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Director's weekly highlight 16 Sept

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 16 September 2022

I’m writing this from Aotearoa, where I’m working with Simon Greenhill (plus Wolfgang Barth on Zoom) on analysing and writing up some of the findings from our vast Parabank project. We’ll mention some of those at the CoEDL End of Centre Event in less than two weeks’ time now. 

Meanwhile, it’s always heartening to see how far our Kiwi neighbours have come in supporting Māori language revival and maintenance. It is Māori language week, which this year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Māori Language Petition. A key piece of semantic analysis that encapsulates what has unfolded over these fifty years of debate is the word taonga

In the Treaty of Waitangi, there is an English passage that ‘confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof… the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess’. So, what are the ‘other properties’? 

In the Māori version, ‘other properties’ is translated ratou taonga. But taonga has a much wider range of meanings: alongside a first sense of ‘property, goods, possession, effects’ is a second broader sense of ‘treasure, anything prized — applied to anything considered to be of value including socially or culturally valuable objects, resources, phenomenon, ideas and techniques’ (see Te Aka Maori dictionary). In recent years the semantics of taonga in the Waitangi Treaty have been used in representations to the New Zealand government — partially successful — that they have an obligation to support Te Reo Māori, Māori language, as ‘a taonga of quite transcendent importance to Māori, and few other taonga could rival its status’1under the Treaty of Waitangi. 

Linguists have a vital role to play in such debates, especially through lexicography, corpus building, and sensitive analysis of word meanings and contexts. Opposing parties in court cases often try and argue, for example, that such more abstract meanings are recent (perhaps ideologised extensions), and therefore not part of the intention of the original translation. But if you look at the full entry for taonga in the Te Aka Māori dictionary, there are clear citations demonstrating its ‘cultural valuable… ideas and techniques’ meaning going back to the mid-nineteenth century, and also that ‘this broad range of meanings is not recent, while a similar range of meanings from some other Eastern Polynesian languages support this (e.g., Tuamotuan)’. 

Interestingly, one of the high points of last week’s COOL12 Conference in Papeete was a talk by conference organiser Jacques Vernaudon on the potentialities of the online Tahitian dictionary, which links together words (Tahitian, and their French translations) with textual attestations, but also with their cognates in other Polynesian languages (and sometimes back to proto-Austronesian) through an version of the Pollex Database put online by Simon Greenhill and Ross Clark. For example, if you want to find out more about Māori taonga in other Polynesian languages, you can type in tao’a (or French trésor) into the search function, click on the link to Pollex, and get cognates in a range of Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian kaona ‘a hidden meaning in poetry’. But if you don’t want to get distracted by etymologies, and just focus on the Tahitian uses, you can click on another link, to a large Tahitian corpus, and be led to a concordance of 40 entries. We’re still a long way from building anything comparable for Australian Indigenous languages. 

COOL12 was an inspiring reaffirmation of what face-to-face conferences (with some hybrid zooming in) can be: a dizzying range of linguistic topics from the challenging of phonologies of Kanak languages to new data about how trans-Pacific voyaging, long after initial settlement, can be inferred from terms for cultivated plants, to special themes on language and traditional ecological knowledge (and its role in Pacific language curricula), and language and song. The latter included a memorable closing round-table where every speaker wove in a song or chant, which they effortlessly slipped into their speech, as part of their contribution, a rhythm which continued into the questions. We were also all treated to a special excursion to Moorea on the Wednesday including a visit to the Te Puna Rēo ‘Language Source’ for teaching Tahitian to children, and to Te Fare Natura, an eco-museum that puts ecological knowledge transmitted through Tahitian front and centre. Overall, the conference cemented strong connections between CoEDL linguists (represented there by Nick Thieberger, Miriam Meyerhoff, Rosey Billington, Marie-France Duhamel, Alpheaus Zobule and myself) and the very exciting group of linguists in French Polynesia. (This is also a good moment to draw attention to the Anavevo (lit. ‘Cave of Echoes’) project, again led by Jacques Vernaudon, with collaboration from CoEDL and PARADISEC, which is in some sense a digital archive with comparable goals to PARADISEC — see here

Before handing over to our spotlight researcher this week, Jill Vaughan, introduced by Rachel Nordlinger, I’d like to signal a going and a coming. We salute the passing of Adam Kendon, giant of gesture studies, famous for his work on Warlpiri Sign Language and other Australian sign systems, and mentor and inspiration to many in our community (see note below). And we welcome the return of Evan Kidd to the ANU, now based in the CASS linguistics program, to become the new Professor of Linguistics here. Many of you will be wondering what happened with the Chair-level appointment in linguistics at ANU announced last year, and it has taken a long time to get all the details sorted. Evan has continued to be closely involved in CoEDL through his years at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, but we are thrilled to be welcoming Evan back now in a more intensive role. 

