Category Archives: language documentation

‘Grammar Boot Camp’ at Yale

I will be holding a summer ‘grammar boot camp’ next year (2015), from June 1 to June 26. The idea is to have up to four advanced undergraduate students work intensively on existing high-quality archival field notes and recordings with the aim of producing a publishable sketch grammar. Students will receive a stipend and travel expenses to come to Yale.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program; as such, applicants are limited to US citizens or permanent residents. Students who have graduated in Spring 2015 will be eligible to apply. The targeted cohort is undergraduates who will have just finished either their junior or senior year.

Applications will be accepted towards the end of 2014 and applicants will be notified about the result in mid-February. Students will need to show some evidence of prior research experience (e.g. through an RA-ship or by having a senior thesis in progress) and some familiarity with language documentation procedures (e.g. through having taken a field methods class or equivalent, such as attendance at a CoLang summer school). Applicants will need to show attention to detail and ability to focus on a project for a sustained period. The application will require a letter from the student and two letters of support from faculty.

The materials to be worked on will be from an Australian Aboriginal language from Western Australia and will include both print materials and audio files. It is probable that the ‘print’ materials will already be digitized and in Toolbox.

Students will meet twice a day as a group with me to discuss analyses and writing. They will spend the rest of the time working with the materials in the department. They will receive regular detailed feedback on the analysis and writing. Familiarity with Australian languages is not required but I would expect that successful applicants would do some reading of grammars of related languages (which would be provided) prior to the start of the boot camp.

More formal application information will be sent out later, but for now I just wanted to let everyone know about the opportunity so potential students can keep it in mind when planning their course schedules and plans for the coming year.

Please forward to anyone you think would be interested and feel free to contact me with any questions.

Plain English Description of Australian Comparative Database

I have circulated this plain English description of the Pama-Nyungan (now Comparative Australian*) lexical database to various language centres in Australia, but I’m posting it here too in case it’s useful to others writing such descriptions, and in case others would like to know about the database in broad terms. I am in the process of writing a more detailed paper that describes the database.

Continue reading

Phylogenetics of kinship

[Update: materials are now available at]

I am presenting work at the upcoming LSA meeting with a former undergraduate student and a postdoc (Amalia Skilton and Hannah Haynie). We have been working on kinship structures in Australian languages, using a combination of the comparative method and phylogenetic trait analysis.

The basic idea is that we can use our hypotheses of family tree relationships among Australian languages to reconstruct aspects of linguistic and cultural systems. In this case, we’re using the structure of sibling systems; that is, how many distinctions speakers of different languages make when referring to siblings. English just has two basic terms: ‘brother’ and ‘sister’; Bardi, however, has three terms: oombarn for older brother, bola or babili for ‘younger brother’, and marrir for ‘sister’ (Note that the Bardi system is asymmetrical, with two terms for brothers but only one for sisters.) Yan-nhangu also has a three-term system, but their system has a distinction for ‘older brother’ (waawa) vs older sister (yapa), but one term for ‘younger sibling’ (yapayapa). There are four fairly common systems in Australian languages (two, a four-way system and the Yan-nhangu-type three-term system, are the most common).

We reconstructed the sibling terms probabilitistically and then compared them to reconstructions of kinship lexical items, using the comparative method. We found that where the terms could be reconstructed, there was a great deal of congruity between the probabilistic state reconstruction and the comparative method reconstruction. However,

This sort of work isn’t well motivated for all systems. For example, it would not make a lot of sense to work on phoneme inventories in this way, because the inventories do not change independently of the lexical items in which they appear. That is, just because two languages both have a phoneme /p/, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those /p/s are “cognate” (because /p/ in one language could be cognate with /w/ in another, for example).

Outstanding grammars from Australia

One of the disadvantages of the wonderful book fetching service at Yale is that I seldom browse the stacks these days. This means I I’m sometimes rather behind on new library acquisitions (I wish there was a way for them to notify me every time they buy something with call number PL7XXX…). But I was there yesterday afternoon to look up a reference and the shelves were looking less depleted than usual. Most of the Australian grammars that I don’t already own seem to live in my lab most of the time, so it’s pretty easy to see what’s there. They were the first few volumes of the series “Outstanding Grammars from Australia.” This is a new Lincom series of of Ph.D. theses which were written at ANU since the 1970s, but never previously published.

