One of the reasons I’m an inveterate digger for random stuff is that despite the huge amounts of not terribly useful information, occasionally something comes up that’s extremely interesting.

One thing that’s been intriguing about Bardi language work is that right from the start, pretty much only one family has been involved in the language documentation. Bardi has quite a long history of documentation, from the early 1900s, and from the named sources all the language workers have belonged to a few close families, and those working with anthropologists have largely belonged to a different group.

In Mary Durack’s The Rock and the Sand there is a reference to the first ‘mission’ started at the far north of the Dampier Peninsula by Fr Duncan McNab. Durack mentioned that he worked on translation with a boy with the nickname “Knife”. I hadn’t been able to find anyone who remembered this nickname, but yesterday while looking through some song transcriptions there’s a note that na:p was X’s father (X is named in the transcript but it’s probably better that I don’t mention it here). And here’s the kick – he’s in the same group. That puts back the attestations of members of this family working with linguists back to 1883.

Does anyone know of other areas where a single group in a community has been in charge of the linguists, another of the anthros, etc?


2 responses to “Knife

  1. Is it that common for fieldworkers, at least of the pre-WW2 generations, to be that narrowly specialized in linguistics or social anthropology, etc.?

    My first thought was, sure: in the American NW Coast there have been some families that I’d have said were the ‘liaison officers’ for dealing with academics across several generations, but then I started thinking that those academics I had in mind had been, until the 1950s or beyond, Swiss Army knife types. (Or should I say Swiss Army /na:p/-s?) I’m not well informed about this, but I wonder if you might not have a unique or at least nearly-unique (and pretty cool) situation with Bardi.

  2. It may be that in some societies linguists and anthropologists end up working with liaisons appointed by the community, but this kind of situation can arise in quite a different way, without any such decision on the part of the community, due to the fact that it is not uncommon for one or two families to carry on a language after it has ceased to have any more public use. Since only the one family knows the language, of course a linguist will work with members of that family. A case in point is John Peabody Harrington’s work on Barbareno Chumash. He worked for many years with Mary Yee, the last speaker of Barbareno (and of any Chumashan language) at the end of his life. Before her, he worked with her mother, and before that,
    with her grandmother.

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