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…

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.

Or, in a bid to be linguistically egalitarian:

Veni, vidi, ba-ya-nggi¹.

Kybrook Farm was visited yesterday by one of the federal government survey teams that are travelling around aboriginal communities in the Territory in a bid to explain the policy changes involved in Howard and Brough’s intervention.

Wamut, in Ngukurr, writes about his experience with the intervention on Wednesday. The Kybrook version was a different survey team from that of Ngukurr, and it appears that it was much more friendly and constructive here. The interpreter too, was utilised frequently, though I suspect the need was less apparent. They made it clear that their role was to allay any misinformation that we may have had about the proposed legislation, to take note of any concerns and questions, and pass them on to the relevant department.

I have to say I feel somewhat sorry for the bureaucrats whose job it is to explain the details of the legislation since, for one, the legislation is yet to pass and in fact, may well not go through for all we know, which may render their efforts pointless. Secondly, they appear to not have all the information that communities require.

Serious questions were raised about the logistics of the quarantining of commonwealth welfare payments, the centrepiece of the intervention, designed, apparently, to ‘stem the flow of the rivers of grog’.

How would the quarantied monies be accessible? Who decides which items are allowed to be purchased with quarantined money? What will small shops in remote areas have to do to facilitate the proper use of money?

The only question that we received an answer for on this topic was how long the quarantining of money would go for. The answer was twelve months. This naturally provoked a whole slew of other questions, the main one being ‘what then?’ Would all the money that had been quarantined and not spent become immediately accessible, for any purpose?

The community’s concern was that without adequate foresight as to what to do after the twelve months, the situation may just immediately revert back to the current scenario, meaning that the twelve months of quarantining would have done little but cause humbug for those who do the right thing.

The survey team had no answers for this, but emphasised that part of their role was to relay the community’s concerns back to the taskforce in Alice Springs.

The Problems

Overwhelmingly, the biggest problems here are housing and roads.

The most recent house to have been built in Kybrook Farm, is now fifteen years old. Most of them are over thirty years old. All need urgent repairs to insulation, electricals, plumbing, roofing, sewerage and the solar hot water systems. Overcrowding is also a problem, especially in bohba, the wet season, when the community population swells.

The community association has for decades been sending applications to whoever normally funds such things. Each time, the applications have been rejected. They are understandably cynical then, when government bureaucrats come into town and suddenly start paying attention to their needs. That said, such is the situation that they’re quite happy to take advantage of the fact that the spotlight is currently focused on these matters.

Kybrook has been trying for years to have their access road from the highway bitumenised. The failure of Pine Creek council to do so has indirectly caused property damage to just about every vehicle within the community. It may have also been responsible for deleterious health effects. Just last week, a child was sent to Katherine with athsma, caused by the dust when cars drive even slightly too fast.

The road also effects education. The Pine Creek school bus won’t go to Kybrook because the road is too hazardous. The community is left to find another way to get their kids to school, which usually means making a couple of trips in the Rangers’ troop-carrier, unless it is otherwise engaged. I have, on a number of occasions now, had to pick up kids stranded in town. I don’t mind, of course, but it really isn’t part of my job description, and I wonder what would happen, after I leave and there just isn’t an available car. It’s a long walk through the bush to Kybrook, especially on a hot ngurugun (‘Sunny time’) day.


So by the end of the meeting, most of us were only a little more enlightened as to the government’s plan, and I still can’t shake the feeling that the intervention is ill-prepared, lacking in detail, and fundamentally designed as an election-year issue, rather than as a plan with the primary goal of helping the country’s most disadvantaged people.


¹As david pointed out, both veni and vidi are inflected (or declined, if you prefer, yes, for we all know that Latin demands its own nomenclature) for 1st person singular, “I came, I saw”, while Wagiman ba-ya-nggi, as the English version of the title suggests, is inflected for 3rd person plural “they left”. But as it’s a classical allusion, I don’t really care about the inaccuracies. I should also credit David with the idea for the Latin/Wagiman title, as he mentioned to me a similar Warlpiri title Veni, vidi, yanulu.

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.

