build a network that would continue to link between training activities to support language work, the Consortium on Training in Language Documentation and Conservation (CTLDC), whose planning group members are listed here.

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[ Forwarded by John Hobson]

Re-awakening languages: theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia's Indigenous languages
Edited by John Hobson, Kevin Lowe, Susan Poetsch and Michael Walsh
Sydney University Press
ISBN: 9781920899554

The Indigenous languages of Australia have been undergoing a renaissance over recent decades. Many languages that had long ceased to be heard in public and consequently deemed 'dead' or 'extinct', have begun to emerge.

Geographically and linguistically isolated, revitalisers of Indigenous Australian languages have often struggled to find guidance for their circumstances, unaware of the others walking a similar path. In this context Re-awakening languages seeks to provide the first comprehensive snapshot of the actions and aspirations of Indigenous people and their supporters for the revitalisation of Australian languages in the twenty-first century.

The contributions to this volume describe the satisfactions and tensions of this ongoing struggle. They also draw attention to the need for effective planning and strong advocacy at the highest political and administrative levels, if language revitalisation in Australia is to be successful and people's efforts are to have longevity.

Order from:
Sydney University Press

Contents, etc downloadable from:
The University of Sydney Library eScholarship repository

Around Australia, honours degrees are under threat from academic administrators who see them as resource-intensive and fee-sparse. Often terrific work is done in honours theses. But this work often doesn't get publicised, and we need that kind of publicity to show just why honours degrees are worth doing, and worth fighting for. So it's great when students get around to depositing their theses in electronic archives, such as the e-Scholarship repository at the University of Sydney - it takes a lot of prodding to overcome post-thesis-parting blues. So, prod away!

You can browse the Sydney list - which is discoverable on the web, thanks to its software, the open source DSpace. A recent addition is Janet Watts' Conversational Analysis thesis, Children's Silences in Mareeba Aboriginal English. This list is incomplete of course, since our prodding isn't always successful. Oh, and ignore the awful handling of the authors' name - a weirdness induced by a mix of submitter and a rare DSpace glitch. Otherwise - a wonderful thing.


[from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
4 November 2010

Friday this week (5th November 2010) marks a sad day for Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara region of Western Australia with the funeral of Alexander ("Sandy") Brown, the last fluent speaker of Ngarla. Sandy was born in 1930 near the De Grey River in the traditional country of the Ngarla which stretched eastwards for about 180 km along the coast from what is now the town of Port Hedland, and inland for about 50 km. Due to early white settlement in the area Ngarla population numbers plummeted in the 19th century, and by 1990 there were probably less than 20 speakers. Sandy was the last person to speak the language fully.

Sandy Brown was an highly talented person who was literate in Ngarla (he spoke several other languages, and worked with Alan Dench on Nyamal) and took great pleasure after his retirement in documenting his language. He worked with Brian Geytenbeek on preparing a dictionary of Ngarla from the 1980s until recently, and in 2003 he released a CD of 68 Ngarla yirraru songs with accompanying explanatory booklet (reviewed by Nicholas Smith who calls the CD a "testimony to Sandy's extraordinary memory; a memory saturated with the rich oral traditions of Pilbara Aboriginal life"). Sandy also recorded stories in Ngarla and one called Marlkarrimarnu Nganarna Witijayinta 'Playing with a Dangerous Thing' can be read here. He was also much involved in Native Title issues. I had the good fortune to meet Sandy about 15 years ago when Alan Dench and I visited Brian and Helen Geytenbeek in Port Hedland.

Since 2008 Sandy worked with Torbjörn ("Toro") Westerlund of Uppsala University who is writing a grammar of Ngarla for his PhD (his MA Sketch grammar is available here[.pdf]). As Toro says of his thesis in a recent email: "it now may not turn out to be as detailed in all respects as I had hoped".

RIP Sandy Brown.

Note: Thanks to Toro Westerlund for checking a draft. I alone am responsible for the content of this post.


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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

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

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Resource network for linguistic diversity Networking practitioners working to record,retrieve & reintroduce endangered languages


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

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