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Director's weekly highlight 2 Sept

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 2 September 2022

This week we continue our series of accounts by CoEDL Chief Investigators about projects that germinated during CoEDL’s lifetime and are now taking deeper root for the years that follow. It’s  appropriate, for a mailout that appears the week after the Gurindji community celebrates the Wave Hill Walkoff with its Freedom Day Weekend, that we hear about Felicity Meakins’ work with Gurindji on a profoundly important question — do humans possess a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field? I’ll hand over to Felicity in a moment; her piece below is also a sort of warm-up to the talk she’ll be giving on the last day of our End of Centre Event. 

Read on for an interesting range of upcoming talks and seminars, as well as for this week’s spotlight on U Melb CoEDL alumna Jenny Green. I’d especially like to draw your attention to the upcoming launch of the Dhuwaya phonological awareness app on September 13 at Yirrkala School (and live online). This is the fruit of a collaboration that has run over most of CoEDL’s lifetime, between CI Jill Wigglesworth, several collaborators at the Yirrkala School — Yalmay Yunupingu, Robyn Beecham and Jake Stockley — and Melanie Wilkinson from the NT Department of Education. In case you missed this article when it appeared last year, you can prep for the event by reading the full story of the app here. Advance congratulations to Yalmay, Jill and the whole team and we look forward to many of us joining you on the day. 

Nick Evans


And now I pass the baton to Felicity Meakins, who writes: 

Sometimes ideas are a slowbake and they require a confluence of ideas and the right people. I have been researching spatial expression and cognition under the Levinson and Wilkins framework for many years with Gurindji colleague Cassandra Algy. We've been focussed on the classic Neo-Whorfian question about whether the way we talk about space affects the way we think about it. Our approach has been to look at a situation of language change in Cassandra's community where the morphological complexity and function of the cardinal system is narrowing. Interestingly, we have found that the effect on cognition is minimal (contra Neo-Whorfian predictions). Gurindji people with higher levels of English-based education show mixed responses on the cognitive tasks. Either these people are bi-cognitive in the sense that people can be bi-lingual, or it could be that cognitive change lags linguistic change. 

All the time we've been investigating the fascinating word structure and function of cardinals in Gurindji, I've always had another question at the back of my mind. If language can shape cognition, is there a related structural effect in the brain — a neurological manifestation of this very different way of being in the world. Alternatively, perhaps humans are not unlike many other animals which have magneto-reception capabilities, but the attention to geocentric orientation may mean that Gurindji people can utilise brain structures we all may possess. The Gurindji cardinal direction system are based on the sun’s trajectory but it is possible that Gurindji people have made associative links with the earth’s magnetic field. 

It turns out I wasn't the only person wondering whether some humans might possess an electro-magnetic ability, i.e. a type of neurological compass. Joe Kirschvink (geologist) and Shin Shimojo (neuropsychologist) at Caltech put out a paper in 2017 showing that non-Indigenous English-speaking people in California had passive brain responses to simulated shifts in the earth’s magnetic field. We came across each other’s research and wondered whether Gurindji people might have a conscious awareness of the magnetic field. 

It turns out we were right. 

But this was a project which needed to be done slowly and carefully because there has been a long and brutal history of experimenting on Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. Much of this work has focused on perceived deficits and has been ensconced in the colonial project. This work on spatial cognition brings linguistics and science to the task of describing one of the extraordinary abilities of Indigenous peoples in Australia that sets them apart from non-Indigenous peoples. Gurindji people are firmly embedded in Country and this way of being in the world finds its expression in their language, spirituality and cultural practices. But given highly experimental nature of work (EEG, Faraday enclosures, etc.) we wanted to really make sure that work was not perpetuating colonial practices. We weren't being disingenuous about this research. This project was not co-designed but it needed to be genuinely participatory and aligned with Gurindji interests. 

In May, I went to Caltech with three Gurindji co-researchers (Cassandra Algy, Leah Leaman and Rosie Smiler) and Karungkarni Arts centre manager Penny Smith. We met with Chumash people of LA area at Wishtoya Chusmash village at Malibu. We then had a week of meetings with heads of neuropsychologist and geologist labs at Caltech — Joe Kirschvink and Shin Shimojo and other members of the labs — about whether the research methodology was appropriate for Kalkaringi. There were plenty of other discussion about ethics, timing, logistics, tours of equipment and training. Caltech Institutional Review Board (IRB) gave us ethics clearance and we set up a ‘reliance agreement’ between Caltech and UQ so UQ ethics recognised Caltech IRB’s ethics clearance. 

