Indigenous


This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.


  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so.
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Last night on SBS was the season final of Top Gear, one of my favourite shows. Ordinarily Top Gear and linguistics don’t mix particularly well, but last night’s installment had no less than two linguistically interesting bits, both in the same segment.

The segment in question was the review of a couple of cars, both Vauxhalls1. Both these Vauxhalls are Australian designs, I suppose, and have been given very Australian names. The first is named ‘Bathurst’, which is a central NSW town where one the only famous race in the V8 Supercar calendar, the Bathurst 1000, takes place. Here’s how Top Gear’s Richard Hammond describes Bathurst:

Basically it’s a place where Holden and Ford fans go to have a massive fist fight, and then in the interval, when the paramedics go in, sometimes a car race breaks out.

The bit related to linguistics (very loosely, and not very interestingly) is that Hammond pronounces it [‘ba:θɜst] as opposed to the [‘bæθəst] with which I’m more familiar.

The second point is related to the other car reviewed; the HSV Maloo R8, which is a ute, but the details are irrelevant. The point is, the word Maloo is, according to Richard Hammond, “Aborigine for lightning”. Ordinarily, I’d go on about there not being a language such as ‘Aborigine’, but I can overlook that these days. Anyway, I went to check my copy of Macquarie Aboriginal Words for various Australian languages’ translations of lightning, and indeed Wiradjuri comes up in the index with “Maarruu”, which I take to be pronounced [ma:ru], pretty close to the Vauxhall [ma:lu].

Does anyone know of a language close to Wiradjuri in which the trill is reflected as a lateral?


  1. That’s what the British call Holdens.

Cross-posted at pfed.info.

Last week, I undertook a brief fieldtrip to Pine Creek and Kybrook Farm, Northern Territory, to present the completed Wagiman Electronic Dictionary to the Wagiman community.

It has been a long time coming as several of us have been working on this dictionary in our spare time for the last six months, and so it felt especially good to be able to see a finished product, and better yet, to give it back to the community. In that six months, we successfully integrated recent research into Wagiman plants and animal species by Glenn Wightman, as well as very recent work done by the CSIRO on fish species in the Daly River. The electronic dictionary now contains all that up-to-date information. We also managed to produce sound files for the majority of lexical entries in the dictionary. There are around 1250 sound files in the dictionary altogether, totalling some 15 minutes of high-quality audio.

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

The Wagiman community are very pleased with the dictionary, and all enjoyed listening to the marluga¹ who recorded each of the sounds. The Wagiman people were also excited to see the mobile phone version of the dictionary. It’s not quite as complete as the computer based dictionary; it contains far fewer sound files (around 300), and doesn’t contain the sometimes lengthy dictionary comments that accompany many lexical entries. This is an unfortunate constraint of the size of a standard mobile phone screen — too much information can be hard to navigate through.

I also met with representatives of the Northern Territory Department of Education, who were interested in supporting the dictionary and possible collaboration into the future. The Wagiman have given the tick, and the Department are going to go ahead and install the dictionary on all the computers in the schools in Katherine as a first step. We’re hoping that we’ll also be able to get the Northern Territory Library on our side and install the dictionaries on library computers. That way, most computers accessed by children and young adults in the area will have the Wagiman dictionary installed.

In addition to the computer- and mobile phone-based dictionaries, we have also been looking to produce a printed version. Hopefully the Wagiman community will be able to take advantage of the increased interest in Indigenous languages recently, and sell copies of the dictionary to tourists through various shops in Katherine, Pine Creek and Darwin.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this particular project is the demonstration that accessible electronic dictionaries for Indigenous languages can be produced for relatively little extra effort, provided that the language in question has been adequately described. Although for many languages, this remains a significant obstacle.

The Wagiman people have given us permission to allow the public to download a demonstration version of the Kirrkirr dictionary, which we will try to have ready soon. A full version will be available upon request to the Wagiman community.


¹Marluga, (nom.) Old man.

In the last few weeks, the topic of bilingual education in Australia has been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream media. Last week, I happened upon an article in the Herald, echoing earlier reports in voicing the widespread opposition from educators and academics towards the Northern Territory government’s policy of English-only education for the first four hours (leaving only a single hour of tuition) each day. The article quotes Patrick McConvell, co-author of the AIATSIS discussion paper1 that effectively brought the debate to the forefront of Australian politics.

The coverage of this issue continues tonight at 8:30 (EST) on ABC1, as Four Corners looks at the history of bilingual education in remote Australia, which they also covered way back in 1986, and dissects the policy decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008, before she quit her portfolio as Minister for Education. Our very own expert in this field, Dr Jane Simpson, was interviewed for the program several weeks ago, so I suggest watching it.


