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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!

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This semester, I have been helping out Jane with her wonderful Field Methods class in technical matters such as recording, uploading files onto the server and allowing students to securely and quickly download both .wav and .mp3 files. I took this course myself some years ago, and it was a great experience for me and the whole class, and many members of that class have continued on in their studies to do field research of their own, and I'm sure the Field Methods class was as much a help to their research as it was to mine.

But this post is not about when I took the class. Instead, it's about how I almost buggered up this semester's class in what can best be described as a lesson in keeping backups of your recordings.

(Warning: Some computer nerd stuff follows after the fold.)

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[From Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
14th April 2010

Last month I received the following email query from a colleague:

"I am currently submitting a grant application for a small grant at the HRELP to document .... One concern I have is how many hours it will realistically take to transcribe one hour of text. I have done fieldwork in the past, but this would be the first time that I will have trained a transcriber who would work (mostly) independently. (The linguists on the project would consult with them.) I would like to give some sort of concrete number of total hours transcribed and translated (in contrast to fully annotated)."

Since this is an issue I have been asked about several times, I present here an elaborated version of what I wrote back to my correspondent (here I am using 'source language' to refer to the language of the recording, and 'target language' to refer to the language of a translation of the recording. I restrict my remarks to transcription of spoken languages).

I wrote back:
The answer to your questions is kind of like the answer to the question: 'How long is a piece of string?'

There are so many variables:

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Now calling for papers and for registration of participants.

Following the successful recent Papuanists' Workshops in Sydney, the ANU Papuanists will be hosting a weekend of Papuanist talks at the Kioloa coast campus (c. 3 hours from Canberra and 3.5 hours from Sydney) from 2 pm Friday 30th October to early afternoon Sunday 1st November, with a bushwalk up Pigeon House planned for the Saturday afternoon.

Anyone who has an interest in Papuan languages and linguistics is invited to come and present a paper or just listen to other people's papers and join in the discussion.


Here's an article [Thanks Nick!] on Steven Bird's interesting attempt to increase data on an endangered language (Usarufa, Highlands New Guinea) by giving speakers voice recorders, and training them in documenting their language.

[from Sheena Van Der Mark, La Trobe University]

A workshop about bringing non-linguistic aspects of fieldwork out of lunchtime conversations and into a more public domain is being proposed for the upcoming Australian Linguistics Society Conference at La Trobe University. This is the abstract for the workshop as it currently stands:

The experiences we have in the field have a profound impact on the outcomes of our research, academically, personally and for the communities involved. This workshop is an opportunity to explore some of the issues associated with fieldwork and its repercussions in a professional forum. The first paper, Fieldwork and Your Wellbeing (S. Van Der Mark, S. Morey and T. Stebbins), discusses newly established practices within the RCLT with respect managing fieldwork in terms of risk management, safety, and personal well-being (including both professional and personal relationships). In the second paper, Bringing Fieldwork Home (C. Eira), the author discusses how fieldwork is inseparable from directions for both linguistics and life itself - that fieldwork is not something that is 'outside over there', whether or not your fieldwork site is far away. This workshop aims to bring non-linguistic aspects of fieldwork into the academic domain, and facilitate discussion about linguists and fieldwork.

We hope to be able to broaden the workshop by involving three more presenters on related topics or with different perspectives on relevant issues. Topics could include things like the following:

  • fieldwork and ethics
  • doing academic linguistics versus work that benefits the language community and how to reconcile these areas
  • 'ownership' of linguistic data
  • evolving working (and/or personal) relationships with language communities
  • mentoring/supporting students and colleagues doing fieldwork
  • the representation of fieldwork to different communities (the language community, the academic community, and how we represent ourselves to the 'outside' world)

These are just a few ideas of the type of topics that we are envisioning, but other ideas that fit in with the overall theme of the non-linguistic aspects of doing fieldwork (working with language communities) would be welcome. If you are interested (or know of anyone who would be - perhaps a grad student who is keen to discuss their experiences), I would need the title of the proposed talk, and a brief description (not a full abstract) about what you would present.

Deadline: 10:00 am on Monday, 6th April.

e-mail to Sheena Van Der Mark: S.VanDerMark AT latrobe.edu.au

From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
30th March 2009

The Endangered Languages Academic Programme at SOAS is experimenting this year with including hands-on in situ fieldwork as part of our MA in Language Documentation and Description.

