The Laves Texts (precontact narratives)

In the most recent round of Documenting Endangered Language Grants (offered as a joint program by the NSF and NEH) I received a grant to work on the Laves Bardi texts. Here’s the blurb:

Detailed linguistic fieldwork on the Indigenous languages of Australia did not begin in earnest until the 1960s. One of the few earlier sources is the manuscript collection of Gerhardt Laves, an American who went to Australia in 1928 and spent approximately 18 months doing linguistic research. He worked intensively on six languages, one of which was Bardi. Bardi is now spoken by approximately 25 elderly people in northwestern Australia. Laves’ Bardi records are extraordinary. They were written at a time before the full impact of European settlement had caused extensive language loss in Australia’s North-West and record a language and culture which has since changed significantly. Although the texts are legible and the language accurately represented, the materials are very difficult to read without excellent eyesight and a good knowledge of Bardi. This NSF/NEH-funded project will bring together a team of linguists and Bardi community members to work on the texts to produce an annotated edition, under the direction of Dr Claire Bowern. The linguists will digitize the texts, word process them, and provide rough translations on the basis of Laves’ notes and the Dr Bowern’s knowledge of the language. They will then work with Bardi speakers to refine the translations, discuss the grammar of the Bardi language, and work out the context of the stories. The result will be a book of the texts, with translations, annotations, and discussion.

This is an important project, linguistically and culturally, for Bardi people, linguists, and for science more generally. Linguistically, the Laves texts represent the earliest accurately recorded materials for Bardi, and preliminary work indicates that there have been subtle but numerous changes in the language over the last hundred years. We know little about variation and change in small linguistic communities like this, and within Australia the Bardi materials provide a rare opportunity to get accurate longitudinal information about language change. This in turn allows the study of change in languages with very complex inflection, which is both understudied and of wide relevance in linguistics. Culturally, the texts are very important. They provide information about pre-contact traditional law, mythology and everyday social interaction, and are a very detailed record of a way of life no longer practiced. Most of this knowledge is still held by the oldest people in the Bardi community but has not been written down, and work on describing and explicating the events in the Laves materials is a wonderful opportunity to study pre-contact culture. Finally, the texts themselves are an important language learning and cultural resource for Bardi people themselves, and repatriation of these materials is very important. The materials will likely figure prominently in future language revitalization programs. With so much of the world’s linguistic heritage in danger, this project provides a model of how early materials may be used to benefit both local communities and science.

Linda (aka Tulugaq) is also working on this project and is doing much of the typing and deciphering of the abbreviations that Laves uses (of which there will be more..).

We’ve started work and are translating and typing the texts at present. The end result will be a book of the texts and a documentation.

I’ll be blogging on various things that come up in the text from time to time.


10 responses to “The Laves Texts (precontact narratives)

  1. Sounds fantastic!

    Can’t wait for the book to be published (assuming it will be…).

  2. “Although the texts are legible… the materials are very difficult to read without excellent eyesight…”

    Isn’t that the truth! I’m going to need new glasses after this.

    Seriously, though, I’m glad to be a part of this project. I’ve learned a lot about Bardi culture and also find it entertaining to decrypt Laves’ notation. It’s really driven home to me the importance of a) making a key if you use abbreviations or symbols in your fieldnotes, and b) making sure that all symbols you use are covered in the key.

  3. Linda, sorry, I should have introduced you in the main post. That’ll be fixed.

  4. That’s really exciting — I look forward to hearing more about it! (I presume Laves is pronounced the way it looks, one syllable?)

  5. Claire, that’s quite alright. Wasn’t expecting to be named, but of course it’s fine if you want.

    Still no inspiration as to what the “new symbol for future teaching of linguistics” might be.

  6. We need a whole blog post about that symbol, I think!

    See David Nash’s Laves page for background info. He’s /’lɑvəz/ or /’lɑvəs/.

  7. He’s /’lɑvəz/ or /’lɑvəs/.

    Ah, thanks — glad I asked!

  8. David Marjanović

    Nitpicking alert!

    As a native speaker, I’d say [ˈlaːvɛs], but firstly, the name isn’t German in origin or spelling, secondly, the existence of unstressed [ɛ] is limited to the area south of the White Sausage Equator (north of that people use various central vowels like [ɘ] or [ɵ] ‒ but usually not [ə], which is traditionally the most common transcription), and thirdly, /aː/ is a central vowel in some northern variants of Standard German.

  9. But Laves was American (born in Chicago), so German pronunciations are not really relevant.

  10. I do not know how to write the pronunciation (I am but a simple psychologist) but we say it as though it were written Lah-vess with a bit more of an accent on the “Lah”. I am told we had a relative who was an architect in Berlin…there may be a street named after him there…..but I too have wondered about the origin of our name.

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