In other news altogether, I have finally had my honours thesis published online in The University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository. It was just under three years since it was marked in October 2006, but better late than never! You can access the pdf version here2.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery (2009) Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory Canberra: AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24.
  2. Wilson, A. (2006) Negative Evidence in Linguistics: The case of Wagiman Complex Predicates. Honours Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney.

Nothing is official as yet, but I’m fairly confident that I can informally announce to the world that I will be commencing a Ph.D. next year.

My topic will be Classical Tiwi, an Australian language that seems to have escaped the radar for serious documentary research of late. This is especially odd, given that Tiwi1 is one of the country’s most populous languages with somewhere around 2000 native speakers2. Of course this is not quite the case when it comes to Classical Tiwi, which may have only around 250 speakers, many of them elderly.

I’ve been interested in Tiwi for quite some time, as a relative of mine married a Tiwi Islander, right when I started becoming interested in Australian languages. I even remember looking at the list of the authoritative publications for Australian languages, and noting that Tiwi was researched as far back as 1976. I somewhat facetiously told myself that I was going to do my Ph.D. on Tiwi and give Osborne’s 19763 description a surely-needed update.

Then, earlier this year, I was approached by a colleague who suggested for a bunch of reasons that I do Tiwi for a Ph.D., not knowing that I had Tiwi family connections and a previous interest. Quite serendipitous.

I’ll be enrolled at the University of Melbourne, so if all goes well throughout the application process, I should be looking to move to Melbourne sometime in early 2010.


  1. Officially there isn’t a difference between Modern Tiwi and Classical Tiwi, meaning that ‘Tiwi’ is considered one language still.
  2. The census numbers vary considerably. In 2006, 1724 people said they used Tiwi at home, while in 2001, the number was 2050, and I suppose people tend to overreport more than they underreport.
  3. Osborne, C. R. (1974). The Tiwi language : grammar, myths and dictionary of the Tiwi language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands, northern Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

As Jane announced last week at Elac, a Research Symposium on Bilingual Education was held on Friday at AIATSIS, at which their 24th discussion paper was launched by Mick Dodson.

Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t even enter the consciousness of the population, and would soon slip into the æther. This symposium, however, and the discussion paper, made it onto ABC’s online news, twice.

The paper is Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory1 and is co-written by Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell (and edited, partly, by me).

It addresses the issue of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, describing its history, beginning more than 25 years ago, up until late 2008, when the decision was made to force all Northern Territory schools to teach at least the first four hours of English per day out of five hours of lessons, leaving a single possible hour per day for tuition in a language other than English. This decision, made by prominent Tiwi woman, Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour shortly before being moved from the Education portfolio to the role of Attorney-General, will take effect in time for the commencement of the 2010 school year.

The theory, of course, is that children learn a language most effectively through what’s known as immersion; a child surrounded by language X will pretty quickly become proficient in language X. But placing 30 kids who speak Kriol or Warlpiri as their first language(s) in a classroom with a single teacher who speaks only Standard Australian English and has no training in ESL/EFL can scarcely be considered ‘immersing’ the poor children in a sea of English.

I can personally attest to this paper being a very insightful discussion of the topic and, perhaps along with dozens of other interested people, have sent it on to Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Education, Malarndirri McCarthy, and the Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, asking them to take the hour or so to read it.

If the 2010 school year begins and the 9 remaining bilingual schools in the Northern Territory are forced to teach what is effectively English-only, I believe the consequences will be detrimental not only to the few remaining healthy indigenous languages, but also to the children who will be thrown into the deep-end of an education system that is entirely foreign to them.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24)

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at pfed.info]


  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC.
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in.

Well, my time in the Territory has come to an end, almost. I’m sitting in Darwin airport waiting for my flight. Not a lot to do in Darwin, so I pretty much came straight here after getting dinner in town. Luckily, I stumbled upon an ethernet port that was obviously for one of those airport internet kiosks – the ones that charge 2 bucks per 8 minutes – that the airport has evidently neglected to disable, meaning I have free broadband internet for the first time in a month!

I’ve got plenty of time to make use of it too; my flight isn’t for another 4 hours1. I intended to studiously listen to my recordings and split them into individual sound files, one per word, for eventual insertion into the Wagiman Electronic Dictionary, but catching up on old email correspondences, reading old xckd comics and Language Log posts and downloading the latest Herald cryptic crossword file have sadly taken priority.

