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.

This was what what Sydney looked like yesterday morning.

A combination of severe drought in South Australia and strong westerly winds brought fine, iron-rich dust right to the coast. The air quality was 17 times worse (whatever that means) than usual, and several hundred people called for ambulances for respiratory problems. There’s also concern that if the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia is allowed to go open-cut, tailings containing carcinogenic alpha radiation may be deposited by similarly strong winds over the country’s most heavily populated corner.

Still, it made for a pretty amazing morning.

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)

I just can’t resist pointing out the irony of China accusing Australia of not protecting Chinese students, especially on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

I’ve had a busy and eventful week, and right now appears to be about the only spare time I’ve had.

I attended the Australian Languages Workshop last weekend at Kioloa on the NSW south coast, an outpost of ANU. I didn’t present anything, but I managed to discuss the mobile phone dictionary with a number of interested people and got a fair amount of positive feedback.

I then spent the week writing a chapter for a forthcoming volume on language revitalisation. It’s been sent off to the editors now, after a very tightly packed Friday of drafting and proofreading and editing1. The chapter doesn’t go into many details with respect to specific dictionary projects, but instead discusses the future possibilities of integrated teaching resources for endangered languages, that is, using electronic dictionaries in the classroom, which will usually be equipped with a computer or two,  and installing mobile phone dictionaries on the students’ phones so they can access a smaller version of the dictionary whenever they like. Here’s the abstract:

Owing to the disproportionately high level of illiteracy in remote indigenous communities, especially in indigenous languages, printed books are perhaps not the most appropriate form of delivery of language learning materials such as dictionaries. Electronic versions based on computers may be more useful. However, the availability of computers, and consequently computer literacy, in remote Australian communities is still very low. By contrast, mobile phones are almost ubiquitous. Unfortunately, mobile phones generally only allow small applications, meaning that most content expected in a reasonable language learner’s dictionary must be jettisoned. We propose, and document, a method of dictionary delivery that takes advantage of the flexibility and usability of computer-based dictionaries, as well as the portability of mobile phones. This process entails maintaining a single dictionary file that can be exported to dictionary visualisation programs, to applications that can be installed on a mobile phone, as well as a number of other formats in various media. Computer based resources may contain as much information as is necessary, in a format that can be navigated easily, while a mobile phone based version will contain only a reduced version of the original content, although it will be available to the user without the need of a computer.

It was also an exciting week on the teaching front; I gave my first lecture on Wednesday, it was on phonemics for an introductory linguistics course, so I got to do all those problems like Fijian prenasalised stops, Tojolabal aspirants and Spanish lenition. By all reports, I did fairly well.


  1. Thanks, by the way, to Mic, my brilliant editor.

A situation came up during the week in which I used a word that I know from high school, and it appears that no one else is even aware of this word’s existence, let alone its meaning.

The word is snusted as you might guess from the title of this post, and it means ‘caught in the act’, ‘sprung’ or ‘busted’. I’d be interested to know if anyone else knows this word or if it was particular to my high school.

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