I heard on Lateline last night that the US military is asking Congress to approve a further US$190 billion to fund its “projects” in Iraq and Afghanistan, much to the dismay of Congress:

ROBERT BYRD, DEMOCRAT SENATOR: If the Congress were to approve the President’s revised budget request, the total funding for the war in Iraq will exceed $600 billion, 600 billion, billion, billion dollars!

Meanwhile, something I had heard years ago was confirmed in a talk by Michael Walsh on Wednesday. At 100,000 pounds per year, for three years per language, it would cost some 900 million pounds (or AU$2.137 billion) to do some pretty solid documentation work on the 3000 languages predicted to lose all their speakers¹ by the end of the century. In Michael’s words, that’s equivalent to a couple of days’ oil revenue, in an average year. “Where else would you get such value for money?”²

I’m just sayin’, is all.


¹We don’t like using the term ‘die’.

²Based on: Crystal, D. (2004). The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tandanya is the Kaurna name for Adelaide. 

I was finally able to get on the internet today after a few days of suffering email and blog-stat withdrawal symptoms. Except it’s not the high-speed wireless broadband that I envisaged. Rather it’s a university access lab that reminds me of what it was like to be a student again – without the concession transport rates.

This morning was the official start of the ALS conference after yesterday’s start of the ILC conference, and so far it’s been full of brilliant and interesting talks from various people working on various indigenous languages, more often than not, their own languages. Two of the more memorable talks so far have been Phil Cash Cash’s discussion of the documentation of placenames in his people’s country, the Southern Columbia Plateau, and Te Haumihiata Mason’s presentation of the arduous work involved in producing the first adult monolingual dictionary of Maori¹. These presentations, among others, should soon be available from the ALS/ILC website.

It’s shaping up to be a very topical and political gathering as well, since many people here are directly affected by the government’s intervention plan. Not only linguists and language workers whose projects are going to suffer as a result of radically less funding opportunities, but also delegates from communities from all over the country, who have embraced this gathering, held on Kaurna country, by the way, and have demonstrated support for people working on indigenous languages not only in Australia, but other parts of the world too.

It’s also been a little bit of a blogging fest, with I think most of Australia’s linguist bloggers all in the one location. We have Jane Simpson, Claire, Wamut, Bulanjdjan, Hooch and Sophie and I believe a couple of us were even meeting for the first time offline.

Annoyingly, I haven’t been able to access my newer email account, the one at the recently acquired matjjin-nehen.com, because the host (hoster?) doesn’t have a web-based email access system set up yet. So apologies if I’m missing anything.

That’s all for now since I’m only able to get to a computer by sacrificing my morning tea break, which means foregoing coffee. So consider yourself lucky!


¹This computer won’t let me run the character map, and I can’t find the bar-A using alt combinations.

I’m off to Adelaide on Monday morning for the joint ALS and ILC conferences, which should be very interesting, especially given all the news that indigenous languages have been receiving of late (an insightful discussion of which can be found at Anggarrgoon, twice)¹. Something else that will be discussed in Adelaide is the idea of language ownership. In fact the general question Who controls your language? appears on the official ILC program.

I also have a new (it’s new to me anyway) laptop. It is smaller, newer, faster and lighter than my old one, which just barely survived my recent field trip, only to give up a couple of days after I returned. In an attempted salvage operation, I reformatted the hard drive and installed Ubuntu, a user-friendly Linux build, as part of my quest to go completely open source. Unfortunately some of the problems with the laptop were evidently hardware-related, in addition to the multitude of problems that were simply a direct result of the stupidity of Windows. Consequently, I might have to put my Ubuntu experiment on the backburner for a while.

The point is, I now have a computer that, lo and behold, works on the internet and actually has a wireless card that functions! So, pending access to wireless within Adelaide University, I might get a chance to do some live blogging that was so fashionable during the conference of the LSA back in January.

I’ve also invested in a flash little business card to aid my networking attempts and make myself known as a potential candidate to those people who take on PhD students. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Apart from all that, there should be plenty of time to enjoy being away from Sydney again, even if it’s only for five days.


¹There was also a report on ABC Radio’s AM program this morning that publicised efforts in Wadeye to document Magati Ke, one of the languages that the Enduring Voices project has focused on for its ubiquitous media releases. However, this report didn’t merely repeat what National Geographic had released to the press; they appear to have actually spoken to Magati Ke speakers and linguists working with the community. In fact, the only reference to all the ‘Language Hot-Spot’ business merely spoke of “A recent international study”. The transcript of the story is here, and the same page contains links to the audio.