A group of MA students is currently carrying out two weeks of fieldwork in Guernsey with Dr Julia Sallabank, Research Fellow in Language Support and Revitalisation, who has been doing research on Dgèrnésiais (the locally preferred spelling, more commonly spelled Guernésiais) for many years. The students are documenting contemporary language use and making digital audio and video recordings of narrative and conversations, putting into practice the knowledge and skills they have been acquiring in their MA coursework, especially the half-units Field Methods and Technology and Language Documentation. Dgèrnésiais is the nearest autochthonous endangered language to SOAS and is estimated by Jan Marquis, the Guernsey Language Support Officer, to have around 1,000 speakers (just 2% of the population), with the bulk of them aged over 60. The trip is timed to coincide with the annual Guernsey Eisteddfod which includes poetry and speaking competitions.


Thoughts from a student after surviving our Field Methods course.

The decision to take this unit of study came easily to me. Having had Field Methods recommended by fellow linguistic-loving students as one of the best linguistics classes EVER!!!! I was pretty much sold even before I knew the class was on offer. And as prior to this class the only world of linguistics I knew was a theoretical one with data being presented on a nice little platter for me to pick up and analyse with no thoughts or concerns as to how the data actually made its way to me in the first place, I thought it might make a nice change for me to personally go through the elicitation process. Plus, this way I didn't actually need to deal with the sand and dirt that generally goes hand in hand with field work, as I could get some experience in the field right here in our beloved intransient Transient Building.

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[From Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

I spent last week in Lyon working on plans for collaborative teaching and research with Colette Grinevald and her colleagues at Lyon-2 University and the CNRS DDL research laboratory. This will include a summer school on language documentation planned for June-July 2008 (we will announce more details soon), joint workshops and conferences, and development of a European Masters programme.

On Saturday (31st March) Michel Bert, who also teaches at Lyon-2 and is a researcher in the CNRS ICAR research laboratory, invited Colette and me to accompany him south from Lyon along the Rhône River to visit the field sites where he has been collecting data on the Franco-Provençal language over the past 10 years. Michel's PhD dissertation is a detailed study of this language based on data he collected from over 150 consultants.


Whether languages can be property has generated further discussion, on Language Log, and on several anthropology blogs (thanks Kimberly!). Two themes emerged: power, and the potential conflict with open access.


Sociolingo's Africa is a general blog which includes posts about languages (the writer's based in Mali but draws together material from across Africa). There are some interesting posts on linguistics, literacy - including mother tongue language education. So much seems so familiar. Thanks to this blog I've learned about Litcam, Google, and UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning Launch “The Literacy Project” and of practical handbooks which looks it might be useful in our region: Handbook for Literacy and Non-formal Education Facilitators in Africa, and its predecessor, designed for use in Asia, Handbook for Non-formal Education Facilitators.

Other blogs I've come across recently:
• Will Owen's blog Aboriginal art and culture: an American eye - has extensive and thoughtful reviews of art shows, books and films related to Australian Indigenous ethnography. (thanks David!)

• the blog of a graduate student, David Kaufman, who includes glossed texts of different Northern and Central American languages in the blog, as well as discussions of the language.

• The Lexique pro blog has been created for information sharing on Lexique Pro which has the potential to be a useful tool for dictionary-makers and publishers. (Thanks to a posting by David Ker of the Nyungwe Project - Mozambique on the Lexicography list)

Fulbright journey to Turtle Island ( USA) is the travel-blog of Samia Goudie, an Australian Bundjalung / Mununjali woman visiting the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to find out about "inter-generational trauma, healing and resilience in Indigenous communities". So far, mostly travel, but some stuff on work with Native Americans.

Here is a technological update to my previous posting on recording conversation.
I consider myself very privileged to be able to visit the Department of Linguistics at UCSB, where I have been lucky enough to audit a number of courses, including Jack Du Bois’ course on discourse transcription. Today we were introduced to a very nice piece of equipment, the Edirol R-09 ultra-portable flash ram recorder. This piece of equipment is about the same dimensions as an i-pod, although a bit fatter.

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Every dead ethnographer (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) had a tin trunk in which all the information on the people, the language, the culture, anything, yes anything you want to know, could be found. But, I'm sorry, aunty died last week, and we don't know WHERE that tin trunk is now. (Source of observation: Michael Walsh). The anthropologist Ursula McConnel who worked with Wik Mungkan people on Cape York Peninsula, died in 1957, and people have been looking for her trunk ever since.

