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Workshop: Waves of Words project

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 29 October 2019

When: 9:30am - 5pm, Monday, 4 November 2019

Where: Engma Room, Room 3.165, Coombs, Fellows Rd, ANU (Note: entrance via the Coombs Lecture theatre entrance, because of construction.)

Organisers: Rachel Hendery and Patrick McConvell (Contact

This series of talks is presented in association with the Waves of Words project, which aims to determine the extent and nature of ancient contact relationships between first peoples of Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. It aims to rewrite the pre-history of Australia and its relations with its Pacific neighbours by developing and applying new technology-centred research methods to explore evidence from language change and relate it to anthropological evidence and the archaeological record. Pacific and Island Southeast Asian peoples have been involved in intense voyaging and social and cultural interaction for thousands of years. Australia did not sit alone in the middle of this busy highway; it was most likely an important part of the Pacific network, yet this perspective is absent from much of the linguistic and anthropological literature. This project aims to right this situation, in particular by focussing on the highly valuable but neglected evidence of language, using new approaches and new technologies.


9:30-10:30am: "Tabu, kinship & marriage: Austronesian influence on Australia?, by Patrick McConvell

10:30-11am: Morning tea

11-12: "The origins of graded societies in Vanuatu: a dialogue between anthropology, archaeology and genetics", by Laurent Dousset

12-12:30pm: "Automatic extraction of linguistic data from various sources (including printed sources such as dictionaries or running text)", by Rachel Hendery

12:30-1pm: "Looking at grammatical features from the perspective of Australia-Oceania language contact", by Rachel Hendery

1-2pm: Lunch

2-3pm: "Re-tangling as Method: Thinking through the layers of Layered Horizons", by Andrew Burrell

3-3:30pm: Afternoon tea

3:30-4:30pm: "Australian links between language and plant exploitation practice", by Tim Denham and Mark Donohue

4:30-5pm: "Nothing new under the sun: Early(ish) ideas about Pacific-Australian contacts", by Matthew Spriggs

5pm: Possibly a short remote presentation from Michael Falk about detecting automatic detection of words from Australian or Pacific languages in Trove.


Patrick McConvell: Tabu, kinship & marriage: Austronesian influence on Australia?

The Austronesian item tabu is widely known popularly in English and other languages in the meaning ‘prohibited, usually holy or sacred’. This meaning reflects the common meaning in Oceanic languages, and it is reconstructed as a proto-Oceanic root with this kind of meaning. The item, affected by sound changes, quite profound in many cases, and various meaning changes analysed by Alex Francois for a branch of Oceanic, north and central Vanuatu. In south Vanuatu the form is tabur with a final liquid and this is the form which was borrowed into Gugu Yimidhirr and Kuku Yalanji, Pama-Nyungan languages of south-
eastern Cape York Peninsula, Australia. While the meaning of the word in this part of Australia is very similar to that in Vanuatu, there are some other languages nearby in the peninsula. A that have adopted the word only with a meaning related to kinship and marriage, as ‘promised spouse’. What drove this change of meaning is unclear. However a similar meaning appears in Rembarrnga in central Arnhem Land far west of Cape York. The source of this is unlikely to be Vanuatu but is more likely to be tabu and cognates in the languages of Tanimbar- tavu and tambu. Tambu is a common form throughout the western Oceanic languages and tavu results from a regular lenition change in Yamdena. These are southern Malulu languages and not usually considered to be Oceanic. The set of semantic changes are quite different from those encounterd in Oceanic a prominent being ‘ancestral statue' in Tanimbar house, traditionally with skulls of ancestor above. There are other meanings
however which may be more directly relatable to the affinal meaning in Australia concerning the debt owed by one group for a wife the gifts of precious items which symbolise this relationship.

Laurent Dousset: The origins of graded societies in Vanuatu: a dialogue between anthropology, archaeology and genetics

I will talk about the question of interconnecting genetics, archaeology and anthropology in reconstructing deep history, and a case study on graduation rituals and chiefs.

Rachel Hendery: Automatic extraction of linguistic data from various sources (including printed sources such as dictionaries or running text)

In this talk I will report on some work I have been doing together with computer science students on creating scripts to get (mainly linguistic) data from various sources into structured formats that we can more easily search, sort and filter for the purposes of our project. This includes a script that extracts items from printed (OCRed) dictionaries into tabular format. I will also briefly discuss retrieving relevant data from large existing databases, such as CLICS.

Rachel Hendery: Looking at grammatical features from the perspective of Australia-Oceania language contact

This is a preliminary overview of work from the Waves of Words project so far that investigates grammatical patterns (e.g. complex sentences, word ordering, alignment) in the region, to identify potential contact-induced patterns.

Andrew Burrell: Re-tangling as Method: Thinking through the layers of Layered Horizons.

"Layered Horizons" is a Research through Design and digital humanities project that brings together disparate data sets from linguistics, anthropology, geography and archaeology-within virtual reality (VR) to create interactive information visualisations which use gesture-based controls to allow a user to interact with information in an embodied manner. A user is literally surrounded by the information as environment and interacts with it in a direct and embodied manner. This presentation will explore "Layered Horizons" from the perspective of the design processes used to create it and the central role an understanding of the unique affordances of virtual reality as a material of design, in particular its malleability and ethereality, have played in this process. It will also discuss an emerging approach to thinking about the framework created for layering information within “Layered Horizons” as a tool for the re-tangling of data.



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