As an aside, the title Enduring Voices reminds me of one of those ambiguous verb/noun phrases that they use in psycholinguistic experiments, like landing planes. You know the ones? They ask you to complete the sentence landing planes…,  then they ask you to do the same, after you’ve been primed with something like when walking near the airport… or when in training to become a pilot…

Complete the sentence: When the in-laws are in town, enduring voices…

The United Nations is due to vote on the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples tomorrow, as I’ve just learned from an article sent out on ILAT.

“Basically, it’s a very wide-ranging declaration that recognizes rights that they already have, such as the right to cultural integrity, the right to education in their own language, the right not to be dispossessed of their ancestral land and so on,” [Kali Mercier of Survival International] says.


“There has been a lot of support for it from some countries. Other countries have not been quite so keen and they’re some of the countries in which we would have hoped to have a much better example set. For example, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with indigenous peoples, have been very opposed to some of the wide-reaching rights recognized by the declaration.”

“Have not been quite so keen” is putting it very mildly. The Declaration has been about 24 years in the making, but suffered a setback earlier this year, when, possibly under pressure from John Howard, the recently elected Canadian government withdrew their support.

If adopted the declaration would encourage states to do things such as:

  • Not dispossess indigenous people of their land,

  • Undertake efforts to prevent loss of indigenous languages, and

  • Make bilingual education possible,

Australia, the United States and Canada between them have many hundreds of different indigenous ethnic groups spanning many hundreds of distinct languages, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that these countries would do what they can to thwart the adoption of this declaration. Protecting hundreds of indigenous languages, some spoken by, or affiliated with as few as a hundred people, is a very costly affair. And any good economic rationalist government would weigh up cost with benefit and conclude that doing so isn’t worth it, especially when we can do things like buy helicopters, give election-motivated tax cuts, or throw massive soirées at Kirribilli House instead.

Understandably, economic rationalism is an ideology I don’t altogether buy.


No more than an hour after hitting the ‘publish’ button for this post, I opened the Herald to see that this story had been taken up there. While the conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town after the APEC summit monstrosity, the minor parties are lobbying hard to have the government support the declaration, which will probably pass tomorrow irrespective of Australia’s position.

On Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved an urgent motion in the Senate urging the Government to change its position while the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra. Labor, the Greens and Family First supported the motion, which was defeated by 35 votes to 33.

It also brought to light an interesting snippet of information which is especially pertinent with all the current hoo-haa:

The Government, which has lobbied since 1998 to have the phrase “self-determination” – saying it could lead to calls for a separate indigenous state – removed from the draft declaration, is standing firm.

Now of course, they are all for self-determination. Well, “self-determination” inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on the federal government’s self-imposed sovereignty over mineral-rich land that they would very much like to dig up and sell to China. They’re ecstatic with “self-determination” when it refers to their getting away with not funding vital services in remote communities.

The hypocrisy is nauseating.



Despite Australia thinking its opinion is worth anything on the world stage, the Declaration passed overnight by a whopping 143 to 4 with only eleven abstentions. I find it encouraging that so many nations supported the declaration, but deeply embarrassing that we, along with the US, Canada and New Zealand (I still can’t believe that, Helen Clarke was otherwise highly likeable), chose to oppose it.

Robert Hill, Australia’s ambassador to the UN and former Howard government Cabinet Minister (independent diplomatic appointments is a thing of the past, apparently) again made it clear that the Australian government’s opposition was motivated by the term self-determination, which, I might point out again, is the very term they use for the ultimate goal of the current NT intervention.

It’s interesting that the ABC news website now allows comments on many stories, this being one of them, because we can see a glimpse of the ideology that drives Australia’s opposition to this declaration.

Good on the government for voting against this crap.
It’s time these people stopped living in their stone-age past and realise they were conquered, the white man came and took over.
Nobody is excluding them from being a part of our society, the only thing that is excluding them is the chip on their shoulder.

(from “Realist“)


A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:

Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.

I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.

The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.

Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.

I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.

Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.

It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).

That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.

At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.

Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.

Apparently pre-colonial New South Wales had 200 languages, that is, according to NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Paul Lynch. It seems a few too many to me, given that best estimates (from linguists and anthropologists, not politicians) count somewhere between about 250 and 400¹ languages for the entire country, mostly concentrated in the north.

I’m all for greater recognition of the diversity and complexity of Australian languages, but let’s not have so much hyperbole.


¹The variation in figures depends on where you draw the line between language and dialect, and even then there are problems; dialect chains, lack of data and so on.

