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Director weekly highlights 18 Mar

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 18 March 2022

This week brought another reminder that we will not live in a just and equitable country until we take proper steps to get out information in the whole range of languages spoken in this country – see story on the deaths of three people from CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) communities in NSW who appear not to have been reached by English-based messaging about the flood emergencies. During the height of COVID in the last two years the failure to get information out to members of minority communities was quite clear, despite the valiant attempts of a range of interpreting services. Now we see a re-run with a different disaster, but still no coherent plan to create a durable organisation that is ready for all the unforeseens that will keep arriving. With an election coming up, and parties whose policies are disappointingly threadbare, this is a good time to re-float the importance of establishing a permanent, well-resourced interpreting service that works across the full spectrum of languages in Australia, with proper career structures for interpreters, and a vibrant connection with speech technology. 

Also on the intersection of language and politics: as Russia’s inhumane war in Ukraine approaches new dimensions of evil, and as so many of our colleagues in Russia continue to show a level of moral bravery that we here in Australia are never asked to face, Anna Wierzbicka, Jane Simpson and myself are leading an effort to send an open letter to the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, expressing the support of researchers in Australia (and our friends in other countries) for their courage in speaking out against the war, at great risk to themselves. It is not too late if you wish to sign it but please move fast. We are finalising the set of signatures by 4 pm today (Friday) to get it to our Russian colleagues before the end of the week. 

I’m still up in the Northern Territory, continuing fieldwork on Dalabon with my dear friend Manuel Pamkal. I mentioned last week that a lot of what we are doing involves ‘listening to the old people’, going over old recordings that had never been transcribed or translated. It’s a reminder of something that we have seen many times through CoEDL’s operations — that there is a constant interplay from fieldwork to archiving to fieldwork, which can generate ever more sensitive and accurate translations that will then get fed back into the archive. For example, a key question in the study of music is how composers of song styles like Bongolinj-bongolinj (see the video at the bottom of this page) get their musical ideas: the term ‘receive’ is sometimes used, or sometimes people are said to ‘dream’ them, but either way it’s often presented as just a single event. Going over a bunch of Dalabon recordings in the ELAR archive, by a range of speakers, about how singers of Bongolinj-bongolinj and related styles got their songs, the verb kahdulûnaHnaninj kept coming up. This denotes, doubly, a repeated event – by the suffix -ninj, used for repeated or drawn-out actions in the past, and by the left-reduplication of basic naninj (lit. ‘he kept seeing’) to naH-naninj ‘he kept starting to see’. Manuel was insistent, as we strove for the right translation, that this is closer to the word ‘rehearse’ in English, like a band. This is just one tiny piece in the puzzle of using recorded discussions to understand the beautiful Dalabon musical tradition, but making sure we can feed back this level of discussion — ultimately of every interesting point in every text, we hope — is key to producing the sort of detailed commentary that can really bring out what these stories mean, which in turn will go back into the archive as an enriched transcription of the media files that are already there. 

As always, there are a lot of seminars, jobs, courses and PhD positions coming up ! I’d also like to congratulate the collaborative team of the Pama Language Centre (PLC) with Janet Wiles, Ben Foley, and Ben Matthews for their recent AQ-TAS grant “AI and automation in language technologies: securing Queensland’s data sovereignty”. 

Please have a good week everybody. 

Nick Evans



CoEDL spotlight: Don Daniels 

Nick: I’ll do the honours this week in introducing Don as our spotlighted guest. One of the priorities we set out in our original proposal was to get a postdoc to work on underdocumented languages somewhere in the ‘Papuasphere’ — the region (PNG, Eastern Indonesia, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands) where Papuan languages are spoken — and then give them their druthers. As you will read below, Don struck out in Madang province. Not only did Don himself work across a range of languages there, but he has also gone on to enthuse a bunch of next-generation Papuanists since taking up his job in Eugene, Oregon.  

Don: When I finished my postdoc at CoEDL in 2018, I took a job as Assistant Professor (roughly equivalent to Lecturer in Australia) in the Linguistics Department at the University of Oregon. Since then, I've largely been focused on growing my field research program in Madang, Papua New Guinea. I've had three PhD students join me, one of whom began his research on Horokoi (a.k.a. Wasembo) last August. The other two are planning on starting projects with other languages of the Rai Coast family this year, pandemic permitting. I'm also hoping to get back to PNG myself this year — because of Covid, the last time I was able to go was in 2018, and I miss the place. 

It's been exciting to see the research program grow, and to get more people interested in Madang languages. CoEDL was instrumental in setting me up for this phase of my career. It enabled me to start a new field project myself, which enabled me to learn about these languages, which enabled me to get funding for new students, which is now allowing those students to start their own research projects. I'm excited to see how much more we can learn about the languages of Madang in the coming years. 

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