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Director weekly highlights 22 Oct

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 22 October 2021

I don’t know if it’s some strange providence, but this mailout lands in your inbox both during the first week in a long time that the cities of all four CoEDL node are out of lockdown, and as, by some harmony of the spheres, a bunch of fascinating publications by CoEDLers have appeared. There is something for pretty well everyone; the edited book by Wayan Arka, Ash Azudeh and Tracy Holloway-King on the Modular Design of Grammar, (which includes chapters by Wayan himself on pivots in Indonesian and by Peter Hurst and Rachel Nordlinger on reciprocals in Icelandic); an interesting collaboration by Catherine Travis and Acehnese linguist Inas Ghina on gender, mobility and contact as it influences stability and change in Acehnese; a dictionary of the Vurës language of Vanuatu by Catriona Malau (this is the Asia-Pacific Linguistics series – published through ANU E-press under Bethwyn Evans’ editorship); and a beautiful quadrilingual comparison of emotion words in Kunbarlang, Bininj Kunwok, Mawng and Ndjébbana by Isabel O’Keeffe, Ruth Singer and Carolyn Coleman — four languages from very different language families in close contact around Maningrida and Warruwi. 

But rather than spread myself too thin and go down all those fascinating byways, I’d like to focus on another long-awaited publication that came out this week: Ron Planer and Kim Sterelny’s book From Signal to Symbol, published with MIT Press. A long wait, for a book like this, seems appropriate. After all, it spans two million years of language evolution, giving a good look in to communication systems among our hominin cousins and primate second cousins. And it adopts a gradualist approach, which takes time to build up the argument for – its ‘language without miracles’ slogan, seeing modern language as the cumulative result of lots of small incremental evolutionary steps. This is diametrically opposed in its approach to the saltationist (one big jump) approach to language evolution associated with Noam Chomsky and his colleagues. As Cecilia Hayes, who many will remember from her paper at the CoEDL workshop on Language Evolution that Kim organised some years back, puts it, the book is ‘a subtle, gradualist account of the evolution of language richly informed by scientific evidence. Come for the philosophical clarity and stay for the 'firelight niche'.” 

Thinking back a couple of years, you might remember the CoEDLFest theme day on time scales in the study of the language. One of the challenges we faced in organising that as a theme day – and of working out how to bring something as long-run as language evolution into contact with many of the other projects in CoEDL — was how to link time scales ranging from millions of years in the case of language evolution, down to split-seconds in the case of language processing, with everything in between. The answer: be gradualist. That is what allows these fast-running eddies to etch their way into the slow currents of language origins. There are two other points of purchase offered by Ron and Kim’s book for the overall CoEDL program. First, by looking at lots of evolutionary steps, it allows us to identify individual linguistic innovations that might be found in some languages but not others — thus opening a niche for the work on linguistic diversity to enter our very understanding of language evolution, rather than just arriving as a Johnny-come-lately after a monolithic ‘language’ has evolved. Second, quite a lot of the book is taken up examining the interrelationship of visual and auditory modalities in language evolution, and the shifting burden between them — here too, it opens up many questions for us to look more deeply into as we start integrating cross-modal studies into the language sciences. So: Christmas is coming up, and (if you’re not still a diehard saltationist ordering up Dr Seuss’ The Big Jump for the kids) this is definitely one for the stocking… Congratulations on behalf of all of CoEDL to Ron and Kim and, in the spirit of gradualism, we’ll look forward to clinking glasses with you on a range of occasions as we are slowly released to a point of catching up in person. 

Speaking of the easing of travel, the fact that our CoEDL community lives in many different settings, and has so much to do with Indigenous communities, means that even as many of us are rejoicing at the final opening of the Hermit Kingdom’s borders, there remain major concerns about low vaccination rates in many communities, which could lead to disastrous outbreaks and the deaths of many elders and knowledge-holders in the communities we work with. Last year we witnessed a swathe of deaths of knowledgeable elders in places like the Amazon, and while we managed to avoid that in Australia during the earlier waves, there’s a real risk that this could happen now. 

So, we need to keep up the pace on getting out accurate information to communities, in languages of the community but also by talking to people who will play an influencer role — ring your friends and family in communities, get on social media, and help counteract the disinformation that is getting into some communities. But it’s also vital to support the wishes of communities, and land councils to protect their health through limiting who can enter communities until vaccination levels reach those that are now being reached elsewhere in the country. This, of course,means that fieldwork plans to some communities, at least, may need to stay on hold for some time longer. Many of you will have seen the good ABC article on this point.  

One final thing: last week I mentioned the steady decline in how many domestic students in Australian universities are including a language in their degree, now down to around 2.5%. LCNAU is leading a confederation of university-level language advocates to try and turn this around and is actively seeking ideas for this campaign — please help if you can.  

I hope that for all of you this week brings that special energy and excitement of reconnecting with friends and loved ones after this long drought of human contact.  

Nick Evans 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University