I learned of another aspect of Australian indigenous culture today, something that I’m sure many of you Australianist linguists (and indeed anyone that works in communities) have no doubt known about for many years, but it’s something I’ve fortunately never experienced before. I’m referring to a Sorry Day.

I don’t mean the sort of Sorry Day that is observed each year on the anniversary of the handing down of the Bringing Them Home report into the stolen generation, I mean the sort of Sorry Day that happens when a relative dies and a community goes into mourning. Although, and I never thought of this, the latter is probably the source of the name of the former.

All my speakers were keen to do a lot of work yesterday, after a Tuesday in which everyone was tired. But then we heard that a relative of most, and by extension, of all, of the community, who lived in Darwin, had passed away early in the morning. I guessed from one of my speaker’s demeanour that that meant no work for the day. Well, that and the fact that he said ‘Nomo work for us today, im sorry day’.

So I took it easy and tried to catch up on the news and do a little work on the side, repsecting the imperative to not work on a day of mourning.

Today though, I went to see my best speaker, and found him very glum. “Wornka-wornka gi-yu?” (You sad?) I asked, thinking he was still sad about the relative who died yesterday. He informed me that a close relative, a brother in fact, died this morning. Very sad indeed to have had two Sorry days in a row.

I don’t mind of course, despite how much time it might cost me. The death of a relative is just too important to be trumped by my needs.

Yiligawu – ‘I’m alright now, I’m ready’ (but it isn’t exactly true).

I leave for the Northern territory on Monday morning, to start my third fieldtrip, the longest one yet, at a lazy 8 weeks. Unfortunately, work has been considerably busy over the last week, tying up all the loose ends, making sure I’ve finished any jobs I was working on, et cetera. After all that, there hasn’t been too much time left over to actually prepare for my fieldwork.

Plus, the price of gold makes things considerably more difficult. What has it got to do with the price of fish gold, I hear you ask? Accommodation, that’s what. Pine Creek is a gold mining town from way back, 1850 or so. In it’s heyday, the town was bursting at the seams with gold-diggers and the population was in the thousands. Then, the gold ran out, or more accurately, the nuggets ran out; there’s plenty of gold left in the soil, but it’s expensive to process. The town all but collapsed to a small blip on the map, nestled somewhere behind the intersection of the Stuart and Jabiru highways.

Only since the price of gold has shot through the roof in recent years has it actually been worthwhile to process the ‘tailings’ – as the dirt is referred to – to extract whatever minuscule trace elements of gold there are. Plus, the resources boom generally means it’s now worthwhile to go deeper into old mines and extract other minerals, like iron ore and copper.

The result? A small town that can really only cope with 500 people at the most (that is, there are only three pubs), is full of miners employed by any one of three global mining corporations, who, among themselves, own all the mines in the area.

Ergo, I can’t find accommodation. That’s what it’s got to do with the price of gold!

Thankfully there are various people in town who know me quite well now and they’re all nice people, so I’m sure I’ll find somewhere to sleep. It’s just going to have to be a matter of getting into town and seeing what I can muster up.

Besides trying to get my accommodation organised, I have to pack, make sure my computer is all ready to go (truth be known, I’m sick to death of the thing; it’s an oversized, heavy, loud thing, which I’ll probably reformat and convertto a linux machine when this fieldtrip is over) and gather together my recording equipment and essential accessories.

I should also be preparing my actual research, but there’s been precious little time left to do so, and I may have to do it in situ. Plus, there’s another speaker in town whom I haven’t previously met, which will be interesting and exciting.

As for the blog, well, I won’t be posting very regularly as the internet speed out there is remarkably slow. But I can get on broadband from an internet café in Katherine, which I’ll probably do every two weeks or so, every time I go to see the footy. Right Wamut?

Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log has weighed in on the debate over the role of English in Aboriginal communitues in Australia, and the return to the days of the White Australia policy and assimilation, perpetrated by the most conservative government in our history, under the subterfuge of ‘allowing aborigines to integrate into the mainstream economy’.

For some more background, I wrote about this here, Carmel O’Shannessy and Jane Simpson did so here and Kim Christen also wrote on it here.

I need not point out that Pullum is not an Australian and is therefore somewhat more insulated from calls of political bias (I assume he has no stake in whether or not the current government wins the next election). It is particularly encouraging to read such scathing denouncement of this policy from Pullum, which includes several points that I had somewhat euphemised, specifically, that we in Australia have an awful lot to be ashamed of, and need to stop procrastinating and start making up for it, beginning with an apology for the settlers’ treatment of the indigenous population up until just over 40 years ago (and even right up until today).

