Category Archives: fieldwork

Language documentation project videos

I’ve put up the first two videos in a series of short “how-tos” for language documentation. They are aimed at community members, not linguists. Topics to be covered are:

  1. General principles in planning a documentation project
  2. Applying for grants
  3. Steps in a project
  4. Working with/recording elderly relatives
  5. ‘Outcomes’ (examples of documentation projects)
  6. Archiving

The talks are loosely based on my article “Planning a Language Documentation Project” in Peter Austin and Julia Sallabank’s Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, plus materials from my fieldwork book and notes from teaching about this to undergraduates. Suggestions for other topics that you’d like to see in this series would be appreciated!


Australian of the Year

Often when you open the newspaper the news is full of doom and gloom, but today there was a story that put a permanent smile on my face. Laurie Baymarrwaŋa has been given the Senior Australian of the Year award. Baymarrwaŋa* is the senior custodian of the Crocodile Islands, off Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

When she was born, the number of Europeans who had been to Arnhem Land could probably be counted on one hand. When the Milingimbi mission was established, it was supplied by a barge that came once or twice a year. Now there are daily flights, a weekly barge, TV, and a few years ago, Milingimbi got 3G internet and phone reception. Murruŋga’s got a public phone too. There’s a picture of Baymarrwaŋa in Donald Thomson’s photo collections from the early 1930s. She’s standing in a stone fish-trap, looking at the camera a bit skeptically.

My yapa has been active in community development and cultural projects since the 1960s. She established Murruŋga outstation on Yan-nhaŋu country, where Yan-nhaŋu kids can learn about all sorts of things, Yolŋu and Western, in a traditional environment. I met Baymarrwaŋa first in 2004, when I started work with her and some of the other Yan-nhaŋu women on a documentation project. Before that, she had been working with Bentley James, a teacher at Milingimbi school. Working with the Yolŋu women was quite different from other fieldwork I’d done. They knew exactly what they wanted to get out of the work, what they wanted to contribute, and what they expected from me. It was very exciting for me not to be in charge of the project, to take direction from the people who were the experts in the language. I was there to provide some structure to the project, but right from the start it was far more collaborative than anything else.

The still centre of that project was Baymarrwaŋa. She’s one of these people who “knows everything”, who always knows the answer to any question, who has an extraordinary patience and determination. While I worked with her on Yan-nhaŋu, her main language, she is also a true Yolŋu in that she’s also totally fluent in Dhuwal, Burarra, and Ganalbiŋu, and quite happy in Gumatj, Gunwinygu, and a few other languages too. The newspaper reports say she doesn’t speak English, but I asked her about that once and she said that with all these other languages, if White people couldn’t be bothered to learn even an easy language like Dhuwal, it wasn’t her job to do all the work of communicating. We worked in a mixture of Dhuwal, Yan-nhaŋu, and English, and as you can imagine, someone with that attitude to language is a wonderful person for a fieldworker to work with.

She’s been concerned for some time about the fragility of knowledge, and was careful to make sure that it was “backed up” on paper, not to be put in a museum, but so that it would be available for Yan-nhaŋu people to come. She has also been keen for others to learn about Yan-nhaŋu language and culture, and to recognise that there are still custodians of the Crocodile Islands. For example, when we were recording information about women’s business, my instructions were to play those tapes to the female students in my classes, because they deserved to have that knowledge shared too. Some of the Yan-nhaŋu materials are available. There’s a learner’s guide to the language, and a dictionary is in progress.

It’s wonderful that Baymarrwaŋa has been recognised for her hard work. The committee really got it right with this award. Buḻaŋgitj mini, yapa, nhunu mana yindi djäma binmunu. Gatjpu’yun nhämayini lima gurrku, ŋarra roŋiyirri  Murruŋgali ga nyena rrambaŋi lima gurrku ga waŋayini yänmurru. Dhäpirrk, marrkapway ditya. 

*This is her Yolŋu name. Many Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land have an English name like “Alison” or “Margaret” and a Yolŋu name. For official forms, the Yolŋu name is a surname, but it’s the name that’s often used when talking about people. (In other Yolŋu areas, people use their Yolŋu name and a clan name. For example, Mandurrwuy Yunupiŋu’s last name is a clan name, not a Yolŋu first name.)

Field Methods Class Pondering

I had lunch with the field methods speaker for the fall class a few days ago. As befits a field methods consultant, she’s awesome! The language we’ll be working on is Fijian, and our speaker has some linguistics training and is very aware of the stylistic and geographical dialect differences in the language.

I am pondering how best to run this class this semester. It seems a waste of our consultant’s abilities to pretend that Fijian is an undescribed isolate. On the other hand, there does not seem to be very much recent published work on the language. There is Schutz’s grammar from 1986 (and Dixon’s grammar, on the Boumaa dialect, from about the same time), but the most recent published dictionary seems to have been compiled by Capell in the 1940s. I’m therefore starting to have a think about what smart students with a smart consultant and a bunch of background materials can do in a semester that would be educational for the students, not too boring for the consultant, and ideally of some use to the profession as a whole. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, besides the usual term papers for grad students on topics they are interested in:

  • Descriptive work using some of the MPI  stimulus kits.
  • Web dictionary with sound and examples
  • Gesture elicitation
  • Prosodic structure elicitation
  • JIPA-type phonetic sketch

High School visit

I spent about 45 minutes or so at the High School this morning. I reckon it was one of the best 45 minutes I’ve spent here. The kids were great – I gave a bit of a talk about what linguists do (complete with powerpoint!), about what I was doing when I was working with their grannies and great-grannies, and they asked me some questions about uni and language work and things like that. I gave them pretty much the same talk about linguistics that I give first year uni students (I used Aboriginal English/Standard English examples instead of Spanish), and they were pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing and had lots of questions.  We also talked a bit about going to uni.

