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Director weekly highlights 27 May

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 27 May 2022

This is an especially heartening week, as we fully digest what Saturday night’s election results have brought. A parliament with ten Indigenous members; with a promise — the first mention in Albo’s acceptance speech — to introduce a Voice to Parliament, as so many First Nations people have long been urging; with nine Asian Australians (up from six); with a less-skewed gender balance; and — in Sam Lim, the new Member for Tangney — its first-ever decalingual dolphin trainer. As the victorious candidate for Reid, Sally Sitou, put it, diversity in parliament is important “not for diversity’s sake but for what diverse politicians bring into parliament”. We’re still behind most of our comparators in the Anglosphere — 6% of MPs in this parliament have non-Indigenous, non-European backgrounds compared to 17% in New Zealand, 16% in Canada and 11% in Britain — but at least things are starting to move. The trend of the results should make the electoral advantages of fielding diverse candidates crystal clear to every major party. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the outcome is how the fires, plague and floods of the last two years and what they should teach us about deep social and political reform — which had remained remarkably unaddressed through the election campaign — were picked up as central nonetheless and played such a large part in shaping the outcome. Let’s see how all this impacts matters of language, but the signs are good. 

Two really important publications by CoEDL members came out this week. 

One, by Jill Vaughan, Ruth Singer and Murray Garde, deals with the interesting question of how language names work in Arnhem Land (and doubtless more broadly in Indigenous Australia). It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing language names as absolutes — labelled pins on a map, that have the same meaning no matter who uses them. This assumption is deeply entrenched, from Glottolog and ISO language codes to language names used in censuses and much else besides. But digging deeper, it’s clear that what these names take in depends on who uses them. To speakers of the majority dialect Kunwinjku, speakers of other varieties (Kune, Kundedjnjenghmi, etc.) ‘all speak Kunwinjku’, whereas for those speakers themselves (say, of Kune) ‘Kunwinjku’ refers just to the majority dialect to their west, and they prefer a term like Mayali to cover the full set of variants; Kunwinjku speakers reject this term as a way of designating their own variety. So there is no unanimously accepted traditional term that covers the whole chain, and conversely terms like Kunwinjku or Mayali, out there in the literature as names for the whole chain, have rather different interpretations depending who uses them. This is what has led to the coining of new terms, such as Bininj Kunwok in this case, to find something that is less dependent on the perspective of any one group. That’s just part of their subtle and ethnographically-grounded argument, but the article is must-read material if you’ve ever wondered about why it’s so hard to overlay standard naming systems onto the actual lived reality of language differences, great and small, in a place like Western Arnhem Land. 

The other publication this week, the fruit of some three decades’ fieldwork, is our Partner Investigator Steve Levinson’s grammar of the Papuan language Yélî-Dnye of Rossel Island, off the south-eastern coast of the PNG mainland, in the Pacific Linguistics / De Gruyter series1. In the midst of all his ground-breaking work on space and cognition; on the dynamics of interaction; and on revitalising the study of whether and how language impacts on thought with new methods. Steve has been steadily digging into the intricate structure of this language. Among many other things, it possesses the largest phoneme inventory anywhere in the South-western Pacific; bristles with hugely complex verbal morphology; and expresses such fascinating cultural phenomena as 12-hour sung compositions (after just three rehearsals) where lines feature a special poetic structure in which successive lines use a word of the same phonological form but a different meaning. As the blurb puts it, “The combination of linguistic ‘rara’ suggest that linguistic evolution under low contact can yield baroque and unusual patterns.” Cut your teeth on this — over many chewings — if you want to understand how a marvellously complex linguistic system works, or as a check-up background for the many papers that Steve and his team have written about Yélî-Dnye over the years. Congratulations Steve! 

This week’s spotlight turns to ANU CoEDL alumnus James Grama, now working in Essen as a wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter. (And the Trekkies among you will note and enjoy the fact that daughter Imzadi draws her name from the hapaxoglossic2 language Betazed). If you’re one of our readers who’d like to share your story with us in the weekly spotlight, we’ve still got spaces available, so please let Cale know. 


Have a good week everyone. 


Nick Evans


1 And it’s been a bumper week for the Pacific Linguistics / De Gruyter Mouton series, with three new titles by greats in the field coming out within days of each other: Bill Foley’s sketch grammar of the Papuan language Kopar and Bob Blust’s Dictionary of Austronesian Monosyllabic Roots, in addition to Steve’s Yélî-Dnye grammar. See here. 

2 A language attested from only one word. 

CoEDL Spotlight: James Grama 

Introduced by CoEDL CI Catherine Travis

James worked as a post-doc on the Sydney Speaks project for three years, from 2017-2020. He got his PhD in 2015 from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, on variation and change in Hawaiʻi Creole vowels. He’d also done work on vowels in American English, in both cases looking at spontaneous speech data, so he was well set up to launch into analysis of Australian English. Working with fellow-postdoc, Simón Gonzalez, he led a massive endeavour of forced-aligning the transcribed sociolinguistic interviews and oral histories that make up the Sydney Speaks corpus, and creating a database of over one hundred and fifty thousand hand-checked vowels. That data has already led to a string of analyses, with many more coming. He’s now working on Tyneside English, which is giving him even further breadth in his knowledge of varieties of English, and is sure to shape his future research directions in novel and exciting ways. 


Tach (Ruhrpott for ‘Guten Tag!’)! Since completing my postdoc at CoEDL on the Sydney Speaks project, Melody and I moved to Europe in February 2020 to start positions as wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter*innen (somewhere between a post-doc and a lecturer) in the Sociolinguistics Lab (directed by Isabelle Buchstaller) at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Essen, Germany. Here, I’ve had the good fortune to teach a wide range of new classes that place primary focus on pidgins, creoles, and under-represented English-based varieties in the Pacific, as well as turn back to research on Hawaiʻi Creole, a great love of mine. 

One of the big projects in this lab is Isa Buchstaller’s LaVaLi project, which tracks linguistic variation and change in the adult life-span using multiple recordings of speakers from Tyneside in the North East of England. Among other things, we’ve been investigating how these people participate (or don’t!) in ongoing changes in progress in the area over their life time, as well as how purportedly “stable” linguistic variables exhibit noticeable variation over across time. I’ve also had the good fortune of working with a number of extremely promising students (in particular, Johanna Mechler (PhD), Lea Bauernfeind (MA), and Carina Ahrens (BA)) whose work is beginning to unravel the complexities of linguistic variability across the life-span (more in the project blog). Research on this project has been challenging (both methodologically and analytically) but incredibly rewarding, and a large share of my contributions can be directly tied to skills I honed at CoEDL. 

Of course, one of the most tangible benefits of being a Sydney Speaks team member at CoEDL is the continuing work on change in Australian English with our wonderful team! I’ve continued working with Catherine Travis, Simón Gonzalez, Elena Sheard, and Benjamin Purser on a number of variables, each of which provides insight into the course and direction of language change in Australian English (and I do miss hearing AusE in my everyday life). It’s wonderful to work with researchers who represent such a wide range of interests and skills, and these relationships would never have been codified without CoEDL. I’m looking forward to continuing these relationships well into the future, both on current and future projects. 

While the last two years have been extremely trying in many ways — an international move to start a new job at the outset of a global pandemic is, while possible, not recommended — they have also given me and Melody a clever, beautiful, and perfect daughter. Imzadi will be 2 years old this June, and she is the love of our lives. 

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