Last weekend, a group of 16 Warlpiri women, including one three-month-old infant, travelled the 300 kilometres from Yuendumu to Alice Springs, to receive training in swimming skills and first aid, as they are about to become Yuendumu’s first life guards, ready for when the community’s new pool arrives in July.

However, the manager of the establishment that they had booked, the Haven Backpackers’ Resort, asked them to leave. The reason she gave, when challenged, was that since they were aboriginal, other guests had complained of being frightened by them.

Naturally, this is pretty disturbing and has been in the news for much of the last week. You can read more about it, and voice your opposition to the Haven Backpackers’ Resort at Hoyden About Town, where Tigtog has possibly found a way to encourage tourists not to stay there.

Last night, it emerged that turning away aborigines is in fact one of the resort’s policies, as a former employee has just revealed. I could have a lot more to say about this fact, but I think it speaks pretty much for itself. I find it odd though, that the company that owns this resort, among others, prides itself as a tour company that gives tourists a real insight into indigenous Australian culture. The following comes from the tourism company’s website, via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Don’t blame us if you finish your tour and start telling strangers about all the weird and wonderful facts you’ve learnt about rocks, plants, animals, aboriginal [sic]¹ culture, all the great people you’ve met and how wonderful it is to be alive!

Apparently their tours place an emphasis on “the unique scenery, wildlife and Aboriginal culture of each area”. I suppose with this recent controversy in mind, what they mean is ‘we’ll show you a nice little sanitised and whitefella-approved demonstration of indigenous culture, but apart from that there’ll be no contact with anything remotely indigenous’.

This, to me, really exemplifies the Aborigine-as-Museum-Piece point of view that is often mistakenly attributed to us documentary linguists and other anthropological scientists².

In other news, reports have emerged of truck drivers in north-west New South Wales that have been coaxing aboriginal women into sex with money and drugs. Some of the girls, according to the report, were as young as 8.

I think one thing that must be said about this, especially in the context of the reports of sexual abuse in aboriginal communities and the intervention that it provoked, is that sexual abuse is not an inherently aboriginal thing, nor is it an inherently aboriginal community thing. This is clear since not all sexual abuse happens in aboriginal communities between aboriginal people, nor do all aboriginal communities necessarily have problems of sexual abuse.

What it shows to me is that poverty, lack of prospects or ambitions and boredom are the key risk factors. It just so happens that aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, ergo, aboriginal people are also grossly overrepresented in statistics relating to such things as sexual abuse, neglect and the like.

¹I can’t really empathise with how the SMH have used the [sic] tag here. Their point is obviously that aboriginal should be capitalise, but I’m not convinced. On one hand you can view word like aboriginal and indigenous as operating along the same lines as nationalities, as in pork pies are a very English dish. On the other, they could be seen to operate as a plain old adjective would, like pork pies are a very poxy dish. I doubt you could reasonably capitalise poxy there.

Then again, in another paragraph cited by the Herald, the tour operator used Aboriginal with a capital. So I guess they had to [sic] either one or the other, but certainly not both, since naturally, there’s only ever one correct way.

My preferred, though certainly not absolute, method, is to capitalise the noun Aborigine, but not the adjective aboriginal³. Sometimes though, I think [sic] is used too widely to imply something about the writer’s literacy, as though they wouldn’t have done so had they known it were wrong. My above sentence about pork pies, for instance, might well be cited somewhere with a [sic], since I’ve used non-standard verb-subject agreement. It’s clear from my discussing it here though, that I’m aware of the stylistic ‘error’.

²Yes. I think of anthropologists and linguists as scientists.

³I was once thinking of publishing the official matjjin-nehen guide to style, but it seemed like a mammoth exercise in totally academic effluence⁴.

⁴I’m just remembering how much I enjoy writing across purposes in footnotes. Probably another exercise in totally academic effluence.

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.

Long term readers of this blog would probably know that I occasionally like to mess around with Google Earth and to try out new things to do with languages and so forth. It began with an exercise in mapping some known and established place names in the Sydney Metropolitan Area, mostly concentrated in and around the Harbour, and then it moved on to a small project of mine to map the region of the Northern Territory with which Wagiman is traditionally associated¹.

Another project I began, and finished, a while ago, was to take the divided segments of the AIATSIS map of Australia’s Indigenous languages, and overlay them as images onto Google’s Earth. When I say ‘finished’, what I mean is, I’d posted it to the Google Earth community as a downloadable file, but I didn’t know that I’d screwed it up and made the images too transparent to see the language boundaries clearly.

