Category Archives: Yan-nhaŋu

3 more days to go

With 3 works days or so to go before I leave, I haven’t had much time for posting recently. This is partly because a few days ago we decided to translate all 714-odd Yan-nhangu sentences in the dictionary into Dhuwal, the local lingua franca. We finished it. I can’t believe we finished it (partly because some of the examples are repeated, so 714 is really only about 600… but still!) From the outside, this is not a particularly sensible thing to do with 3 days to spare. I dont speak Dhuwal very well, although I understand a fair bit and know enough to be able to tell if the example seems an accurate translation of the Yan-nhangu. However, I’ll need to transcribe most of these examples on my own. It’ll make the dictionary more usable for its main constituency, though. It’s also very useful for my comparative Yolngu project, and I speak a heap more Dhuwal than I did three days ago!

[Update: It’s a pity we didn’t have time to do the encyclopaedic information too, but that would have been too much. However, this was useful for a heap of other reasons too. We’ve got a bit of a parallel ‘corpus’ which’ll help with senses in the dictionary, and it’ll make the Dhuwal-Yan-nhaŋu part of the dictionary much more useful.]


Twice in the last few days someone has tried to reassure me about my safety here. It’s getting a bit annoying, especially since in a community like this there are really only two main safety issues: (drunk) white men and things that bite, like snakes and crocodiles. The former are rare since there was a grog bust here recently (it made the NT papers) and the latter are also relatively rare. However, I was reminded today that people don’t have to be drunk to act like losers, and it had nothing to do with locking my door at night. I was running and someone decided it’d be a great idea to play chicken with me. I was in standard running gear (although covering a bit more arm and leg than I would normally) and they were in a shiny white Four Wheel Drive, so not much of a contest. Nothing much happened – they nearly tripped me by coming up behind me and honking the horn, then swerving a bit and coming on to the shoulder of the road and kicking up dirt and gravel. They nearly lost control of the car. Not sure who it was, except I’m pretty sure the drivers were white and since the car had tinted windows it shouldn’t be hard to find.

Otherwise, it was a pretty good day, topped off by the barge coming in more than a day early! There’ll be stuff in the shop tomorrow. [This trip has not been a culinary success, with the exception of the bit of bara I was given today, off the hook straight on the coals, fresh and juicy. I’ve been humbugging people for bushfood quite a bit recently. I want to go bush for bäwaŋ again. And someone’s got ḻami for cycad paste!]


I’ve had an excellent few days of work. I was a bit worried about it after my being kicked out of the guest house – that episode meant I had to cut short a great session and stop the first conversation I’d recorded with three fluent speakers in a good mood. That’s not something I’ll be able to forgive in a hurry.

But it’s turned out ok. We’ve been doing ‘fake’ phone conversations. Since Yan-nhangu isn’t spoken much outside these sort of language sessions, I’ve make making up little situations for people to act out. It’s a lot of fun and interesting language stuff comes out of it too. It’s not ‘real’ conversational Yan-nhangu, of course, but it has still let us record what people say when they answer the telephone, for example.

Today one person pretended they were sick and the other person was a nurse and had to find out what was wrong with her. That was a riot, with complaints of ‘I’m going to die’ greeted with laughter. We eneded up putting her on the plane to Darwin with an escot for a headache.

Interesting times

My first experience of the ‘intervention’ was pretty positive. The team worked well together and all had remote experience (and experience with communicating with Aboriginal people). They were friendly people on top of it

This bunch are, shall we say, different. My first real experience of them was negotiating sharing a key. There were problems about having access to the rooms during the day because “we might need to come back for a hankie. I’ve got a dozen starched and pressed white ones.” Hmm, I thought, anyone with that sort of hanky obsession isn’t going to do well where the bathroom is full of frog excrement. Bilin. Frog shit is indeed a problem. (I’ve met both the frogs that cause it now. One is a green frog that lives in the sink and shower and the other is a brown frog that lives in the guesthouse in general – we met when it jumped on my foot while I was working…)

It turned out that a bigger problem was me. This team decided they didn’t want me around, so the doctor rang up someone high up the food chain in Canberra, who rang the guesthouse oeprators and made them revoke my accommodation. Bear in mind this is a public guesthouse, and now the permit system has been abolished anyone can stay here (and someone invited by the community, complete with permit, has just as much right to be there as anyone). First I heard about it was as I was heading off to my afternoon field session.

The reason they gave was that they might forget I’m here and discuss their patients, and that would be a breach of confidentiality. That’s rubbish, since that night they hadn’t seen any patients (and rumour has spread in the community about how they pulled rank, so people aren’t taking their kids to them even though they’ve been here a few days now!) and I don’t think I should lose my accommodation because they doubt their own profesisonalism.