My work up here slowed down a little lately, owing to a bunch of meetings in the community this week, and the fact that my informant and I have been getting a little tired of covering tthe same territory. I actually got caught short this week and didn’t get to finish off the checking of the dictionary content, but I’ll be able to do some final checks the next time I’m up here, probably in the middle of the year2.

As far as the dictionary goes, it’s progressing nicely. I’ve been able to make some additions, and get rid of some words that were always dubious. The more recent ethnobiology research from Glenn Wightmann will need to be integrated at some stage, but I can do that from Sydney. The software for mobile phone dictionaries is also going steadily, and you can read all, or mostly, about that at pfed.info, the website we’ve created for this project. Demo dictionaries can be downloaded or tested online at pfed.info/wksite, although it’s all still in its infancy.

The reaction to the mobile phone dictionary that I’ve been showing off up here has pretty much been universally positive. Everyone I’ve shown it to has been interested in it, even the adults in the community, although the teenagers took a particular liking to it. Not only does this stand to reason, but it bodes well for what we’re actually trying to achieve with this project; increased access to a dictionary of one’s language in a format that’s easy to use. I haven’t wasted any time in showing it to the linguists up here and they too have shown interest, so much in fact that we’ve gone on to wunderkam3 dictionaries of a further two languages: Dalabon and Bilinarra.

We have a couple of other ideas up our collective sleeve that would potentially aid in the wider use of electronic dictionaries of minority languages, but I don’t want to give anything away just yet4.


  1. Actually it’s only 3 by now, such is the time it takes me to write a post these days.
  2. So that I can escape the bitterst of Sydney’s winter, as well as having inadvertently escaped the worst of summer this time around.
  3. This is a backformation from Wunderkammer, the name that James came up with to cover the mobile phone dictionary software. So, what else does a Wunderkammer do if it doesn’t wunderkam? My intended meaning for this word is ‘to convert a dictionary into a mobile phone-ready format’. I felt I needed a new word, since a default ‘do’ would imply that we had a hand in producing the content, which would clearly detract from the hard work of the researchers, language workers and speakers.
  4. More accurately, I don’t want to promise anything that real-world constraints, such as computational impossibility or pecuniary limitations, would prevent me from being able to deliver, but ‘not spoiling the show’ sounds much better.

I reckon I chose about the best time to come to the Northern Territory, given that this weekend in Sydney is meant to be swelteringly hot, 44 degrees odd, while up here it peaks at about 30 degrees before bucketing down with rain in the afternoon.

The work is also going relatively well, given the constraints of working in the rain, and with informants who are increasingly old and decreasingly mobile. I’ve been working with one speaker on clearing up a number of words that have been left out of the dictionary so far due to a lack of data, and we managed to get about half of them back in.

Everyone who has seen the mobile phone dictionary now has been interested in it, most of all the younger adults who predictably use their phones more than anyone. There has also been some interest in the mobile phone and Kirrkirr dictionaries from the Northern Territory Education Department, a representative of whom saw a demonstration of the software yesterday. This would mean, provided we can get permission from the various people involved, that we’ll be producing a Kirrkirr instance and mobile phone dictionary for Dalabon, a Gunwinyguan language from southern Arnhem Land.

The other main task I have over the next few weeks is to sit down with my speakers, when they can, and systematically go through the list of headwords in the dictionary, and procude clear, audible recordings of each for insertion into the dictionaries.

I can now confirm that I’ll be back in the territory in a little over a week’s time. It’s my first time back there in over 18 months, and it’ll be my first experience of a Northern Territory wet season, so I can’t wait.

The reason I’m going is to do some work for the electronic dictionary of Wagiman that James and I are producing, including a mobile phone version, using generously donated funds from the Hoffman Foundation. I’ll just be going over the revisions that need to be made to the current dictionary, record sounds and possibly take photos for inclusion into the dictionary, and discuss with the community how they’d like it to work.

For one thing, there are plenty of words that I know the older speakers don’t particularly want the younger kids to know about, so I’m guessing they’ll want such words ‘hidden’ from the kids’ version of the dictionary. However as James pointed out to me, the first words younger kids look up in dictionaries are swear words and taboo body parts, and having them there for them to gawk over provides a means with which the kids can relate to the dictionary matter.

Also, we’ve decided that it’s about time to set up a website and blog for the project, except we haven’t yet got around to installing the wordpress software. The site will contain information relating to the project, new releases of software, instructions on how to convert toolbox databases into other formats, and extensive documentation of the whole process.

<update>
The PFED website and blog is now up and running!
</update>

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