It was really useful to me to get to know them a little better, and I’m glad they’ve now got my contact details. The community is in good hands for the future with those kids! Thanks Richard for letting me take over your literacy class for a bit!

More on language resources

I had a very positive meeting with the One Arm Point Bardi teachers on Friday. Most of the teachers are language ‘remembers’ – that is, they are not comfortable in talking in full sentences in Bardi, but they all grew up hearing the language and they recognise a lot.*

As far as I know, One Arm Point has the longest-running language/culture program in Western Australia. It’s been going for more than 20 years now, which is a real testament to the strength of this community and their commitment to keeping culture strong. It’s really impressive. One Arm Point school is talking about itself as a ‘three language school’ now, which is also really good. The three languages are Aboriginal English, Standard Australian English, and Bardi.

We spent a few hours on Friday afternoon going through some things and talking about ways to get more Bardi into classrooms, and how I could help for the rest of my time here and when I’m back in the US. I also got some feedback on language materials.

  • Google earth placenames: we thought of a bunch of class activities that the kids could do with this, such as:
    • Using the ‘find’ button to find the name of their favourite fishing place and showing the class where it is.
    • Describing how to get to a place using the Bardi place names (this is the way that Bardi speakers give directions too – they don’t tend to use ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘north’ and ‘south’)
  • KirrKirr dictionary: this is shaping up to be a pretty important resource, I think, especially for the teachers. I’ve got it running at school now and will be adding sound clips and photos as I have time.
  • However, a much bigger deal would be an English – Bardi dictionary, where the English side of the dictionary has all the information that the Bardi-English side currently has. I think I’ve blogged before about the SIL Toolbox model of dictionary authoring and how badly it serves heritage speakers (and Corris et al (2004) make this point well too). I’m about 10% of the way through converting the Bardi-English dictionary to an English-Bardi one, using TshwaneLex (more on that in a future post). Doing it has made me look much more closely at how texts have been translated and what the semantic scope of each Bardi word is, so it’s quite a good exercise. Who knows how it’ll get done when I don’t have a TV to sit in front of in the evenings though..
  • Time-aligned texts. I showed the teachers a demo of a CuPED text and they thought it was really great, and useful for the older students. We’ve been proofing new (mostly short) texts in the breaks between grammar questions so there’s now a nice collection of time-aligned school texts about various topics.


*An aside: if someone can point me in the direction of good resources for helping such speakers, that would save me some time with google.

Corris, M., C. Manning, S. Poetsch & J. Simpson. How useful and usable are dictionaries for speakers of Australian Indigenous languages? In International Journal of Lexicography, Volume 17, Number 1, March 2004.

Week 2: and with three days to go

I’ve decided to prioritise syntax elicitation for the rest of my time here, with text proofing filling in the time for a bit of a break from other things. I did some intonation elicitation today, and it worked pretty well, apart from the wind noise and the birds in the background. I have ok contour data though.

Some interesting stuff has come up too. I have more examples of final ergatives than any other case or corpus. In Bardi, the ergative behaves like a Wackernagel clitic for placement, but it’s an affix. Until 2008, I didn’t have any examples at all of any other placement. In 2008 I got some where a pronoun or demonstrative optionally didn’t ‘make position’ for the marking. Now I have some really long NPs where the ergative is on the head.

I have some baby talk examples too, though that’s for a different post.

I got some other examples of NP structure that I didn’t know about from previous trips, especially involving questions about interpretation of modifiers. I also got a better sense of almiidan ambooriny ‘anyone’ – it’s just for any in the sense of ‘anybody can tell you where the school is’, not for interrogatives (“did anybody tell you that I was going to Broome”) or under negation (I don’t know if anybody saw it).

I think I’ve done all the stuff I really needed to check in writing the grammar (though of course there’s always new stuff that could be explored!)

The trouble now is with three days to go, there’s still an awful lot to do! What to prioritize? Story proofing? More grammar? Lexical exploration? Video and gesture data?

Nganyji and Ngaanyji

OK, this is a bit embarrassing. Especially after I’ve sent off the grammar manuscript, but better late than never and it can still be corrected.

I was talking to Jessie this afternoon about various things this afternoon and she happened to say Ngaanyjə liyan minman bayimngan maman jobgo drink, ‘do you want me to buy you a drink from the shop, using something that I would write in Bardi as ngaanyja [ŋaːɲɟə]. Now, the normal interrogative particle is nganyji, with a short vowel and final high vowel, so this was a bit puzzling. So I asked about it, saying nganyji like I’d seen in other examples, and got corrected.

Further digging reveals that there are actually two question particles, not one: ngaanyj(a) and nganyji. The second is a fairly regular interrogative, while the first is an ability marker. There’s a nice minimal pair:

  • Nganyji minjalagal? ‘Did you see it?’
  • Ngaanyjə minjalagal? ‘Can you see it?’ 

Furthermore, I know I have vacillated about the spelling of this word in the past (as to whether it has a long vowel or not), but it was really hard to tell because: a) there is lengthening under stress, and this particle is mostly initial; and b) there is fast speech shortening and final vowel dropping.