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Registration for the Human Communication Sciences Network SummerFest06 (Nov 27th - Dec 1st) opens today. There looks to be an interesting line up of courses. I'm hoping I can head along to the courses on Bayesian Networks and Markov Models and Statistics for Linguistics amongst others.

I heard that Trevor Johnston's course on sign languages was excellent. I'll definitely be going along to that one.

And... OK so this is a shameless plug: I hope Introduction to Fieldwork Methods will be fun ;-)

This posting is topically aligned with two excellent postings (one by Tom on this blog and one by Claire at Anggarrgoon) about problems relating to video recording and the observer’s paradox. In my comments to Tom’s posting, I talked about some of the problems I’d had recording naturalistic conversation on video and that I’d had more success with straight audio. So I’ll now talk about the audio recording of conversation, which is where I have had more success.

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Jane's last post and a post on the ever excellent Language Log have got me thinking about permanence and accountability in the internet age. Its a theme that I encounter again and again, working for a digital archive.

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Vivid pink plum trees, white cherry trees, soft masses of yellow wattle, japonica hedges with pink flowers leaping out of new green leaves, white cockatoos browsing on the ground. That was Canberra during the Rematerialising colour conference at ANU's Centre for Cross-Cultural Research. How does the outsider linguist find out if speakers of another language have colour terms? This important question for field linguists and lexicographers was raised in two papers on the Australian language Warlpiri by David Nash and Anna Wierzbicka.


Many academic disciplines depend on analysis of primary data captured during fieldwork. Increasingly, researchers today are using digital methods for the whole life cycle of their primary data, from capture to organisation, submission to a repository or archive, and later access and dissemination in publications, teaching resources and conference presentations. This conference and workshop will showcase a number of projects that have been developing innovative and sustainable ways of managing such data.

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After a couple of very enjoyable Australianist mini-conferences at Crommelin Field Station, James McElvenny from Sydney University has decided to organise the same for Papuan Languages!. We're hoping to replicate the laid back style of the Blackwood by the Beach conferences, but specifically for Papuan languages. Read on for more details.


The latest Ogmios newsletter has just appeared as a pdf - lots of information about what's happening around the world, including excellent links to work on Indigenous languages around the world as well as reprints of interesting articles (local plug: they've reprinted Nicolas Rothwell's rave review of Allan Marett's book on Australian Aboriginal music) .

Back issues of the newsletters are at FEL's website. To get the current newsletter you need to be a subscriber - it's not very expensive - and they're doing a terrific job.

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About the Blog

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.


Papua New Guinea FAQs from Eva Lindstrom Papua New Guinea (New Ireland): Eva Lindstrom's tips for fieldworkers

Australian Languages Answers to some frequently asked questions about Australian languages

Papua Web Information network on Papua, Indonesia (formerly Irian Jaya)

Hibernating blogs

Indigenous Language SPEAK

Langguj gel Australian linguistics and fieldwork blog

Interesting Blogs

Omniglot Writing systems and languages of the world

LingFormant Linguistics news

Language hat Linguistics news and commentary

Jabal al-Lughat Linguistics news and commentary on a range of languages

Living languages Blog with news items and discussion of endangered languages

OzPapersOnline Notices of recent work on the Indigenous languages of Australia

That Munanga linguist Community linguist blog

Anggarrgoon Claire Bowern's linguistics and fieldwork blog

Savage Minds A group blog on Anthropology

Fully (sic)

Language on the Move Intercultural communication and multilingualism

Talking Alaska: Reflections on the native languages of Alaska

Culture matters: applying anthropology Australian anthropology blog: postgraduates and staff

Long Road ethnography and anthropology blog - including about Australia

matjjin-nehen Blog on Australian linguistics, fieldwork, politics and the environment.

Language Log Group blog on language and linguistics


E-MELD The E-MELD School of Best Practices in Digital Language Documentation

Tema Modersmål Website in Swedish with links to sites on and in many languages

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

Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources a worldwide network of organizations, academics, activists, indigenous groups, and others representing indigenous and tribal peoples

Technorati Profile

Technology-enhanced language revitalization Include ILAT (Indigenous Languages and Technology) discussion list.

Endangered languages of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

Koryak Net Information on the people of Kamchatka

Linguistic fieldwork preparation: a guide for field linguists syllabi, funding, technology, ethics, readings, bibliography

On-line resources for endangered languages

Papua New Guinea Language Resources Phonologies, grammars, dictionaries, literacy, language maps for many PNG languages

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

Ethno EResearch Exploring methods and technology for streaming media and interlinear text