Brough continues that English-by-force tradition, urging that aborigines to be required to learn English so that they can be absorbed into the mainstream of Australian culture — in other words, so that aboriginal languages and cultures can die and aborigines can become just a dark-skinned under-privileged substratum of English-speaking Australian society.

Zing! I wish I’d said that!

I might point out though, since contrary ideas appear to pervade throughout all the discussion of this issue, that learning English is already compulsory for all children in every Australian school (see here). So Brough’s motivation, in my opinion, is designed to draw attention away from, and perhaps even rationalise, the government’s appalling record when it comes to adequate education funding in remote areas.

I am confident this issue won’t die anytime soon.


This from Claire:

…one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to education in, and the right to use one’s own language. Australia is a signatory of this Declaration.

Bob Brown has also demonstrated he is considerably more versed in the issue than Brough.

I awoke this morning to find that the old debate about the roles of indigenous language and English in Aboriginal Australia had crept back into the news. Except this time, the debate is getting considerably more polemic.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough has called for aboriginal children to be forced to learn English. He proposes to ‘quarantine’ welfare payments to parents unless their children attend school. That is, similar to the land ownership issue that I wrote about only yesterday, he is using money that is rightfully theirs, and threatening to keep it unless they do as he says.

“Too many still only have a rudimentary understanding of the language spoken throughout our country and can only speak their own language, which perhaps is only known to 200, 300 or 400 other people,” he said.

“That must end.”

This isn’t mere coercion, this is blackmail¹.

While he says that he is “not asking anyone to give up their own language”, the broader implication and the government’s failure to recognise indigenous languages say otherwise.

Of course, it is quite reasonable for someone to speak multiple languages. Aboriginal people traditionally spoke many languages, depending on the geo-political situation in the area. People still know three or more languages each, and claim affiliation with many more again. This is the situation in Wadeye, where, as he claims, there are a handful of distinct languages resulting in groups of people who cannot communicate.

These children, like all Australian children, will benefit from a strong grasp of English which allows them to make choices in their lives which they simply don’t have when they only speak a language that only a handful of people understand. (mp3 here)

Apart from the notion that Aboriginal people will benefit from speaking English in an English-speaking country, with which I agree, this is mostly nonsense. Most people in Wadeye speak Murrinh-Patha as well as another traditional language or two. In addition, just about the entire town speaks Kriol, the lingua franca of most of indigenous Australia. To put it another way, I would bet that there are no two Aboriginal people living in Wadeye who are unable to communicate with any language in their arsenal.

If the government wants aboriginal people to all learn English, then fine, fund programs to do it. But don’t use this nonsensical, flawed argument from unintelligibility to promote the further discouragement of indigenous languages.

NSW MP Linda Burney has countered Brough’s claims this morning, pointing out this government’s track record when it comes to the retention of languages and culture.

Aboriginal kids do need to be bilingual but it’s a bit rich coming from a person who actually is part of a Government that took away funding for bilingual programs in the Northern Territory.

She was also on ABC radio this morning reiterating the woefully shameful statistic that, of around 600² languages originally spoken in Australia, only 60 odd remain. The debate seems to centre on allowing aboriginal people to integrate into the mainstream economy (make of that what you will) but ignores the cultural imperative to do what we can to ensure languages don’t unnaturally cease to be spoken.

Language is the mechanism through which Aboriginal people in Australia relate to their family and other kin, to their ancestry and to their land. Language is not a mere means of communication, it embodies identity and culture.

For most of the world, and certainly for Europe, land is independent from people and language. Languages are embodied by people who inhabit land. When people move to another land, they take the language with them. In traditional Australia, this isn’t quite the case. Language is embodied by land and people are transient; taking on new languages as they take on new land³. For this reason (among others), language is an utmost important aspect of one’s culture and identity. To deny an Aborigine the right to speak their language is to forcibly remove their identity.

This, I believe, is one of the causes of social ills that indigenous people endure.

Burney also pointed out that Brough lacks even a fundamental understanding of aboriginal people, which should be compulsory in his portfolio. He fails to understand the importance placed on language and culture, which is immeasurably more important to them than some abstract, white man’s notion of being integrated into the mainstream (which sounds an awful lot like ‘assimilation’ to me).


¹I might point out that I do think that Aboriginal children, in fact all children, should be attending school, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks otherwise, but threatening to withhold vital funding is not the right way to do it.

²The numbers are difficult to ascertain, since it depends on your definition of language and your definition of dialect. 600 is near the higher end of the spectrum and relies on a liberal definition of language. I usually quote 350 to be conservative.

³See Merlan, Francesca. 1981. Land, language and social identity in Aboriginal Australia. Mankind 13(2):133-148.


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