People are getting enthusiastic about enduring voices. I’m unimpressed. Snazzy graphics, sure. A well-needed boost for the profile of endangered languages, certainly. Borderline fraud too, though. There’s no need for good publicity to be so cavalier with the truth (unless you believe that the idea is more important than people, and in that case, they should probably make up the languages they’re ‘saving’).
The expedition didn’t discover a speaker of a language thought to be extinct for 25 years (Amurdag) – otherwise how did Robert Handelsman manage to do an Honours Thesis on it at the University of Melbourne (and compile a draft dictionary in 1998)? Robert Mailhammer is currently working on the language. If Harrison et al are going to portray themselves as the Great White Saviours of a bunch of languages, they could at least have the decency to check on previous research and current knowledge.
And this Djawi [sic] speaker they discovered, and that they think will be the last recording of that language:
It turned out that she was also the last speaker of the Djawi language, and the Team made what is assuredly the last possible recording of this language as well.
Jawi (not Djawi – if communities decide on their own orthographic systems it’s the least that GWS linguists can do to use that spelling) doesn’t have a single female speaker. There are a few men who know something about the language, but even then what counts as ‘Jawi’ and what is ‘Bardi-ised Jawi’ is an interesting business. The recordings of Jawi from the 1920s and 30s (and even into the 1960s) are quite different from what’s recorded as ‘Jawi’ today. If the GWS linguists wanted to do the ‘save a language’ thing AND something useful, they could have investigated possible speakers of Nimanburru. But that would have required some background research, and, shock horror, actually talking to people who know something about the area. It seems peculiar to me that I should have had lunch and dinner with Harrison just about every day for the two weeks preceding his trip to Broome and he never mentioned (to one of 2 linguists actively working on these languages) that he was going there. Finally, if they’d dug a bit harder, they might have found that there aren’t 3 speakers of Yawuru, they are more like 10. Enough to make the point they’re wanting to make, but a little closer to the truth. It’s a pity too that they didn’t mention the ongoing work that the Edgars have done on language revitalisation in Broome high schools, without fancy funding. (I’ve emailed him about some of these things but got no response, although I’d be quite happy to retract any of this or publish a rebuttal if anything I’ve said is unfair.)
Playing along with the GWS trope (not Indiana Jones, exactly, who at least researched his site locations first) is all very well, but it also does damage. In case no one’s noticed, there’s a set of government policies being acted out at the moment which have behind them the idea that these languages are ‘ancient’ and ‘unfit’ for the modern world. Pandering to that on national radio and in the NYTimes doesn’t exactly help. Furthermore, the enactment of the GWS is counterproductive for those schmucks who don’t think you can “document” a language with a helicopter, a trailing news team and a day looking at rock art. Some of us have spent years trying to get away from that stereotype, and have had to deal with the consequences of people who were quite justifiably sick of being ‘saved’ and not seeing any change.