Read further down for more congratulations, achievements, publications, talks and jobs, but now I hand over to Rachel to introduce Jill. 

Have a great week everyone. 

Nick Evans 


1Waitangi Tribunal Te Reo Māori – Pre-publication (WAI 262 2010) 48. There is an interesting discussion of the legal problematics, and of the semantics of Taonga, in Stephens, M. (2011). Taonga, Rights and Interests: Some Observations on WAI 262 and the Framework of Protections for the Māori Language. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review42(2), 241–258. 


Spotlight: Jill Vaughan 

Introduced by CoEDL CI Rachel Nordlinger

I am very pleased to introduce Jill Vaughan who has been an important part of the CoEDL (and RUIL) team at the University of Melbourne for many years. Jill’s contributions to CoEDL have been many and varied, from working with Jill Wigglesworth and Jane Simpson on the ACLA project to developing an exciting research program of her own on languages of the Maningrida region, to most recently driving the 50 words project. She was also (along with Katie Jepson and Rosey Billington) behind the highly successful Linguistics Roadshow a jewel in CoEDL’s outreach crown, taking linguistics to high school students across Australia. Jill’s research on multilingual practices in Maningrida and small-scale multilingualism has been recognized internationally and will undoubtedly continue to enrich our understanding of the complex language ecologies of northern Australia. Although we were sad to see her go, we are thrilled that she has been appointed to an ongoing position in Linguistics at Monash University and look forward to watching her star continue to rise in the years to come. 


At the time of CoEDL’s kick off in 2014, I was just about emerging from the long dark days of writing up my PhD on Irish-language maintenance and feeling somewhat bewildered about my next steps. To my extreme good fortune, some RA work on the ACLA project with Jill Wigglesworth and Jane Simpson led to a fortuitous chat with Jill and Margaret Carew. Margaret had been working with the Gun-nartpa community at Gochan Jiny-jirra outstation since the 1990s, and suggested that some more linguistic work in Maningrida might be a good idea. So later that year – thanks to some generous CoEDL support – I spent a couple of weeks in Arnhem Land with Margaret and tech wizard Ben Foley. We packed a lot into those weeks, including running digitisation and archiving workshops to build community capacity in safeguarding rich local materials in the many (many!) languages of the Maningrida region. I was hooked immediately, and in retrospect it couldn’t have been a better induction into dynamic, impactful and community-driven language work in the region. I also celebrated my 30th birthday during that trip – surely up there with my most memorable! – featuring the finest the local shop could offer at short notice and an excellent birthday sculpture made of toilet roll (thanks Ben and Marg). 

Since that trip, I’ve returned many times to work with friends and collaborators in Maningrida and Darwin. My own research quickly focused on the nature of multilingualism in Maningrida, struck as I was from my first day there by the dazzling linguistic diversity of the region and the complex language repertoires of everyone I met. How did people work their languages in response to different domains, interlocutors and social goals? CoEDL supported initial exploratory work on the topic, then supported fieldwork and visits to the UQ node during my postdoc at NTNU in Norway. An ELDP postdoc subsequently brought me back to UniMelbourne and allowed me to focus on documenting dialectal variation in the Burarra language. These projects produced rich documentation of multilingual practices in Maningrida and facilitated fruitful collaborations, especially with others working in the new field of small-scale multilingualism

Community engagement and outreach projects have been among my personal highlights over the years – almost all enabled by CoEDL in one way or another. Collaborative work on the Linguistics Roadshow, the 50 Words Project and many community-driven language projects with Maningrida Arts & Culture, Bábbarra Women’s Centre and Maningrida College all owe a debt of gratitude to CoEDL for support and generous mentorship. 

Following a heady couple of years combining the pandemic with the arrival of our second son, Ronan, I’ve just taken on new role as Lecturer in Linguistics at Monash Uni. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to continue this work at Monash and so grateful for the support I’ve had from CoEDL (and so many of its wonderful members) along the way. 

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