(I am back in the guesthouse in another room now and we are uneasily coexisting.)

TshwaneLex import

[This is not a fieldwork post; it’s a real time one]

I’ve just succeeded in getting the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary from Toolbox into TshwaneLex. Why did I spend about 10 hours on this, you ask? For two reasons. One is because it is clear that the Toolbox version needed huge amounts of work on it still in order to be publishable. Another is because there are structural issues in the dictionary entries that can’t really be solved by Toolbox. For example, say you want a headword (a verb) with its senses, example, and then the paradigm information at the bottom. There’s no way to associate the paradigm information with the entry as a whole and not an invididual sense. I also wanted something that would rigorously enforce formatting and information order (and ideally one where that could be changed easily, since there will be several versions of this dictionary). I’m still interlinearising so I’ll be exporting the headword and one-word translations back out periodically.

Getting the data into TshwaneLex  wasn’t completely straightforward, so here’s what I did:

  •  Cleaned up the Toolbox file.
    • Removed all line breaks within fields (necessary for CSV importing)
    • Removed empty fields
  • Exported the file about 15 times, each time with the \lx field and another field. This was necessary because the fields were out of order.
  • For fields where the information is associated with a subpart of the entry (e.g. semantic fields, definitions), the headword, the sense/gloss or related field were exported together with the new field. Examples:
    • \sd was exported with the db sorted by \ge, and \ge was moved to the top.
    • \rf, \xn and \xe were exported sorted by \xv.
  • These were then cleaned up in Word:
    • backslash codes were removed
    • items with missing information removed
    • The fields were separated by $ (not , since that appears in fields like \ee)
  • The whole thing was then very carefully imported into TshwaneLex, in a specific order.
    • word list (just the \lx fields)
    • Items that are daughters of the \lx field (e.g. \ps, grammar tags,some cross-references, sources, etymology)
    • ge
    • gn
    • de and other sense information that relies on identity with\ge
    • cultural information (\ee and other things relying on \ee)
    • examples.
  • I also had to change the DTD and do a bit of manual editing.

What’s not there now?

  • Have to reproof the cross-referencing (but I had to do that anyway)
  • The sources are associated with the entry, not the senses (but that was incorrect in the Toolbox entry too, and would have needed to be changed by hand there too)
  • Have to add back the second examples (but there weren’t more than a few fields with two examples at this stage, and they are findable through the ‘corpus’ function, and I have a huge number of examples to add anyway)
  • I didn’t add the random morphology in, but most of that was just cluttering up the entries.

Note: Toolbox xml doesn’t work for importing. There’s some bug in the way it’s exported (or in the way that TshwaneLex interprets it) so that TshwaneLex can never resolve which item is the lemma and which is a subentry of the lemma (e.g. lx field contents vs ps contents). About 4 of the 10 hours spent in importing involved investigating this.


It’s the end of my second week, and almost the halfway point (not quite). I’ve been working for two sessions a day and it’s really tiring. In the past when I’ve done this it’s been checking transcriptions in one session, which is much less tiring. This is full on new stuff for 3-4 hours a day. We’re also working at weekends, because that’s when one of the women is free from her job. I’m keeping up with the metadata and backing up, but with that and preparation there’s not much time for transcription. That’s made harder by the number of people in the guesthouse. The TV’s on all the time and the plug for my noise-isolating earphones keeps coming loose in my ear. I was getting up early to go an hour or so before everyone else got up but there’s no point if I keep falling asleep in the afternoon session. One up-side is I’m getting lots of exercise! Probably walking about 3-4km just visiting people/going to the shop/postoffice etc, and running on top of that.

We’ve just about finished the really important questions I had for the dictionary. I’m starting to think of more syntax stuff that’s come up, getting more examples of a few things, in short the usual sort of stuff people do for a documentation.

Britney is useful after all

I’m not usually a great fan of Britney Spears, but she served a useful purpose yesterday: her picture (along with some others of unidentifiable stuffy animals) was the focus of a multilingual conversation where I wasn’t present. This isn’t a big deal for most fieldworkers but I’ve had a lot of trouble convincing people in the past that recording conversation is a good idea. This time it worked, and thanks to my slackness in washing up (and not doing what the old lady told me to do 15 minutes before) I had an excellent excuse to leave the room.

I suspect it’s because we now have the learner’s guide and dictionary getting towards finished. I never thought I’d write that, but setting a deadline for the dictionary of ‘all the words we can think of by the end of this trip’ will get us a good-sized first dictionary of about 3800 words.

[Update: we’ll make 4000 or so by the time I enter all the new stuff from my fieldnotes. The conversation was pretty funny.]