Just the other day though, Jungurra expressed some interest in using it for the Australian Languages course that he’ll be teaching from next week, which prompted me to go and fix it up and make all the images fully opaque. So now, the whole thing can be made transparent so that the images don’t necessarily block the satellite images beneath. The new file can be found here.

Preparing this made me realise just how much of a problem the curvature of the Earth actually is. The further south you get, the more the images have to be contorted into place, and therefore the larger the discrepancy in location at some points. Some of the maps are displaced by anything up to about a hundred kilometres.

I don’t know how receptive AIATSIS are to this sort of new-fangled technology, but I think it’s something that they, even in collaboration with Google, could should think about, and eventually produce a Google Maps or Google Earth package of files that show languages and language boundaries. I envisage a situation where the language names and boundaries are treated as place names and borders like any others, and not as images that become blurred the further in you zoom.

At the end of the day, this is a bit of fun, but perhaps there are practical applications to such widespread popular things like Google Earth such that linguists, and others, can put them to (more) good educational use.


Here’s a screenshot, which I wasn’t able to do earlier. This is with the opacity of the AIATSIS map overlayed images turned quite far down, otherwise, you’d just be looking at the overlay, and it wouldn’t be very interesting. You can also see here how imperfect the fitting together of the original segments is, as there’s quite a lot of overlap, and boundaries that don’t quite match. But you know, I did the best I could. Click on the image for the larger size.


You can even see Wagiman in the middle there.

¹As opposed to ‘where Wagiman is spoken’, for clear sociolinguistic reasons.

This is a piece that Phil Cash Cash wrote for the Indigenous Languages and Technology list (ILAT). With his permission I am posting it here in full.

As we enter 2008, we are reminded to reflect on the unique status of human languages in the world. Never before has our humanity witnessed such a dramatic decline in our linguistic and cultural diversity.

“The loss of local languages and of the cultural systems which they express, has meant irretrievable loss of diverse and interesting intellectual wealth. Only with diversity can it be guaranteed that all avenues of human intellectual progress will be traveled.”

Ken Hale, 1992. (source)

At the same time, we are also witness to the resurgence of indigenous/aboriginal activism with its emphasis on language revival, language maintenance, and the creation of new speakers. Around the world, linguists, linguistic anthropologists, and film makers are steadily embarking on documentation projects to record what may possibly be the last words of a uniquely spoken language.

In 1996, it was estimated that at least 6,703 separate languages were spoken in the world¹. Elsewhere, it was also estimated that in every two weeks time, a language was known to lose its last speaker and thus become extinct². Let’s do a little math here. Every year 26 languages will go extinct. Every decade 260 languages will go extinct. So, in 2008, at least 312 languages have gone extinct since the 1996 census. This estimate leaves us with at least 6,391 viable languages yet existing in the world. Understandably though, these numbers are only estimates and the realities of language loss are relatively unknown.

The looming threat of losing one’s language, however, is very real and for many indigenous/aboriginal communities the future is uncertain.

Undeniably, most all of us – indigenous/aboriginal communities, linguists, anthropologists, students, & interested observers – recognize that our language(s) and culture matter. Further, UNESCO recognizes that our cultural diversity is closely linked to linguistic diversity.

So “How can one help?” you ask. Become an everyday language activist!

  1. Get the message out concerning language endangerment. Create awareness.
  2. Become an expert on the suppression of linguistic and cultural diversity.
  3. Create your own web site, blog, and/or listserv supporting an endangered language.
  4. Get media coverage and tell a dramatic human story on language endangerment & revitalization.
  5. Raise money and contribute to foundations supporting language endangerment (ELF, FEL, ILI, etc)!
  6. Raise money and contribute directly to community-based language documentation/revitalization projects.
  7. Donate material resources or in-kind contributions directly to endangered language communities.
  8. Devote part or all of your scholarly/graduate career on documenting an endangered language.
  9. Support community advocacy and grass-roots efforts on language endangerment issues.
  10. Organize a sponsored event supporting community advocacy or language endangerment issues.

Take this moment in time to reflect upon the unlimited possibilities for change in the way we think about language endangerment and linguistic/cultural diversity. Can you make a difference? Yes, absolutely!

¹Linguistics Society of America website

²Living Tongues website


Happy New Year, and may your 2008 be better than your 2007.