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.

Bulanjdjan just reminded me of something I have wanted to do for a while now, and this afternoon I managed to do it.

What I’m referring to is using Google Earth to map a linguistic boundary, to show where a language was traditionally spoken, or to show which land is traditionally associated with which language or languages. By way of example, the red blob in this Google Earth file represents where Wagiman was traditionally spoken, at least as far as AIATSIS is concerned.

Paul has a pretty good step-by-step in a comment at Jabal al-Lughat about how exactly to do this, except I didn’t think about the importance of including a landmark or two so you can easily get the image in exactly the right location in Google Earth. I had to flip back and forth from Photoshop to line up my image correctly with the different satellite images.

This is of course, not the first time I’ve used Google Earth for linguistic purposes. Almost a year ago I collated all the public information¹ that I could that related to place names in the traditional languages of Sydney, and I put them all into another Google Earth file. Except the spelling conventions that the dual-naming board decided on left a lot to be desired: Meeliyahwool?!

Anyway, there are plenty of possibilities for applications of this kind. Imagine if similar images were created for every language in Australia, or even other parts of the country, and the transparency of an image depended on the severity of endangerment; the more highly endangered, the more faded the image, just like in Back to the Future. That way, people could look at a map of Australia and visually gauge just how much language we have lost.


¹I want to stress that all of this - the Sydney place names and the traditional Wagiman land – is publicly accessible information. I’m not making any claims as to land ownership or anything like that, and I’m certainly not responsible for any inaccuracies.

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…

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.

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.

~

<update>

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“)

</update>

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.

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’ve just read that the UN has just listed the creole spoken on Norfolk Island as an endangered language.

The language, known locally as ‘talking Norfolk’, is a mixture of Olde English¹ and Tahitian and can be traced back to the Bounty mutineers.

A quick look at Ethnologue leads me to Pitcairn-Norfolk as the language this article refers to, though it probably has a different vernacular name altogether.

Anyway, it leads me to think about what exactly constitutes ‘endangered’ when it comes to languages and the relative population of speech communities. The Ethnologue page says that Pitcairn-Norfolk had 580 speakers (second language only) in 1989 on Norfolk Island alone, and more in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in the South Pacific. I’m tempted to say this is extraordinarily many, considering the state of many endangered languages in the world (Wagiman has probably 5), but in my opinion it comes down to how many children are learning the language as a proportion of the total speech community. So if a language of 600 speakers has only 20% rate of child acquisition, then I consider it to be more endagered than a language of 50 speakers with 90% of children learning it from birth.

Does the UN consider languages as endangered or not as a function of the raw population of the speech community, or does it look at the rate of uptake as the more important criterion?

Either way, I’d be happy to do a little bit of fieldwork on Norfolk Island in a bid to preserve linguistic diversity.

~

¹Olde English? Really? I’m certain they mean some form of Early Modern English, and most likely a maritime/naval dialect thereof.

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