Wangga Wanker

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.


15 responses to “Wangga Wanker

  1. Maybe we expect too much of Living Tongues and enduring voices? Aren’t they a PR company with a language theme and don’t we perhaps need that right now? If they were going to seriously work on recording a language with few speakers wouldn’t they have done the necessary preparation, contacted the relevant linguists and made some provision for lodging their recordings with the relevant repository so that they will be available in future? By their deeds you will know them.

    In parachute journalism a story can be created with no reference to history or context. A neophyte suddenly discovers ‘facts’ and what makes it news is that they can spin it the right way. I think you are right, Claire, that parachute linguists can cause damage by giving the impression that the work has now been done for these languages. But I also think that we need the sort of PR skills that this mob clearly have and that it will provide a space for further discussion, as we are already seeing in the Australian press. What is also disappointing about this is that we in Australia give so much credence to anything that comes out of the USA and disregard the great programmes that exist here, and the number of reports and policies on languages that do not get the same press mileage as does a National Geographic team.

  2. I have absolutely no problem with Living Tongues as a PR company, and yes, that’s badly needed. But this is all being presented as “saving languages” and “these guys are making the last recordings of these languages”. It’s being done here without any reference to the Intervention Task Force in the NT, or any other policies. And (as Jane said on Elac this morning) there’s a place for parachuting in and out (e.g. the things they could have done with Nimanburru, which would have made a great story and would have had willing participants).

  3. Robert Handelsmann

    The sad fact is that it’s much easier to raise half-a-million dollars to make a one-hour documentary about language loss (here) than it is to raise a fraction of that amount to do what’s necessary to prevent it. That’s a US National Science Foundation grant – and of course their pockets are very deep – but from what I can tell, some of Harrison’s field trips (perhaps not the Australian ones) were piggy-backed onto it.

    Yes it’s a shame Living Tongues is going about things the way they are, but there’s something to be learned from looking outside the traditional funding sources to get language programs in place. Hasn’t there been a large flow-on effect from the film Ten Canoes, in terms of multi-media training & experience around Ramingining (I’m sure I read that somewhere)? I also remember the late Eugene Shoemaker for years wasn’t able to survey a geological impact site in western Arnhem Land until some cable TV channel got interested in making a sexy doco about the imminent destruction of the Earth by rogue asteroids and got him on-board.

    Still, I totally agree there are right and wrong, useful and not useful, and respectful and disrespectful ways of going about this sort of work – both in terms of the language communities and the people working with them.

  4. Thanks, colleagues (Claire, Nick, Robert, and ??Wangga), for these comments, all of which I deeply appreciate, whether critical or supportive. I’m happy to follow up with any of you by e-mail or phone on any specific points. Here’s my brief response to the discussion thus far.

    We went to Australia not claiming to be experts any Australian language, nor to do any kind of language documentation. We went there on a journalistic assignment, for National Geographic. Details of the trip (and the trip itself) were not finalized until the last moment, and I was not at liberty to divulge them in advance. In preparation for the trip, we read hundreds of linguistic and ethnographic works on Australian languages. Our very specific agenda was to interview experts (both aboriginal and non-aboriginal) on the topic of language revitalization. We interviewed a dozen people at Batchelor Institute, a dozen at Wadeye, 3 at Mt. Borradaile, 20+ at the Garma Festival, 9 in Broome, a dozen in other locations in the Northern Territory, and several each at indigenous-run media outlets such as Radio Goolari, Teabba Radio, Skinnyfish Music, etc.

    We interviewed five members of the Yawuru community in Broome (the reported number of three speakers came directly from them), and we filmed Doris Edgar’s inspiring interaction with elementary school children who are learning Yaruwu. We are currently working with members of the Yawuru community, at their specific request, to help secure outside funding for their efforts. We are well aware of (and brought along available copies of) previous and continuing work on Amurdag, including Handelsmann’s and Mailhammer’s, and mentioned these explicitly to all journalists we spoke to. We did not make any statements that would serve to sensationalize, discount or undermine any other scholarly work past or present.

    I emphasize once again that this was primarily a journalistic assignment for us, not a language documentation project. At every stop on our trip, which was wholly organized and partly sponsored by Tourism Australia, we were accompanied by both local scholars and expert consultants. We collected written consent for everything we filmed and recorded. We are now preparing copies of all media to send back to the communities (several packages of media have already been delivered to local communities), and we would be willing to share copies (along with complete metadata, names and locations of speakers) with interested scholars who request it.

