10,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

There’s a lovely feature article about Luise Hercus in The Australian. It certainly doesn’t follow my formula for Endangered Language reporting (which I’ve discovered I can’t link to any more because my Harvard blog has been removed). Luise has had a good deal to do with me turning into a field linguist. For example, when I passed through Canberra on my way to the field for a few months in 2001 she lent me a copy of a Vedic grammar, because she thought it was unproductive to think only about a single language for that long.

I was lucky enough to do my first fieldwork with Luise. Ostensbily I was there to drive the car, I didn’t think I’d be asking many questions; how do you know what to ask when you don’t know anything about anything? But Luise threw me in at the deep end on the first day, first by sending me over to the pub to get some stubbies and a packet of smokes — because the person we were working with said he’d be happy to chat about the old days but he needed some beer first — then by getting me to chart the approximate boundaries of languages in the region.

A couple of things stand out in the article. Nicolas Rothwell does a good job of talking about the painstaking work that Luise does, and of the importance of never neglecting any tiny piece of information. The site mapping and mythology work which Luise does is about as interdisciplinary as you can get. Not only does it cover language documentation and historical linguistics, but place names, anthropology, musicology, and a host of other things. It’s scary fieldwork to do because you never know what is going to be useful, and maybe something recorded 10 or 15 years ago will turn out to be the missing piece. It can only be undertaken as a long-term effort, as an urgent and all-consuming task when the languages are fragile.

I also like the way he brings out the social side of fieldwork, and the importance that Luise places on making friends on fieldwork and not neglecting the social aspects even when the primary aim is linguistic.

There has been some informal discussion about whether The Australian is trying to evoke connotations of the Holocaust in the print title “Witness” (which isn’t in the online version) and the online title Living Ark. The Australian is one of the more conservative Australian newspapers and is not known to be particularly sympathetic to Indigenous stories. Its reporting of and commentary on the Intervention in the Northern Territory in 2007 was fairly consistently pro-government, for example. Intentional or otherwise, it’s a parallel worth drawing, both for the differences in timespan and circumstances, and for the similarities in devastation of individuals, families, communities, and cultures, and for its consequences.

Of course, this blog wouldn’t be this blog without the pointing out a minor error or two. A caravanserai isn’t the same as a caravan, it’s the inn where travellers stop.

There’s an interesting error in the final paragraph, in the spelling of Palku-Bula-Thanckaiwarnda. nck is not a usual way of spelling anything in most Australian languages, and certainly not in Wangkangurru. But it’s very common in English. I strongly suspect that Luise said –thangka- and not thancka, but the difference in spelling [en si kay] and [en dʒi kay] isn’t very big, and English speakers would be primed to expect the former.

For those interested in the composition of this name, palku means “cloud”, –bula is the dual suffix (i.e., two clouds), and thangkaiwarnda is probably thangka-yiwa-rnda, sit-transitory-intrans.present. The transitory suffix indicates that the event happens in passing, in the course of travelling (Hercus 1994:199).

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