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Director weekly highlights 23 April

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 23 April 2021

I hope you all managed to have a regenerative Easter break, with time to recharge your creative energies in this intense time. I was able to get back out into the field and resume work on Dalabon, spending a week in Katherine working with my friend Manuel Pamkal. We were transcribing and translating old recordings — particularly vital in a situation like Dalabon, whose fragile situation means that the full resources of the language, though still understood by someone like Manuel, will no longer be produced spontaneously. It’s also a way of refreshing his knowledge of the less commonly used aspects of a language he grew up with but doesn’t get much chance to speak. 

Then I spent a week at Barrapunta (Emu Springs) in the heart of Arnhem Land at a workshop co-organised by the amazing Mimal Land Management, Bush Heritage Australia and the Bulman school, plus a number of other Dalabon speakers brought together from disparate communities (Beswick/Wugularr, Maningrida, Weemol). We were working on the draft of a Dalabon seasonal calendar, both for use in teaching language and ecological knowledge in Bulman school (Dalabon and Rembarrnga languages) and to guide the rangers’ seasonal activities. Ranger groups like Mimal are one of the most exciting developments in remote Indigenous communities. They draw a large part of their funding from carbon credits brokered by the indigenous-owned Arnhem Land Fire Abatement organisation ALFA, based on studies showing that traditional burning practices reduce CO2 emissions compared to uncontrolled hot burns. This funding has allowed communities to set up their own ranger programs on a regional basis, creating employment opportunities right there on country. 

What does this have to do with language? Well, many decisions in the complex traditional burning procedures as well as other types of ecological custodianship depend on a close assessment of winds, the flowering or leaf-drop of particular plants and so forth, all denoted by fine-tuned expressions in local languages, like kahbewkbewkmû ‘the dry gusty southerly wind blows’ or observations of species-specific breeding seasons like nardorr kahyawyung ‘blue tongue lizards give birth to (live) young’. People of all ages were there at the workshop, from schoolkids (a school ‘culture camp’ was organised in parallel and closely integrated) up to elders who moved between setting the record straight on relevant terminology in Dalabon and Rembarrnga, and arranging a welcome smoking ceremony and a final father-and-son song performance by Dudley and Leon Lawrence of a (public) song cycle telling of karrkkanj the firehawk and ledjledj the grasshoppers he dines on as they flee before the flames of the grassfires he starts. A heartfelt thanks to the community, to Mimal, and to Bush Heritage for arranging such an inspiring workshop, and to Jane Simpson for keeping our regular Director’s messages coming out over that period. 

You’ll see that this has been a great week for publications, with a whole clutch of papers on phonetics (Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara and Spanish), on variable anaphora in Vera’a, and on digital archiving. Congratulations to all authors involved.  

The big one this week has been CI Kim Sterelny’s book The Pleistocene Social Contract, which develops a new view of the evolution of social life, and in particular the coevolution of cultural learning and cooperation — vital to understanding the cultural setting within which language(s) could evolve. On Kim’s argument, cooperation emerges in stages. Human social life in the Pleistocene becomes more cooperative and more egalitarian, first through collective action in foraging and defence against predation, and then through reciprocation over space and time. Likewise, it becomes more networked (itself a form of cooperation, in information sharing and demographic exchange) as forager bands develop connections based on expanded and more stable kin connection, and on mutual aid. The final sections of the book focus on the emergence of more complex, larger and less egalitarian social worlds at the beginning of the Holocene, in part as a result of a shift to more sedentary lifeways. This model of the emergence of inequality ends with four predictions about the ethnographic and archaeological record, predictions that allow the model to be empirically tested. The book sets the scene for its companion book, From Signal to Symbol. Coauthored with Ron Planer, this will focus specifically on communication and language, and is due out in October. A raised glass of fine red to Kim for bringing this major systematisation of how we understand the preconditions for human society to evolve. 

There is a lot coming up in the next few weeks in several other broad areas of interest to CoEDL researchers — language acquisition (see the upcoming ILARA round table aimed at broadening out our coverage of how children learn languages by proposing some radical new approaches that make it possible for a wider range of researchers to gather data), infant-directed speech (special journal issue — but hurry!), an online workshop on using corpora to investigate questions in philosophy, a conference on teaching languages other than English, and a special journal issue on establishing better metrics for assessing the quality of archived language materials.  

Plus, many other opportunities — publication subsidies, prizes to nominate for, Master’s and PhD opportunities in Australia and Europe, and a range of jobs in northern Australia (Kununurra, Darwin, Wadeye) and Switzerland (Zurich). The deadlines for some of these are coming up soon so move fast if you’re interested.  

Have a great week and I hope that, at least for those in Australia and New Zealand, you get to enjoy the upcoming long weekend in whatever way you feel is the best response to the tragedies of war. If you love Italian folk music and lyrics this song from the Italian counterpart to Gallipolli might make you wonder why there is no Australasian equivalent (lyrics plus a rather clunky translation). 


Nick Evans 

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