    Those of you have had experience dealing with the Media will understand that regardless of how much detail you give them, how many caveats you state, how many times you take care to check facts, refer them to other experts and even give them phone numbers and e-mail contact for those experts (we do all of these things), they are going to focus in on the sensational angle. That’s what may have happened with this initial press coverage about our Australia expedition. We have very limited control over what editors, script writers, PR people, etc., do with the material, or how they may spin it, so there is always potential for some people to be offended. Please note this single story is not the whole event. I also gave a number of Australian radio interviews in which I talked at length about the very positive signs of language revitalization we observed at Wadeye, Broome, Garma Festival, Batchelor Institute, etc., Additional media reports, which we hope will include more detail, are forthcoming.

    Obviously, it is up to the communities themselves, first and foremost, to decide whether or not getting out the word about the threats to their languages and their efforts at revitalization is a useful endeavor. If they decide it is not worthwhile, then they may decide not to talk to visiting scholars/journalists in the future. Given the enthusiastic response of our consultants thus far, we believe they view it as a positive thing. We hope our scientific colleagues can appreciate that linguistics as a field, the issue of language endangerment, and efforts at documentation, can all benefit from greater public attention, greater funding and support, and a greater influx of talented people to do the work. All these things are connected, hence the “flow-on” effect noted by Robert.

    I’ve put in two years of intense effort to get a major scientific media organization like National Geographic interested in the problem of language endangerment. I did this because I felt strongly that linguists were not successfully getting the message out about the urgency of language extinction and the need to support documentation and revitalization. Now National Geographic (along with a couple of other foundations that had never previously considered supporting language revitalization and documentation) is genuinely interested and willing to fund some projects, and to produce some media content. This is not a trivial thing for the field of linguistics, or for some small communities struggling to attract resources for cultural revitalization projects. At the Living Tongues Institue (a non-profit foundation which does considerable scholarly research and publication as well as public relations and community support), Greg Anderson and I have agreed to undertake several NGS-sponsored expeditions to assess the current state of languages and revitalization efforts within the global “language hotspots”. This is in addition to, and apart from, our long-term scholarly language documentation projects. In doing these kinds of expeditions, we run the risk of being misquoted, sensationalized, (mis)packaged by the media, misunderstood, frowned upon or denounced by colleagues who may be better qualified and have worked in these areas for many years. We think the attention that can be drawn to the issue, the increased resources that will follow, and potential benefits to indigenous communities and the field as a whole, make this effort well worth the risk.

    Best wishes,

  5. Hi David,
    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ll be in touch off-blog about the Bardi/Jawi details, but I’d like to take up a few points here.
    First, I absolutely agree with you about linguists not being good at getting publicity and needing to do so, and you’re in an excellent position to do this. That’s partly why I’m annoyed at the whole “saviour” trope, since you have enough of a profile to shape the “story”.

    I know that journalists need to have a particular narrative for a story, and that the endangered language stories pretty much all follow the same lines. However, my criticisms were more about your own site, since you follow this trope too. You don’t have control over how journalists with no linguistics interpret your site, but you don’t have any of the background on enduringvoices either – you claim there to have ‘discovered’ the last speaker of Amurdag, and to have made the last recordings of Jawi. Presumably you have control over the content of your own site. (I’ll email you about your language list too, since there are a bunch of errors in it.)

    Finally, the knock-on effects aren’t limited to the people you talk to (in fact, it’s true that the people immediately involved in language programs are usually pretty positive about projects like this). I’m thinking more of slightly broader effects, which I’ve seen over and over again and have been on the receiving end of. The issue is more politically powerful community members/gatekeepers who have a lot of control over who spends time in communities. They often feel that FiFo work is exploitative, and that the linguists get much more out of it than the community members, and they want to stop this. So, instead of trying to control the FiFouters, they take it out on the linguists who spend more time there with much smaller budgets. I’ve had complete projects embargoed because of this sort of thing (for Bardi).


  6. I frequently come across this cavalier attitude towards academic or scientific knowledge in the media. It’s sad. I guess the bottom line is that someone’s trying to sell a product–whether it’s a TV special or a magazine–and truth (being something that takes much time to dig up) is an expendable commodity.

  7. K. David Harrison tells us he agreed to arrangements for their Australian visit and “I was not at liberty to divulge them in advance.” Presumably a condition imposed by one of the funding bodies (National Geographic? Tourism Australia?) Why would one agree to this? Presumably they found it was not negotiable and they decided that the expected publicity outcome would be “worth it”. Hmm. Also, it was primarily a “journalistic assignment”, but Harrison and Anderson are linguists (or are they accredited journalists as well?) and carried out linguistic consultations. The pair were prepared to sacrifice collegiality to their expectation of potential publicity values. Harrison says “At every stop on our trip, … we were accompanied by both local scholars and expert consultants.” but I am surprised Tourism Australia could arrange all this, and wonder why there is no sign of these others in all the publicity (including, as Claire comments, on the websites outside of National Geographic’s).

