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Director weekly highlights 4 December

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 4 December 2020

First up I’d like to thank Tony Woodbury for stepping in last week, in his role of Chair of our Advisory Committee, to do a special Thanksgiving message to our weekly update. Tony has been there on our Advisory Committee since the beginning of CoEDL, so has a detailed knowledge of our research, our community, and our vision of the full potential of the language sciences. For our part, thanks to you Tony on behalf of CoEDL, and all that you and your program are doing at UT Austin and especially, beyond that, through the many sites in Latin America where you and your students and colleagues are working. 

As the dice fell, there was an even more exuberant number of achievements and people to congratulate last week, so it happily fell to Tony to do that, but I’d like to add my own congratulations to some of the most spectacular, especially to Jane Simpson and Steve Levinson for their election to the Australian Academy of the Humanities, to Evan Kidd for his role in the International Emmy Award-winning ‘Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds’,  and to Michael Haugh and team for leading the successful LDaCA (Language Data Commons of Australia) initiative which will greatly expand our corpus and archiving infrastructure for a whole range of languages. 

Moving on to this week, proud congratulations to AI Wayan Arka for his promotion to full Professor, to Rosey Billington for her appointment to a two-year position at the ANU, and to Anne Cutler for her upcoming keynote on ‘Listening to speech – universal and language-specific at the same time!’ to the Phonetic Society of Japan. 

As you can read below, the Bislama corpus hit 2 million words this week, our largest corpus, and it’s a good moment to go back and reflect on what we promised in our original proposal when it came to building corpora: 

A key goal for the Centre is to build large corpora of little-known languages of our region. These corpora, which will act as vast storehouses of cultural knowledge, are of great value to indigenous communities because corpus development unlocks the material for local use, as well as forming the basic data-sets for present and future linguistic investigation. 

Writing that in 2013, none of us quite knew what ‘large’ meant, and 100,000 words was already sounding at the overambitious end. Size isn’t everything of course – corpus composition, annotational richness, sociolinguistic balance, and cross-corpus comparability are all other desirables, and Dr (as of last week) Alex Marley’s PhD showed just how much progress can be made in understanding the dynamics of change if a corpus has enough temporal and social texture. But as corpus size so does the number of questions we can ask of it. To now hit 2 million words is thus an immense and exciting achievement, so congratulations to the whole Bislama team for reaching this benchmark. How much further should we go? It’s always worth taking the 50 million word corpus size of the Thesaurus Linguae Grecae as a useful benchmark – can we aim for corpus sizes like this for the languages of our region? It’s way beyond what we thought possible in 2013 but so many exciting things are happening in this space, from better recording methods to transcription acceleration to the mobilisation of more and more people in communities engaged in documenting their languages, that it would be a failure of imagination to rule such seemingly ambitious goals out as unfeasible. 

You’ll see below an update from Marie-France Duhamel on how her language documentation project on P’umotu is going. It’s great to get in-progress reports like this coming in, so any of you with a bit of news on how your research is progressing please send it in, so that others interested in what you’re doing can contact you. 

Lots is coming online in the next two weeks – I’d particularly single out the upcoming ALS conference, virtual for the first time, the Nijmegen series on the Future of Linguistics Webinar Series, and Nick Thieberger’s upcoming ILARA talk Before Us: the Deluge. In the meantime you might like to catch up on this morning’s ILARA live by the legendary Marianne Mithun, whose course many of you attended at last year’s summer school, with many vivid stories of the people you worked with, including the shift from noisy roadside cafe to a quiet spot in the local mortuary to sort out the crowded consonant space of plain, aspirated and ejective and velar vs uvular consonants in Central Pomo phonology. 

Once again there is a buoyant set of job and higher study opportunities. In the job space these range from a postdoc in Lyon (at their Dynamics of Language lab!), a lecturer at the Batchelor Institute, and an opportunity to work as a Learning on Country Coordinator with the Mimal Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, an amazing group who I have had the great privilege to work with over a number of years, and in the study space from honours projects with RUIL (Melbourne, scholarship targeting an Indigenous student) and ANU ASD-Colab, and PhD projects at USyd on Myf Turpin and Georgia Curran’s project on Warlpiri Ceremonial Songs, and at Norwich as part of a UNESCO chair initiative.  

And one last thing on Unesco – we are repeating the call for people to take the short UNESCO survey on how its actions during the International Year of Indigenous Languages (2019) shaped up, so as to help it plan out the best actions to mount for the upcoming International Decade of Indigenous Languages. You’ve got the choice of filling out the form in English, French, Spanish, Russian or Arabic – between us we certainly cover all those languages – and we figured it would capture a wider range of views and reactions, as well as adding demographic force, if a good range of people from CoEDL pitch in and take the survey. 

I’ll be taking a few days break coming up, to go to Melbourne to meet my new grandson Otis, so you’ll hear from Jane in this slot next week – thanks again Jane. 

Have a great week everyone, and for those in the southern hemisphere I hope that the combination of receding Covid restrictions and the end of the teaching term gives you a new burst of energy. And to our far-flung friends still stuck under second or third waves we send our solidarity and support and the reassurance that this awful plague won’t last.  

Nick Evans 

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