I have very mixed feelings about this series. Several of these dissertations were pretty much unobtainable unless one went to ANU linguistics’ library or AIATSIS and spent a long time with a large stack of change (or a digital camera). So it’s great to have them more widely available, especially, for example, Hosokawa’s thesis on Yawuru, since there isn’t much published on the language apart from a few articles.

However, I question the publishing model. These are essentially photocopies of the original theses. They appear to have no additions or editorial marking of any kind. If one is going to the trouble to reissue these works, why not make them available electronically, through ANU’s ePress, through its dissertation archive, through AILEC, Language Description Heritage‘s digital library, or somewhere else searchable and accessible, rather than a commercial publisher charging US$100 or more for a bound photocopy?

Endangered Languages Catalogue is Out

Point your browsers right now to and check out your favourite language. It’s definitely a work in progress, but it’s nicely presented and I hope it will provide a realization of just how precarious so many languages are.

I prepared a FAQ for the Australian section that explains some of the choices of for including languages, as well as other things to do with Australia. It got overlooked in the original launch, so I’m copying it here. It will hopefully answer some of the questions that linguists and the general public will immediately ask when they see data like this.

Another thing I need to say, since it also didn’t make it into the launched database, is that there *is* source material in the underlying database for language names, speaker numbers, work on the language, and so forth. In fact, there’s a huge bibliography behind this project that the ElCat team compiled over the last year. Linguistic aficionados will recognize data from, as well as other sources. Hopefully that will be more clearly acknowledged before too long.

Finally, many thanks to everyone who gave me feedback earlier in the year. I did submit changes based on your comments, however it seems that many of those changes are not reflected in the current dataset; the changes are still being worked through. Same deal with all the resources I was sent; I’m sorry that so few of them appear to have made it into the launched version, but they are there and should hopefully appear soon. The map data is, however, mostly my responsibility: so if it’s wrong, do tell me directly or submit a comment on the site.


Who compiled this list?

The Australian section was a joint effort between the LinguistList and Claire Bowern, using data from many sources. Claire’s work was funded by NSF grant 844550 “Pama-Nyungan and Australian Prehistory”, though any opinions expressed in those parts of the site do not reflect opinions of the NSF.

I thought Australian languages were just dialects. Why are so many languages listed?

There are 27 different language families in Australia, and about 380 languages. (By way of comparison, Europe has about 250 languages in 4 families.) Some of the languages are quite similar to each other, while others are as different from each other as Chinese and Hebrew, or English and Japanese.

Some languages have no speakers listed – why are they “endangered”? Aren’t they “dead”?

For some languages, we haven’t been able to confirm speaker numbers. In other cases, there isn’t anyone who has grown up speaking the language, but there are still people who identify with the language, and who are working to revitalize their languages.

What does it mean to say a language is “sleeping”?

Some languages aren’t spoken daily anymore, but there are community groups who are working to bring their languages back into use. Some of those communities refer to their languages as “sleeping” rather than “dead”, since those languages are still an important part of the life and identity of the community, even if they aren’t regularly used.

Why are so many Australian languages endangered?

There are a lot of reasons, many of which date back to the early years of European settlement. Introduced diseases killed many Aboriginal people, along with hunger from reduced access to hunting grounds. In some cases, it’s because of massacres. At the Mindiri massacre at Kooncherie Point in the mid-1880s, well over 100 people were killed, including most of the speakers of Wadikali, Pirlatapa, Yarluyandi, and Malyangapa. Later, other groups were disproportionately affected by Stolen Generations policies [link:]. Social and economic reasons have also led to many Aboriginal people shifting to English, Kriol [link:], and other Aboriginal languages.

My language is strong! Why are you calling it “endangered”?

There are many different ways that a language can be endangered. Because the number of speakers of Aboriginal/TSI languages is small overall, it doesn’t take much for some languages to come under threat. Children find it hard to resist the pressure from the media, schools and the internet to switch to speaking English most of the time. Once children have made that switch, the language is severely endangered.

Some communities don’t realize at first that their languages are under threat. For example, they might think that the language is healthy because it’s still used in the community, but it might be only the elders who are using it – that’s a sign that the language is endangered.

