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Technology yarning

Australian National University, Evolution, Shape

Date: 21 March 2019

Tjinytjatjunku tjuma is the ancient art of telling stories while drawing in the sand. Now, thanks to iPads, storytellers of all generations can share their tales with the world while drawing on the screen.

Sand stories exist across the desert communities in central and Western Australia. For the Ngaanyatjarra people, sand stories are a way of sharing stories and learning about the world.

"Stories were told in the sand, only by females," says Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis, a Ngaanyatjarra woman and linguist at the Australian National University. "Women or young girls would tell stories to each other in the sands of late afternoon."
And as all good storytellers know, the words are only part of it.

"Sand storytelling is multimodal," says Dr Inge Kral, Elizabeth's colleague. "You have oral storytelling. Then you have the sand and storytelling with pictures and symbols."

To add atmosphere or meaning, storytellers also use gesture, sign language, and special sounds made only when telling stories.
With the help of Ngaanyatjarra storytellers, Elizabeth and Inge have captured this complex storytelling practice for future generations.

"We asked the girls and young women to transfer the stories in the sand onto iPads," says Elizabeth.

From shifting sands to screen

The storytellers chose their own story to tell, using an app called Scribblify Free to draw on the screen just as they’d draw on the sand. Refreshing the screen at the end of each scene mimicked the way storytellers might sweep the sand clean.

“They were just as comfortable on the screen as they were on the sand,” says Inge. What stories did they share? Older women chose traditional stories, but teenagers focused on their everyday life. There were stories about the disco, school, playing softball, going on hunting trips and getting a flat tyre.

“They blend traditional with contemporary in a really creative and innovative way,” says Inge. “They’re telling modern stories, but their storytelling style is still traditional.”

The team published their recorded stories on USB wristbands, postcards and in a bilingual book – with Ngaanyatjarra and English texts.

“This is very much about making sure these old ways of speaking are looked after for the future,” says Inge.

Endangered languages

Elizabeth and Inge study endangered languages and ways of speaking that may be lost if no one still learns to speak them.

Elizabeth’s first language is Ngaanyatjarra, one of the Western Desert family of languages. Families still speak this language and children are still learning to speak it, so it’s relatively safe.

“What is endangered are the verbal arts,” says Inge. “Storytelling and sign language and special ways of speaking, the special ways that people used language in the olden days.”

Speech stylin'

Anyone who has raised their voice (or raised an eyebrow) will know the way you say words is as important as the words themselves. When you speak Ngaanyatjarra, you use different styles of speech at different times.

“For example, yaarlpirri is ‘early morning talk’,” says Inge. “It’s a particular kind of speech style that people use to announce things, or make plans, or sort out issues or share news.”

There are many other special ways of speaking Ngaanyatjarra, and learning these different speech styles is just as important as learning words and grammar.


(This article was first published by Double Helix magazine [Issue 30, March 2019] and is reproduced with the kind permission of CSIRO Publishing. See here for more on this research project.) 

Technology Yarning feature Double Helix Magazine

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