I’ve been a bit neglectful of this blog lately, and yes, I know I say that at the beginning of just about every post these days, but unfortunately it’s even more true now than ever.

The main reason I’m so busy is that I’ve been helping out in massaging and sanitising data for an electronic dictionary of Kaurna, the language traditionally associated with Tandanya and much of the surrounding region1. The language officially became ‘extinct’ almost a hundred years ago, but on the basis of two dictionaries written in the mid 19th century, linguistic revival efforts are having some huge success. Places in and around Tandanya have taken on alternative Kaurna names, you can learn Kaurna through all levels of education and you can even study Kaurna linguistics at a tertiary level. Not bad for a ‘dead’ language.

The dictionary I’m working on is just the latest instance of this revival effort. We’ve taken those two dictionaries from the mid 19th century and, after they’d been meticulously and painstakingly transcribed into text files and converted into toolbox-readable backslash-coded files, massaged out the inconsistencies. Our job has been to convert these into XML files, combine the two dictionaries into a single dictionary file and import it into Kirrkirr, an interactive dictionary application.

The final product won’t just be a cool, usable electronic dictionary, it’ll also be a faithful representation of the original two works, as everything will have been preserved and will be immediately viewable just by switching from one version to another. Even Teichelmann’s original spelling mistakes have been preserved. The user will be able to toggle between the original and a modern version with spelling errors corrected.

We also have a couple of other applications of this dictionary that we think will be useful for similar dictionary projects for endangered languages, especially in remote communities. But since I don’t want to spoil the fun of the announcement, I’m not going to say anymore.

Anyway, without getting too distracted, I wanted to share this little bit from the inside cover of the manuscript of the dictionary, written in 1857.


The tribe who used to speak this language has, accord-
ing to Mr. Teichelmann,* now ceased to be.

*Mr Teichelmann writes thus:–

“Salem on the Bremer, Callington, January 18th, 1858.

“Sir,–According to your wish, I have copied and translated into English, my collection of words and grammatical remarks on the language of the Aborigines who once inhabited the district around Adelaide; for they have disappeared to a very few.
Also, I do not entirely approve of the orthography of the native language, as we have spelled it, but it is useless now to alter any thing in it after the tribe has ceased to be.”

In retrospect, we’re seriously lucky that Teichelmann didn’t pack it in as soon as he realised that the tribe will have soon ‘ceased to be’ or we wouldn’t have such a detailed historical dictionary of the language upon which to base revival efforts. A lesson perhaps for all those people who question the motives of linguists who work in highly endangered languages.

I also found it interesting that in this passage, the person who wrote the tagline the tribe who used to speak this language has ceased to be, has evidently misunderstood Teichelmann’s intended meaning. He clearly meant when the remaining few people who speak this language (and thereby the language too) cease to be, (then there will be little need for a more useful orthography).

If you’re going to the Australian Languages Workshop, which this year is being held at Kioloa, an outpost of ANU, then you’ll be able to witness a full demonstration of this multi-tiered, quasi-archival dictionary by one of my colleagues.

So that’s an example of what’s been keeping me from regular blogging. There are plenty of other examples, of course, but they involve dropping whatever semblance of anonymity I delude myself into thinking I can hold on to.

  1. The Kaurna Dictionary project is made possible through the support of Kaurna Warra Pintyandi, a community based Kaurna language organisation.