How’s this for a resurgence of public debate?

While the debate between Howard and Rudd was going on, Bob Brown and the Greens were holding their own ‘People’s Forum‘ in another room in Parliament House, and had asked for questions from the general public on their blog not long ago, some of which would potentially be asked tonight.

I asked a simple question about whether or not the Greens would push for endangered indigenous languages in Australia to be urgently documented in an effort to prevent any further loss – a pretty vacuous question, especially to ask of the Greens, I admit. But lo and behold, it was summarised (for the sake of time) and asked at the forum, and the whole thing was recorded straight away and uploaded to YouTube!

So witness (halfway through), the most concise answer a politician has ever given.


The National Gallery of Australia are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year with an exhibition of aboriginal art, both traditional and modern, produced in the last three years. The collection is called Culture Warriors and, according to the NGA’s website, is ‘designed to break aboriginal art stereotypes’.

Here is one of the featured works, Treasure Island by Daniel Boyd, that hopefully, will break a few stereotypes of its own, those of indigenous homogeneity and monoculturalism.

I can’t remember just how many times I’ve been asked something like ‘so you speak aboriginal?’, but there have been many, by otherwise intelligent people. Curiously, they’re often the very same people who, as calmly as if they were describing the weather, speak of Kriol as ‘bastardised English’.

I guess I’m naively hoping that such people will look at a depiction such as the artwork above and realise that there was, and is, great cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity right around the country. Then again, they may see it as a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country.

In case you need to be told, these aren’t just a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country, they are the best guess at pre-colonial linguistic boundaries as surveyed and published by AIATSIS.

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, 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…

Today’s Herald contains an encouraging story about the place of indigenous languages in public high schools. Year 8 students at Bourke High School were compulsorily taught Wangkamurra this year, and the results have been positive enough that the State Government is planning on extending the program to more state schools with large enough populations of aboriginal students.

Since Aboriginal language was made compulsory at Bourke High School in year 8, student attendance rates and retention of students to year 9 had improved, [NSW Director-General of Education, Michael] Coutts-Trotter said.

It had also helped improve English literacy and numeracy.

It’s also been especially positive for Bourke High’s indigenous population, who normally finish year 12 at half the rate that non-indigenous students do.

It also helped Aboriginal students identify with their culture, which improved their confidence and sense of identity.

“All this can then lift student confidence in approaching other study areas,” he said.

This is clearly a good program and I would personally like to see it adopted by all state and territory governments. Surely most would agree. 

Except there’s seemingly never a piece of good news about indigenous issues in this country without some bad news alongside it…

Howard has defended the government’s choice to not ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed on Thursday by an impressive 143 to 4, citing its implicit legitimisation of customary law and the possibility of “separate developments inside one country” as his key points of dispute. I wish he’d elaborate on the latter, because it doesn’t appear to me to be all that bad.

Mr Howard says the decision was an easy one.

I bet. He also attacked Labor for their support for the declaration, claiming it is at odds with their support for the NT intervention. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if you ignore the politics, it isn’t the case that supporting paternalistic action to reduce rates of abuse in aboriginal communities requires you to oppose rights for indigenous people. The fact that Howard appears to think so is perhaps not unexpected, but worrying all the same.

Interestingly, in that article it paraphrases Howard as saying:

…there should not be special arrangements for special groups in the Australian community.

Yet, this is precisely why the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow the NT intervention legislation to pass, because it makes special arrangements for special groups within the Australian community. The only difference with that and the UN Declaration (apart from the fact that the latter is legally impotent) is that Howard’s ‘special arrangements’ are detrimental to aborigines.

Every day reveals more blatant hypocrisy from this increasingly desperate autocrat.

This is a general appeal to anyone who knows a little bit of Kunwinjku, even just the basics. And it’s no use hiding, I know you exist. My question is: what are the nominal roots for ‘here’ and ‘there’?

I ask because the album I wrote about last week, Wurrurrumi Kun-Borrk, which jointly won the Northern Land Council’s 2007 Traditional Music Award (and can be bought online, by the way), includes extensive cultural and linguistic notes, such as the lyrics in Kunwinjku/Kuninjku¹ and their rough English translations. However, as I have been reading through the lyrics and translations several times while listening to it, I’ve noticed a small discrepancy.

Konda is translated in a few instances as ‘here’, ‘this way’ or roughly anything to do with the deictic centre, while kure is given as ‘there’, ‘that side’, etc. For instance:

Konda nuk ngandi-bawong
They have deserted me (I suspect this is literally ‘they have left me here’)

Kure karri-re
Let’s all go over there

But in other songs, konda and kure are translated as ‘there’ and ‘here’ respectively, exactly the opposite.

Kure-beh kam-re konda-beh ka-re
She comes and goes

Kurebeh yi-kolkmen kondabeh nga-kolkmen
You chop (with your axe) on this side and I’ll chop the other side

I don’t intend to criticise this album in the slightest, I think it’s a brilliant production, not only musically, but also culturally and linguistically. And I’m not just saying that because the producer is my boss, I really do like it. Murray Garde has done an excellent job with the cultural notes that accompany each song, which make listening to this album and reading the lyrics and the cultural background to each song a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Furthermore, Djimarr’s singing is almost transcendent, and the rhythm and metre of the clapsticks is quite metronomic (as even an innocent bystander remarked to me on the bus). I really don’t want to assume any mistakes have been made here, so I’ll allow for the possibility that Kunwinjku has some quirky deictic referentiality going on.

So, any ideas?


¹I’m not sure of the difference exactly. The notes in the CD’s front-matter suggest that Eastern Kunwinjku is the ‘language’ as such, and Kuninjku, also the name of Djimarr’s clan, is his particular lect.

I’ve just heard over email from Linda Barwick, that the CD by Kevin Djimirr, Wurrurruni Kun-Borrk: Songs from Western Arnhem Land, with extensive notes by Murray Garde, has just won, jointly with the Kembi dance group, the Northern Land Council’s 2007 Traditional Music Award.

I heard the CD when I got back to Sydney and I have to say (objectively of course) that it’s brilliant. An excellent production for which all involved should be proud. In case you’re interested, which you should be, the CD can be bought online from Sydney University Press for a mere 25 Australian dollars. It’s excellently packaged too, with very detailed anthropological and historical notes from Murray Garde, including both transcriptions in Kuninjku and English translations.

I don’t have a copy of the CD handy, so I can’t give an example of the poetry, but this excerpt from the SUP page should give you an inkling:

Unlike the totemic song genres of many other ceremonies in Arnhem Land, kun-borrk songs concentrate more on the episodic minutiae of human emotions, subtle physical movements of the body, conflicts, suspicions, and the gossip of interpersonal relationships. An examination of the song texts on this CD reveals an almost haiku-like poetic beauty. Small isolated incidents without any given context are presented in a few lines of a song.

Congratulations to Kevin, and to everyone involved.