Three weeks later we were in Kalkaringi. We made a short video for the community in Gurindji Kriol with a filmographer, Elle Fredericksen, who has a long-standing relationship in the community. We held a series of community meetings then launched the video on social media. Then the experimental work began. 124 members of the Gurindji community participated and to the community's and our delight, we have found evidence for the first time of a conscious awareness of the earth's magnetic field in humans. 

Stay tuned for my talk on Friday at the CoEDL End of Centre Event to hear the details of the results! 

Spotlight: Jenny Green 

Introduced by CoEDL CI Rachel Nordlinger

It gives me great pleasure to introduce Jenny Green, although I suspect she does not need an introduction for most of you. Jenny has been involved in CoEDL since the very beginning, and a central member of the Melbourne CoEDL team. She has long-standing relationships with the languages and communities of central Australia, especially Alyawarr and Anmatyerr, and is a leader in research on Australian Indigenous sign languages and multimodality. Jenny’s contributions throughout CoEDL have been multiple, innovative, significant, collaborative and always fascinating. They include detailed work on Ngaanyatjarra verbal arts with Elizabeth Marrikilyi Ellis and Inge Kral; extensive work on the diversity of Indigenous sign languages with a large team of collaborators (if you haven’t yet explored the amazing website you should do so now!); an accessible and broad-ranging textbook on linguistic field methods with Felicity Meakins and Myf Turpin, and much, much more. There is no doubt that CoEDL has been much richer for Jenny’s involvement and we hope the collaborations and enrichment continue well beyond! 


Although technically still almost an ‘early’ career researcher, I was a late starter in the academic world. During decades of life and work in Central Australia, my interest in Arandic languages was grounded in the heady days of newly-born art centres, language centres and land rights. I was highly motivated to try and learn some of the languages that I heard around me, particularly from some of the then-senior artists at Utopia, who became my teachers. It was not till around 1980 that I met any real live ‘linguists’, and they tactfully sent me off to do some training (I had tried to read Yallop’s grammar of Alyawarr but was bamboozled by the technical language of the discipline). My amateurish word lists scribbled down in my very own orthography and my first audio recordings were later incorporated into several major dictionaries (Alyawarr and Anmatyerr). I completed an MA in 1998, a PhD on the topic of multimodality in Arandic sand stories at the University of Melbourne in 2010, and then secured several post docs, including a DECRA. 

I have been a CoEDL follower/supporter/affiliate since its inception, and in the last few years CoEDL support has enabled me to continue work on the Australian Indigenous sign languages project. In this multidisciplinary environment I have felt nurtured and inspired by some like-minded travellers who recognise that language is about more than just speech, and who get what a multimodal approach brings to bear on the question of communication more broadly. An interest in signed languages was a natural progression from the research on sand stories, which, being multimodal, include sign and gesture as well. A significant milestone was the relaunch last month, at Minjerribah, of the sign languages websitewhich now has well over 1000 video clips, with examples recorded in 10 communities and in at least 9 languages. Although fieldwork travel has been curtailed in the last few pandemic years, a recent trip to Port Hedland at the invitation of Wangka Maya Language Centre to kickstart their project on Pilbara sign languages broke the fieldwork drought. This project will extend what is known about sign language diversity in Australia. 

Some other highlights have included working with Lizzie Ellis, Inge Kral and Jane Simpson on the Western Desert Verbal arts project and the acceptance of the resulting collection for UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Another is the publication of Archival Returns: Central Australia and Beyond (edited by Linda Barwick, Jennifer Green, and Petronella Vaarzon-Morel) which won the 2020 Mander Jones Award from the Australian Society of Archivists for “the publication making the greatest contribution to the archives profession in Australia”. As linguists working with speakers of Australia’s many First Languages, the question of how the primary data and results of research work are piloted into the future is vital. Another highlight was working with Felicity Meakins and Myfany Turpin on a textbook on linguistic field methods – this exercise forced us to distil our collective experiences as field linguists into a text that could be used more broadly by linguistics students. Thanks to all collaborators on these many projects – you are too numerous to mention! 

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