We recognize that some languages in the catalogue are still strong, that children are learning them and they are actively used in the community, and we want to support that work. Let us know what you’re doing, and we’ll make sure we update the catalogue.

Where can I find out more information about Aboriginal/TSI languages?

New South Wales: [Koori Centre, Universirty of Sydney]


Western Australia:

South Australia:

General: [a recent report on language use in Aboriginal Australia]

I want to learn an Aboriginal language: where can I find more information?

For starters: for Pitjantjatjara publishes books on Aboriginal languages for the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Region Charles Darwin University’s Yolŋu Studies unit

I want to find out more about my language – where do I go?

Try for published sources, and for the archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (they have a lot of unpublished information about language and culture).

I’m a speaker of an Aboriginal/TSI language and I’d like to work with a linguist – who should I contact?

Submit a comment on the language with your contact details and we’ll put you in touch with local people – we’d love to hear from you!

The Documenting and Revitalizing Indigenous Languages (DRIL) Program team may be able to help you:, or

Or if you live in South Australia the Mobile Language Team may be able to help:

My mum/dad/grandparents speak some Language and I’d like to record them. Do you have any advice?

Have a look at the links at, or the tutorials at

We have good ideas for helping maintain Aboriginal/TSI languages but it needs some funding and support – where can we get it from?

If you live in an area with an Indigenous language centre, ask them. The Federal Government funds some language work through the Indigenous Language Support program:

Public domain pictures of Australian fauna

I just came across, and it’s great. I am continuing to work (albeit slowly) on the Bardi dictionary, and one of the tasks is finding good illustrations for the plants and animals that have been identified in Bardi country. Coming up with good pictures can be difficult. It’s a web/electronic dictionary, so they can be in colour, but the pictures need to be good illustrations of the relevant species and ideally they would show distinguishing markings. Ideally, they would be taken in the an environment similar to the area around One Arm Point. And it would make things much simpler if the pictures were either in the public domain, or at least able to reproduced without breaking the law. I have many pictures of One Arm Point: last time I was on fieldwork I spent an afternoon taking photos of everything I could think of, with an eye to illustrating the dictionary. But we have hundreds of plants and animals in the dictionary, and there are some that I’d prefer not to get close enough to photograph, like this sea snake:

Sea has a nice range of pictures, many of which are sourced from public domain or sharable sites.

New Edition of Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide.

I’ll be preparing a new edition of my fieldwork book over the next year or so. Minimally, I’ll be corrected a bunch of typos and updating the technology recommendations, though they have not aged as much as I thought they might. I will probably also incorporate some of the material that I have used in my classes alongside the book.

Now is the chance for readers to make suggestions about things they would like to see in the book. There are three comments of that type that have come up a few times. One is from Africanists: Africanists seem to feel that the book is not very applicable to their field situations, but they are usually hard pressed to give specifics about what they don’t like. Given that I’m not an Africanist, it’s hard for me to address this without some indication of what isn’t applicable. I suspect that part of the issue may the focus in the book on ‘small’ languages. It may also have something to do with the emphasis on community consultation (though I also try to make it clear that this is only one model, and one that is not applicable everywhere).

Second is the lack of what we might call ‘typological’ information. I’ve heard from people who were disappointed that the book didn’t cover more about topics like ‘how to discover if your language has ergativity’. I suspect this comment comes from people who combine their field methods classes with a class on typology. I’m not sure that I can do much about this in a book of this length. I don’t like the attitude that there are ‘normal’ constructions and then there are ‘exotic’ constructions like ergativity (which is found is something like 40% of the world’s languages, so while it’s a minority construction, it’s hardly uncommon). But I can provide some more guidance on using questionnaires and designing surveys and experiments.

The last topic is epigraphy, or interpreting old records. The book does have a bit of advice on using old sources, but there is plenty of other material that could be covered here.

Another thing I have in mind is producing some materials for speakers who are working on their own languages; something like ‘how to do linguistic documentation without a linguistics degree’. That would probably not be for this book, however, since the main constituency for this book is field methods classes.

Given that I’ve just come off finishing the Bardi grammar camera-ready copy, there is no way I’ll be spending a lot more time reading my own writing in the near future, but I would like to start thinking about how to proceed. Comments and suggestions from readers would be very welcome – you can leave them in the comments or email me at