  8. Usmob at Ngukurr were actually one of the scheduled stops for the NatGeo doco team. I got a call from Tourism NT who were doing up the itinerary for NatGeo mob and we agreed to be a part of their doco, however a week n a half before their scheduled visit, Tourism NT called me to say they’d just found out the NatGeo mob had halved the duration of their visit and so we missed out. Pity. We were looking forward to being in the spotlight…

    I could comment on the bigger issues you mob are talking about but thought I’d just sure my little inside story…

  9. Friends, we certainly regretted not being able to go to Ngukurr, and apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused by that omission.

    I hope some of you may have heard some of the interviews I did this week on various Australian Radio stations, in which I described at length and in detail the fine work of language revitalization, as carried out by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian scholars, that we were privileged to have been invited to observe first-hand in NT and WA. Revitalization efforts, both cultural and linguistic, were the sole theme and focus of our expedition. I have not yet posted my own report on our expedition, in my own words, but I hope to do so soon.

    A couple of further responses seem to be required of me by comments posted above:

    I don’t use the word “discover”, nor the word “save” in any context, spoken or written. I would humbly request that you please check your sources, clarify, and attribute appropriately.

    Any questions about our interactions with people or our behaviour while in the field can be addressed to us directly, or, better yet, by contacting any of the many people we visited (I am happy to facilitate contact).

    Requests to share copies of field recordings, notes or metadata can be addressed to me directly, as I’ve already offered to share these (insofar as I am permitted) with interested parties outside the immediate communities that originated and own them.

    Opinions about or reactions to what journalists and media people (including at National Geographic) write, or their choice of words to characterize our work, can also be sent to them directly (I am willing to facilitate contact).

    Finally, questions about how Tourism Australia arranged our itinerary, journalistic accreditation, visas, logistics, permits, sponsorship, contracts, and conditions of confidentiality, will be gladly answered by the representative who accompanied us: tpascuzzo @ tourism .australia .com), and/or the cognizant consular officer: megan . doughty @ dfat . gov . au.

    Thanks for your patience and guidance as we try to do something useful.


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  11. I can attest to the problem of distortion by journalists. Stimulated by the reports about Enduring Voices, a Vancouver Sun reporter called me Tuesday for an article that appeared Wednesday. Among other things, I told him very clearly that two of the three languages of British Columbia that are already extinct died out because their speakers were absorbed by other native groups, not as a result of European colonialism. The article as published says that they died out due to European colonialism. The reporter seemed intelligent, so it may be an editor’s mistake, or it may be that even an intelligent person is hard put to get things right when given only a few hours to research and write an article.

    Enduring Voices is at least generating a lot of publicity. CBC Radio noticed it and is interviewing me Monday morning (at 06:30 – the sacrifices we make for the cause….).

  12. OK, thanks for the comments above; I’m glad to hear that Tourism Australia knew how to made good contacts through language centres etc; I am mildly surprised but pleasantly so. I didn’t know about Tourism Australia’s Visiting Journalists Program, which it sounds like what the visit fell under. I am still surprised that any linguist would fall into their category of being a “top-tier, accredited international journalist”, but there we are. While I have no desire to follow this up with Tourism Australia (or DFAT), I am now a bit puzzled as to what was going on in the visit. From the explanations above it seems that Harrison & Anderson participated as linguists in staged language documentation sessions and then reported on them as journalists. Call me naïve but this strikes me as fraught. And I still can’t see why one would need to agree not to contact colleagues in advance.

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  14. Just to blow my own trumpet on the back of other people’s wise works, I have finished the thing which called attention to itself above. It is at

    I like to get this stuff off my chest occasionally. It peeves me a lot.

    And David – I am intrigued by the implied contradiction you noticed. We have a solid category in documentary in which a subject is covered by a crew who have fulll authorial or journalistic responsibility. And there’s a group in which the filmmaker is the subject on a personal journey. But there is a hybrid in which the subject is a presenter and has responsibility for what is said and done on camera, but does not have rights over the cut. This can be pretty wobbly, as the presenter may or may not write the script.

    (I’ve worked on a version in which I reworked elements of a subject’s book into a script, which he then paraphrased on camera. But the producer controls the cut and owns the project. In this instance, he was scripted to do lots of things in front of the camera, in which he was an experimental subject. But he was NEVER seen to do real research which he hadn’t actually done already. These projects depend very much on the presenter – witness to which is the fact that the project collapsed when he got sick.)

    It is possible that the secrecy thing was a visa issue. Crews are not supposed to work on films for any length of time without visas, and T am not sure whether they violated that rule. Which does happen often.

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