Category Archives: Other

Teaching statement

I’ve finally figured out what I want to put in a teaching statement:

I am a linguist and I teach about linguistics, particularly language change and language documentation. My teaching is research centered in that I want my classes, from freshman classes to graduate seminars, to be places where my students learn how to ‘figure stuff out’ – how to step outside their starting assumptions to figure out what language tells us about how our world works, how to find out what they don’t know, even when they think they know it, and how to be constructive critics of their own and others’ work. I want them to be excited about learning and not to see the syllabus as simply a set of hoops to go through to earn a grade. In short, I teach students how to think, not what to think.

If language were spoken in a vacuum, my teaching statement could probably end there, vague though it is. But language is spoken by humans and researched by humans, and humans are complex. Views about language, from the appropriateness of teaching spelling, to when to introduce a second language, to who should be bilingual, to who speaks better than others, pervade our lives. They affect the type of data that linguists can use, and more concretely, they directly affect the lived experience of a large fraction of the population, for better or for worse.

Linguists can, and should, have a lot to say about this. Our commitment to the ‘scientific’ study of language has implications, both for how to study social dynamics, and the ways in which language is used to reinforce or deny power. Our work as academics gives us tools to critically examine social constructs, to separate the content of claims about the world from the language used to deliver those claims, and to see the implications of such arguments.

My practical focus in this lab is on a combination of educational outreach and training, and the commitments that this entails. Quite simply, students need to be able to do the best work they can in my classes and research group, and if they can’t because they are systematically disadvantaged, that’s not just their problem, it’s my problem too.

How does this translate into concrete activities? For me, this means a twin focus on the broader impacts of training current and future researchers, and of making our methods, results, and approaches more available to others.

Within the lab and classroom, it means fostering an atmosphere of excellence and respect, where everyone’s contributions are acknowledged and valued. It means acknowledging the realities of implicit bias and how it can affect both our work and our perceptions of excellence. It means acknowledging and leaving time to explore history in the classroom.

For training, it means working from a broad definition of ‘excellence’ that factors in opportunity and potential as well as results achieved to date. It means recognizing that ‘pipeline’ questions won’t solve themselves without effort.

For activities, it means a genuine commitment to outreach. This includes making sure language materials are accessible to the people who need them, that we preferentially publish in open access journals, that we provide plain English summaries of our work, that the results of our work are integrated into general outlets such as Wikipedia, and that we help people who want to learn about linguistics and don’t have the resources to do so. It means not just an informational role, but an advocacy role for topics where our research is relevant, such as language endangerment.

Tasmanian language data

The CHIRILA database contains materials from the Aboriginal languages of Tasmania. The excel spreadsheets contain all the records from Plomley’s (1976) Tasmanian language data, and additional spreadsheets contain explanatory data about the speakers represented in the text, the regions where data were recorded, and who the recorders were. This is the data used in Bowern (2012).

A word of warning is warranted here. This is not easy data to use; there’s a steep learning curve both for understanding the original transcription conventions, Plomley’s groupings, and the abbreviations.

See for downloads.


I maintain, which provides references to recent publications on Australian languages. I’ve recently gone through the backlog of draft posts, so expect to see more activity on the site over the next few weeks. Suggestions for papers to post … Continue reading

domain name update

The domain is now defunct. (I registered it in 2005 through yahoo “small business” as part of my Houston home phone account, and now can’t recover the account information. It’s somewhere in internet limbo.) My blog is still available from, though. At some point I may even have time to write some more contentful posts.

How many languages? (2)

I’ve updated the list of how many languages were spoken in Australia at European settlement. Thanks to Barry Alpher, Greg Dickson, Aidan Wilson and JC Verstraete for comments.

How many languages were spoken in Australia?

For years, I’ve been using the figure of approximately 250 Aboriginal languages spoken at the time of European settlement, of which roughly 150 were Pama-Nyungan. I recently had the chance to clean up my list of standard language names, which means that I finally got a fairly accurate estimate of how many languages there actually were. This includes some “languages” that we would probably treat as mutually intelligible varieties if we were being very strict, but on the “Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are separate languages” model, I am comfortable treating languages like Dhuwal and Dhuwala as distinct. Some of the decisions are a bit arbitrary, though.

Here are the figures:

  • 363 languages in Australia, 364 if we include Meryam Mir, which is a Papuan language spoken in Australian territory. The number goes up by 7 if we include Tasmanian languages, but my database only includes the mainland.
  • 275 of those languages are Pama-Nyungan.
  • I am working with 30 primary subgroups and 5 isolates, within Pama-Nyungan.

You are free to use it for your own (non-commercial) purposes, and I would be very happy to hear about corrections, additions, subtractions, etc. If you want a list of languages, this is, if I say so myself, a far better list to use than the Ethnologue’s. Edited: you now need to contact me for permission to use the list. Sorry about that.

Bardi baby talk

In previous trips I haven’t been able to get any information about Bardi baby talk, but this time the women were using more Bardi to toddlers. I haven’t recorded any of this, and for ‘official’ Bardi people felt that baby talk wasn’t to be encouraged, but they were happy to talk about it. Here are some features of the register:

  • It’s faster and higher than regular speech (unsurprising)
  • It has a lot more repetition (also unsurprising);
  • there’s some r > l substitution (roowil > loowil ‘walk’);
  • Preverbs can be used without their light verb, which is not true for the regular language;
  • There are some lexical substitutions (e.g. nyamnyam for aarlimay ‘food’);
  • The ergative case marker seems to be omitted quite a bit.