It was the centenary of Gerhardt Laves’ birthday this past Saturday. Laves was a pretty amazing guy. He was a student of Edward Sapir at the University of Chicago in the mid 1920s and set out to Australia in 1928 with the aim of doing proper documentation on various diverse languages. He worked on six languages in detail: Bardi and Karajarri in the North-West, Gumbaynggir and Nganyaywana in NSW, Kurin (Goreng) in Southern Western Australia, and Matngele and Ngan’gimerri in the Northern Territory.
Laves seems to have spent about three months working on Bardi over the wet season (this is judging from the random dates that appear in the Bardi notes. Laves didn’t systematically date the texts, at least in the materials I have). I read somewhere that he hadn’t meant to spend that long there but he got stranded and put his time to good use. He transcribed 100 texts in Bardi and Jawi (3 in Jawi, a few in one of the western dialects of Bardi, and the rest in Sunday Island Bardi, which is basically what people speak at One Arm Point), from at least 7 different speakers. He seems to have worked by asking for a summary in English, and then asking for the Bardi. He had a wax cylinder recorder on the trip but as far as I know he didn’t make any recordings of Bardi, and the recordings he did make were destroyed when the cylinders melted in the heat when he got bogged somewhere in the North. Judging from the handwriting, he took dictation, made a rough interlinearisation of the text and then went back to his tent and rewrote it, working out the details.
I spent about 6 weeks going through most of the texts in 2003. We worked rather differently – I sat down outside in the shade with two or three old ladies and read the text aloud sentence by sentence. As you can see from this picture of the notes, it’s not easy to read if you’ve got cataracts, or if you don’t know Bardi. So, I read these texts aloud and we translated them and as we went I’d ask questions about the words I didn’t know, and the ladies would comment on any grammatical things that were weird to them. I wrote a
paper about a couple of the differences in the texts; it’s here.
Travelling in 1920s northern Australia was no easy matter, by the way. It’s still an area where places get cut off for 3 or more months of the year and where even the paved roads have hazards, like wandering cattle and kangaroos. Laves would have got to Sunday Island by getting a lift with the barge (which I think in the 1920s was called the Oolarda, or “coolamon”) and then waiting until it came back for him. It was that or a hair-raising trip by mangrove raft across shark and crocodile infested waters. I’ve done the trip from One
Arm Point in a dinghy a few times and even then it’s pretty ‘interesting’ if there’s any swell at all.
In short, Laves was a pretty hoopy frood and it’s a real pity he left linguistics after he returned from Australia. There are annotations in some of the Bardi materials from 1931 which imply that he went back over his notes.