I gave a talk about endangered languages and fieldwork in Northern Australia at UNT Denton on Monday. It was a lot of fun – a very lively department. I was talking about the Yan-nhaŋu project and some of the non-linguistic issues involved in doing fieldwork, especially the conundrum of how (and if) to do experimental-type work in communities which are sick of being experimented on.
The talk revolved around some of the different reasons for doing fieldwork – I contrasted the reasons that Yan-nhaŋu speakers gave me with the reasons that are often given in the linguistic literature for going to the field. These are the reasons that Yan-nhaŋu people have given me for wanting a linguist to work on their language:
1.Older generation passing away; therefore need to make a more permanent record of their knowledge.
2.Wish for Yan-nhaŋu in outstation school; help needed to prepare materials.
3.To raise profile of Yan-nhaŋu at Milingimbi.
4.To share Yolŋu knowledge and European knowledge.
The reasons for fieldwork that I’ve picked out of the literature can be summarised as:
1.“Adding to scientific knowledge”
2.“Documenting a dying culture”
3.“Will help the people”
There’s some overlap here, but I wanted to highlight a few things as being important: firstly, that the “documenting a dying language/culture” argument is often found quite offensive, and there are ways to phrase the same idea without implying that someone’s culture is lost. The second was that documentation “will help the people” is often not too well articulated, and it needs careful thought as to how precisely any project will help. A project justified on these grounds that is not hat the community wants is bound to lead to disappointment. Finally, the “adding to scientific knowledge argument” implied, at least for the Yolŋu people I worked with, an exchange, not a wholesale contribution on their part. We need to train students for this potential role too. This is incidentally a nice riposte to Senator Vanstone’s comments about relegating people to the “cultural museums” of outstations. A policy built on genuine exchange rather than assimilation might be more successful than the current system.
I haven’t put the slides online because they have piccies and audio in them, but I’ll remove that and bung them up soon.