Category Archives: Media

Three pieces of good news

Logging onto abc.net.au/news this morning resulted in three good news stories from Indigenous Australia, I’m happy to say:

Good show.

Linguist in the news

Jangari‘s in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald!

Yan-nhaŋu on wikipedia

Rebekah Dimond, one of the students in my Australian languages class this semester, did a ripper job on a final project creating a Wikipedia page for Yan-nhaŋu. It’s up now. Enjoy!

Languages and ‘new words’

One of the recurring supposed arguments against the widespread use of Aboriginal languages in the curriculum is that “they don’t have a word for X” (an ironic twist on the exoticism argument that such languages also have Ywords for snow/trees/animals/etc).

There are three or four ways that languages get new words. One is by borrowing from neighbouring languages. English didn’t have any words for koala, wombat, pindan, kangaroo, etc, and so the early settlers to Australia borrowed these words from Dharuk, Bardi, Guugu Yimidhirr, and other Aboriginal languages. (More than 50% of current English vocabulary comes from other languages originally.) Sometimes the word itself isn’t borrowed, but the meaning of a word is translated (this is called a calque). The Icelandic word for computer is tölva, which means basically ‘counter, reckoner, computer’.

A second means for expressing new meaning is by extending the meaning of an existing word. So in English when we burn a CD we aren’t putting it on a fire (the earlier meaning of ‘burn’ – speakers have extended the meaning of the verb to cover new actions). Highways and freeways and commons all originally meant something different from what they mean now.

A third way is to coin a new word out of existing resources in the language, such as by making a compound (e.g. baby-sit) or a blend, or an acronym. A fourth is to make up a word from scratch (although these seem to be pretty rare in my experience).

What do speakers of Aboriginal languages do when they want to make up new words? All of the above, just like speakers of other languages! Here are some examples from Yolŋu Matha.

Borrowings: daybul ‘table’, banikin ‘cup, pannikin’, djorra’ ‘paper’ (from Arabic via Makassar)

Extension of meaning:mukthun ‘be quiet’ (also used for when the power goes off; e.g. giṉiŋgarr mana mukthun ‘the power’s off’ giṉiŋgarr is another example of this). Bulunydjuma ‘rub out’ (e.g. erase something from a blackboard) is another example of this.

Coining new words: e.g. maŋutjibu ‘glasses’ (lit ‘something for the eyes’); waḏapthanaraway ‘soap’ (lit stuff used for washing’)

[link via Hoyden about town]

Link time

Some links from the RNLD list and elsewhere:

  • James Crippen posted a link to these squishy bowls. Very cool. From the same site, this plasma glass would make a good stimulus prompt.
  • Daryn McKenny posted about some updates to Miromaa. It’s now possible to import from other data sources! Good stuff.
  • Wamut posted a story which speaks for itself. Linguists, be helpful!
  • Eugenie Collyer posted a link to the Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways. Well worth exploring.

“Rare” Languages at the State Library of NSW

I quite like the term “rare” languages. It’s much better than ‘exotic’ and it has the connotation of something valuable without necessarily harping on the ‘death’ aspect of language death.

The term ‘rare languages’ was used in a number of media reports on the State Library of New South Wales’ digitisation of early settler Aboriginal vocabularies. The items include the Blackburn Eora vocabulary and Mary Cain’s Coonabarabran district vocab lists from 1920. There are transcriptions as well as images of the originals.

The rest of the site is also worth exploring!

Top Ten Endangered Languages

Peter Austin recently asked for top 10 endangered language lists. Here’s mine, done just about completely off the top of my head, but with some justificatory comments.

  1. Navajo: important for linguistic theory, important in the Indigenous civil rights movement, the resources for Navajo are a model for others, and native-speaker-linguists from the Navajo Nation have been important role models (and kick-ass linguists)
  2. Mapuche Mapudungún: important for the recognition of Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights, since they took Microsoft to court over an unauthorised software translation.
  3. Jarawara [Andamans]: Their self-enforced isolation is an extreme form of anti-assimilation which should be respected (and conversely the ‘reserve’ that the Indian government has set aside is a reminder that the rhetoric of endangered languages and endangered species are never far apart, and each has strong and weak points).
  4. Ganalbiŋu: Because they didn’t compromise in translating the movie Ten Canoes but instead presented it with subtitles. (For this reason, the Bunuba people who worked on the Jandamarra film would also qualify, as would several other language groups, but I only get to pick 10)
  5. Miami: because of their successful revitalisation program and the determination of its participants. From what I’ve heard, what they did was basically find all the field notes and publications they could, and they studied them, puzzled it all out, and has a hard-core program where they spoke nothing else, no matter how it was, all the time, and especially to Miami kids.
  6. Ingush: because there are far more speakers of Ingush in exile than in Ingushetia; a reminder of the linguistic consequence of political turmoil.
  7. !Kung
  8. Bangani: These two languages (and their families) are important for historical linguistics. !Kung as a representative of one of the languages spoken in southern Africa before the Bantu expansion, and Bangani because of the intrigue surrounding possible centum reflexes in this group. Endangered languages, historical linguistics, academic skull-duggery and mystery…
  9. Pirahã: because of claims about universality. Of course, all languages bring up these questions but Pirahã has been probably the most high profile and the most hotly argued, and has brought up questions not only of linguistic universals but also cultural and cognitive constraints on language.
  10. Bardi: It’s my list and Bardi has been very important for me as a linguist, not only in what I work on but how I approach linguistics, fieldwork and theory.