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Director weekly highlights 29 Apr

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 29 April 2022

бидн дəəни эсрг! тырмоз öвöл! эпир вārça хирēç!  These expressions of opposition to the murderous Russian invasion of the Ukraine — by minorities (Kalmyk, Udmurt, Chuvash) who have themselves suffered centuries-long cultural suppression — are a reminder of one of the central boons of language diversity: to express oneself freely in a way that keeps your communication secret from those seeking to regulate your lives. Read about the blossoming use of Russia’s Indigenous languages as vehicles of free expression in the second (New Statesman) link — a sort of Navajo code-talkers in reverse. Also worth following there are links to the inspiring nineteenth-century Ukrainian language activist Larysa Petrivna Kosach, who wrote under the pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka.  

Russia’s many Indigenous languages — typically written in Cyrillic, augmented by special characters — are, for the moment, holding out against the acceleration of suppression of speech, which have already extended to detaining people carrying signs saying ‘two words’ (for ‘no (to) war’). The New Statesman reports that one activist stated: ‘“This is Russia, [the authorities] can ban anything if they want.... But they might struggle to type out the words they want to ban [in minority languages] — I doubt they’ve even got the right letters downloaded onto their keyboards.”’ But how long will these languages revel in their freedom? It is a reminder that readily-accessible alternative keyboards and fonts, as well as the extension of NLP tools to under-resourced languages, is not an unalloyed good. 

Follow the link — you’ll be led to the first ever Auslan video podcast series, Our Deaf Ways, produced in six parts by SBS in partnership with Deaf Australia. This is a fantastic chance to raise the profile of Auslan, the Deaf Community, and for all to learn more about Auslan, and everyday life as a Deaf person. 

This week has been a bit special for me because the second edition of a book I wrote some time back has now officially been published, under the revised and more optimistic title Words of Wonder: Endangered Languages and What They Tell Us. The shift from the original title (Dying Words) reflects my admiration for all that First Nations communities have managed to do, to turn the tide of language loss. The new edition has a new chapter on the role played in this by a slew of new technological, educational and political developments. Without the inspiration of so many of you in our CoEDL community, the book would not have taken this turn. I hope the book does justice to the ethos of all those talks and conversations, for which I am truly grateful.  

With just over three weeks to the Federal Election, and a campaign notable for its lack of inspiring or humane policies, it’s still worth trying to get ideas out there among the pollies. In the ‘Ramilla’ story, recounting how a migrant ESL class with snake handler prepared a woman to survive a king brown encounter in her Adelaide flat, you will see a particularly quirky and unforgettable reminder of how language knowledge reaches into the most improbable corners of our lives. Click on the link and you’ll see some powerful testimonies to the value of migrant ESL teaching.  There’ve certainly been recent extensions to the availability of this program; but as the story outlines, ‘there are still close to 100,000 people in Australia in the process of applying for asylum who are still blocked from taking part’. Extending the reach of the program out to people shivering in this waiting room would be a far-sighted investment which at least the more ethical of our politicians should be willing to go in to bat for — I hope that at least some members of our CoEDL community have local campaigning pollies who might see the value of taking this on board. 

Have a great week everybody. 

Nick Evans


CoEDL Spotlight: Dunstan Brown 

This week we turn our spotlight on recent CoEDL visitor Dunstan Brown (York), who from April 19 to May 14 visited CoEDL as part of an international fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust (UK). Among other things, Dunstan presented joint work on a model of the Greek nominal accentual system ‘Understanding the relationship between affixal and prosodic exponence in Modern Greek nouns’. The modelling for this fed into ongoing research with CoEDL’s Matt Carroll. It made use of Matt’s innovative methods for quantifying verbose exponence in order to understand its use in languages with small paradigms, such as the modern Greek system. Dunstan also consulted with Nick Evans and Harold Koch in relation to a chapter he is writing for the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Diachronic Linguistics on morphological universals and tendencies.  

Dunstan writes

Visiting CoEDL gave me the opportunity to make significant progress with the work on modelling Greek accent, as well as benefitting from CoEDL expertise on diachrony and morphology. I also very much enjoyed attending Nick’s lectures on Papuan languages. As well as my discussions with Nick, Harold and Matt, I had a very productive time meeting with a number of ANU linguists, including Cynthia Allen, Avery Andrews, Wayan Arka, Zurab Baratashvili, Rosey Billington, Beth Evans, Alex Marley, Alison Mount, David Nash and Jane Simpson. I’m looking forward to building on what I learned, and I’m very grateful to CoEDL for being such excellent hosts. 

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