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Director weekly highlights 12 Nov

Jane Simpson, Outreach

Date: 12 November 2021

Oh, the delight of holding our first non-zoom ANU CoEDL staff meeting for ages, outside on a semi-sunny day. It really brought home the importance of studying multi-modal communication — the richness of information exchanged with a look, a gesture, a head turn. And the sheer pleasure of seeing people in 3D. 

Felicitations, sparklers and many, many congratulations to CoEDL AI I Wayan Arka on his election to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. A great tribute to a scholar who has done so much to support communities in his native Indonesia to study and document their own languages. And similar sparkling news — CoEDL Affiliate and PARADISEC-Sydney director Amanda Harris has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize in Australian History for her book, Representing Australian Aboriginal Music and Dance 1930-1970. The judges describe Dr Harris's book as "an unusual book that manages to take what sounds like an academic exercise and weave it into a charming, thoughtful and utterly compelling narrative about mainstream Australia's slow 20th century awakening to Aboriginal culture." It’s wonderful to see appreciation for the skill and care it takes to write a book for a non-specialist audience. And finally, our Director is taking on another honour and responsibility, being appointed to the board of directors of Institut des Langues Rares (ILARA) in France.  

It’s been a fortnight for thinking about the ideas of Mi'kmaw scholars from the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, beginning with ‘The souls of departed utensils’, an enlightening tour through eighteenth century racism by Robbie Richardson, a Mi'kmaw Engish literature scholar, (soon to be on YouTube). Then, in the Decolonising linguistics series (which has recordings of the sessions), Lowana Tudor-Smith and Paul Williams presented topical questions raised by Mi'kmaw educator Marie Battiste’s paper “Research Ethics for Protecting Indigenous Knowledges and Heritage: Institutional and Researcher Responsibilities." All this, along with the pathbreaking Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw language curriculum, makes me want to learn more about the dynamic and thoughtful group of Mi'kmaw educators, language professionals and scholars. 

Coming up next week, a feast of ideas on multilingualism and its translational implications for education across the Pacific, Bali, Australia, Laos, Pakistan and China, in a symposium ‘Multilingualism, culture-language maintenance & education in Asia & Pacific’ , co-organised by CoEDL members I Wayan Arka and Carmel O’Shannessy and featuring several papers by CoEDL members, including Wayan, Carmel, Emma Browne, Nick Enfield, Zara Maxwell-Smith, Miriam Meyerhoff and Ruth Singer. And while you’re thinking about registering, the Australian Linguistics Society conference earlybird rates end on Monday, and CoEDL Masterclasses are filling rapidly… 

Jane Simpson
Deputy Directory


Over now to: A view from Sweden 

During her undergraduate years at ANU, Bonnie McLean engaged intensively with Aboriginal languages, learning Gamilaraay, working on Wayilwan language learning materials and going on a CoEDL fieldtrip to Tennant Creek, where she introduced Warumungu people to using Memrise for language reclamation (see her co-authored article here). She was awarded a university medal and her honours thesis — One form, many meanings: iconicity in phonological and semantic development (2019) — was on Japanese and Ryukyuan. She was also a research assistant on CoEDL’s Sydney Speaks project. 

I've been studying for my PhD at Uppsala University in Sweden. My thesis builds on interests developed during my time at CoEDL, about the role of iconicity (form-meaning resemblances) in language change. At CoEDL, I had the chance to look at a special class of iconic words (called ideophones) in Mundari, (an Austroasiatic language spoken in India). I was struck by how effective they were at communicating fine-grained perceptual details, simply through the way they sound or feel to pronounce. For example, I discovered a set of ideophones helpful for cooking dal to the right consistency: ledepede for watery dal, ladapada for dal that is too thick, or lidapada for dal that is just right. We know that humans associate sound and meaning, and that in situations like cooking dal this can be very helpful. However, we don't yet know whether these associations are helpful enough to play a role in language change.  

I came to Uppsala to learn how to apply computational phylogenetic methods to this question. These methods are commonly used to reconstruct the histories of language families through the evolution of cognate sets. In my research, I take trees generated from cognate data and use them to track the appearance of specific sounds or sound classes across a word list, to test whether, for example, rounded sounds appear at higher rates in words for round things. I'm also interested in lexicography, and how digital dictionaries can serve not only as records of existing words, but also as tools for understanding possible words. Ideophone lexicons are highly flexible, and benefit particularly from this treatment, but the methods taken to get there have much to offer language documentation in general. 

Bonnie McLean 

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