Back to listing

Director weekly highlights 30 April

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 30 April 2021

This week has seen another brace of publications by CoEDLers. Six and a half years into CoEDL’s life, it’s noticeable how certain themes are starting to criss-cross and feed each other in interesting ways in our publications. In two of this week’s publications, by Sally Dixon and Carmel O’Shannessy (details below), the interaction of various codes (e.g., Alyawarra, Kriol, Aboriginal English, standard English) with practices in quoted speech, language development and language maintenance are examined in original and interesting ways. There’s way too little dialogue between literary and scientific approaches to language, which used to be tightly interlinked but have drifted apart since the 1960s. The foundational Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of raznorechija — often rendered as heteroglossia in English translation though I prefer the more transparent if inelegant manyvoicedness — introduced the profound insight that much of our linguistic existence lives between the echoes of those we quote — in different language, or dialects, or styles. 

We might wonder whether this recycling of the speech of others, through quotation, is the ultimate source of recursive syntactic structures like complementation — this is something we’re looking at in the SCOPIC project at the moment, and I’ll say more about it in another mailout. On the other hand, one of the shortcomings of Bakhtin’s approach was that he primarily limited his insights to the domain of the novel — for him the ultimate site for heteroglossia to play out, as the novelistic voice passes between characters. But we can now harness his insights to the study of very ordinary, unscripted speech, and this is what Sally’s and Carmel’s papers do in their different ways. And both papers embody heteroglossia in another way — Carmel’s because it appears in a Festschrift for the great scholar of language contact, Sally Thomason, and as in all good Festschrift contributions weaves in a sense of the dedicatee’s words and teachings reappearing as the argument unfolds. In Sally (Dixon)’s paper, the scholarly dialogue comes from another angle. It responds to a special issue of the journal Languages on Australian Languages Today, guest-edited by Elisabeth Mayer, Carmel O’Shannessy and Jane Simpson, which brings us into the first year of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages that ‘highlight works that add new perspectives to research on Australian languages, on a range of topics’. In an era whose metrics focus squarely on authorship, we shouldn’t forget that all research is a conversation and that the inspirations of editors, whether of Festschrifts or journal issues, play a central role in developing the line of communication. 

On the publication line, I’d also like to flag the appearance of a special issue of the journal Language Documentation and Conservation, under the guest editorship of Kate Lindsey and Dineke Schokkin, on the phonetics of the languages of Southern New Guinea (details below). This is a part of the world that is as fascinating as it is neglected. The issue includes phonetic/phonological portraits of six languages from four families, modelled on the ‘Illustrations’ of JIPA (Journal of the International Phonetic Association), as well an introductory survey by yours truly. You’ll recognise many from our CoEDL community among the contributors, including recent CoEDL PhDs (Tina Gregor on Yelmek, Eri Kashima on Nmbo and Christian Döhler as a coauthor of the Idi chapter), postdocs (Matt Carroll on Ngkolmpu and Dineke Schokkin as lead author on the Idi article) and affiliates (Volker Gast, Jena), plus papers by Jason Brown, Alex Muir and Robbie Petterson on Urama and Phillip Rogers on Bitur. Given our paucity of detailed phonetic information on Papuan languages (just two of the 160 or so published JIPA Illustrations so far deal with Papuan languages) this publication triples, at one fell swoop, the number of Papuan languages for which we have good phonetic information (including good-quality sound files).  

For a new documentary on the value of language documentation, based on fieldwork on an endangered language of Chad, check out this trailer. Although the reasons it gives for the value of documenting fragile linguistic diversity will be pretty familiar to CoEDLers, it’s interesting to get a feeling for fieldwork in quite a different part of the world, as well as (as so many CoEDL fieldworkers in Australia and the Pacific have witnessed) a casual but impressive attitude that high levels of multilingual mastery are completely normal. 

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to an incredibly important initiative being launched by our Brazilian colleagues at ABRALIN. This is something that has the potential to transform how the language sciences are taught around the world, opening them up to all sorts of people who are currently unable to access good training, and like all global initiatives it will only work if like-minded people from around the world all pitch in with their distinctive expertise. I am hoping that our CoEDL community will be able to make some valuable contributions here. 

After their runaway success last year in establishing a rich and wide-ranging set of Zoom seminars, they are now starting to plan out a series of actual courses, to be offered in the same mode, and are calling for initial expressions of interest. More than most fields, the language sciences will only fulfil their destiny when they have wide-ranging participation from speakers of the languages we research. But this goal is still far off. One of the reasons is that it is hard for members of these speech communities — often in countries with under-resourced universities and little support for study — to break into the system of university training. An interesting model that tries to get around this, in the case of mathematics, is the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences which aims to help young mathematicians from under-resourced African countries to get over that first hurdle, after which they can relatively easily get postgraduate scholarships elsewhere. It is that initial round of training that is the stumbling block, and this new ABRALIN initiative offers young future linguists the chance to do something similar. If you have any interest in this bold vision, please take a look at the item below. Send your ideas to them directly, but we are also interested in submitting some integrated suggestions from CoEDL. If you wish to contribute to these discussions, please send your ideas to Morgan/CoEDL admin in the first instance. We will begin collating them and coordinating our discussions across the centre.” 


Please look after yourselves and your loved ones, near and far, and have a fruitful week. 

Nick Evans

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