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A digital ark for language

Archiving, Jane Simpson, Shape, Technology

Date: 16 January 2020

By Jane Simpson

You’d expect all of the advanced digital technology we have today to be a godsend to the painstaking movement to revive and repatriate Indigenous languages. But right now, a paper dictionary of an Indigenous Australian language has a better chance of long-term preservation than an online dictionary.

Jane SimpsonTake the example of the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains.

It stopped being spoken as a first language in 1929 with the death of Ivaritji (Amelia Taylor).



Sixty years later a Kaurna language renewal movement began in Adelaide with Kaurna people relying largely on a grammar and dictionary self-published in 1840 by two German missionaries, Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, with the help of a grant from the Governor.

Some copies of the book survived, and were made visible through library catalogues. We owe the later distribution of the book to the State Library of South Australia, which published a facsimile in 1962, and then to Howard Groome, an educator who reprinted the book in 1982.

The success of the revival movement is demonstrable: Kaurna language is now visible in the Adelaide cityscape, heard at public events, and taught at schools and university.

What we need is some dedicated national digital infrastructure to preserve and make accessible the many wonderful complex online dictionaries, digital artefacts, databases, and software programs that people are creating for Indigenous language research and revival.

Consider the fate of the Wagiman dictionary, created by a handful of speakers of the language from the Pine Creek area in the Northern Territory. The authors – all now deceased – created in the late 1990s a well-organised digital dictionary with information about the language, the speakers, Wagiman stories, and some useful references.

A printout was deposited at the National Library of Australia and at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Both print copies are still there, but of course not for loan to Pine Creek!

In 1999 the online Wagiman dictionary was posted on the Linguistics department website of the University of Sydney. By 2004 it was also available on the AIATSIS website, and was captured in a website snapshot by the National Library of Australia.

In 2009 a new edition of the dictionary was launched at Pine Creek where you could click on words and hear a speaker pronounce them. In the meantime AIATSIS stopped making the 2001 online dictionary visible on the AIATSIS website, but kept a link in the catalogue to the University of Sydney website. But then sometime after 2014 the university changed its website structure, and both the 2001 and 2009 dictionaries vanished from public view.

Eventually, Stephen Wilson posted the 2001 dictionary on his laboratory’s website at Vanderbilt University in America. This has allowed Google to bring the Wagiman dictionary back into public view. Old technology means the search box doesn’t work and the 2009 dictionary with its linked sound-files is still invisible.

The Wagiman dictionary’s twisting path in and out of public view shows how fragile Australia’s heritage of digital artefacts is.

Many online dictionaries of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are housed on websites paid for by individuals or small organisations. In this they resemble books published by small presses or individuals. But unlike such books, there’s no place to set digital artefacts in a context by cataloguing them, let alone to maintain them as part of Australia’s heritage.

The National Library has made a great start with archiving static shots of websites through Trove, but these don’t allow for maintaining old technology search boxes. Nor can the NLA maintain and update custom software, and there is no agreed-on way of cataloguing and curating complex digital artefacts like online dictionaries.

Digital artefacts of high cultural importance for the Australian community need nationally integrated research infrastructure, just as the National Library and National Archives provide.


(This article first appeared in ANU Reporter magazine.)

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