…There’s been very little action here of late with the Brough plan. There was a rumour last week that the army were headed here, but we haven’t seen anything as yet. They really want to know if they’re considered one of the 60 (or however many there are) communities, because if they are, they might reconsider putting so much effort into the myriad of projects that have been set up to combat alcohol abuse, housing shortages and other pressing issues, since the federal government might want to take over such projects altogether.

The federal government (this was the situation last week anyway, things may have changed since then) claims that it would be dangerous to say which communities it has in its sights, because they may pre-emptively, temporarily force out grog-runners and so on to make the place look good. I doubt that. I think they’re playing it entirely by ear and don’t even know which communities are included.

Also, remember to watch insight tomorrow night (Tuesday 24/7), which will focus on this issue. SBS, 7:30pm (or 8:00pm 7:00pm [I got the direction of the timezone wrong, silly me – this also meant I missed the first half as I was watching ABC news] if you’re in the territory).

I’m getting quite solid into analysing the syntax of Wagiman verbs now, after a few weeks of collecting good data. I’ve taught myself how to use Toolbox (only rudimentarily though¹) and have been using it to interlinearise my transcribed sentences. I’ve discovered that Toolbox is a very powerful piece of software for linguists, as long as you know how to operate it, but I don’t think I do just yet.

Something I’ve been looking at during this field trip is irrealis verb forms. Wagiman initially appears to only have a few possible tense/aspect combinations; tense is marked in both prefixes and suffixes on the verb, and aspect is marked on the coverb, or with a different suffix on the verb. The verbal affixes (as far as tense goes) are few in number. The prefixes encode past, present and future (each of those with dozens of different inflections for person/number agreement) and the suffixes encode past habitual, perfect past, past, present, future realis and future irrealis.

Until now I held the opinion that affixes had to agree; that a future prefix had to combine with a future suffix, either realis or irrealis, a past prefix with a past suffix, and so on. But I’ve been forced to look at other options lately, on the basis of new data.

gi-nanda-yi ngonggo-gin nijimang, ngigun
2sgA.3sgO.Pres-see-Past 2sg-Gen uncle 2sg.Nom
you should see your uncle, you

wuji ngi-nanda-n
not 2sgA.3sgO.Past-see-Pres
you should not see him

wuji ga-nawu-ndi nung, gahan bakka
not 3sgA.3sgO.Pres-give-Past 3sg.Acc that tobacco
he should not have given it to him, that tobacco

It seems that various combinations of past-tense affixes with present-tense affixes convey different aspectual constructions, but exactly how the combinations can be categorised eludes me at the moment. In the first and third sentences, the combination of prefix and suffix corresponds; the prefix is past-tense and the suffix is present, yet they differ in at least two respects. The first is positive polarity while the third is negative, and while the first is non-past, the third is past tense².

This is quite exciting for me, but also troubling. I had a great, straightforward set of tense affixes once, but now I have to throw it all out the window since the terms past and present no longer apply. Maybe I should adopt a Ngan’gityemerri solution and name the categories tense-1, tense-2, etc.

I should point out that these are far from isoated instances, so ignoring them isn’t an option. They’ve occurred with every seaker I’ve spoken to this time around, and on a number of occasions. Otherwise I’d probably have no qualms about ignoring outlying aberrant data, which is what you do in scientific reseach all the time. I should also point out that I would certainly have heard them in my previous field trips, but at the time I was only concentrating on coverb-verb combinatorial possibilities and in m naivety, probably ignored everything else.


¹Teaching myself how to use Toolbox has been quite a tormetuous affair and this occasion reminded me why I was always so quick to give up on learning it in the past. I thought I had the hang of it after the tutorial exercises – frogs racing turtles and so on – but as soon as I tried my own Wagiman project, everything failed; interlinearising, word formulas, alternate forms and underlying forms. Also, since Wagiman has huge amounts of homophony, I really need sophisticated word formulas to prevent the ambiguity selection box from containing hundreds of possible parses. If you use Toolbox, you should know what I mean.

²I have to investigate this further. It could be that the second should be translated as ‘he shouldn’t give him grass in general’ as opposed to ‘shouldn’t have‘. If this is the case, things would be much easier for me. Except then the second entence would stand out, as in that case, one would have expected wuji gi-nanda-yi.