Archive for the ‘China’ Category.

Rejoicing at AUSTRALEX

AUSTRALEX held its biennial conference in a surprisingly green Adelaide, and the tall gums were filled with birds rejoicing. It was the biggest AUSTRALEX conference I’ve ever been to, a range of speakers from around the world, the first one with parallel sessions, and by far the greatest media coverage of any Australian linguistics/lexicography conference – around 16 news items. Amazing, and good work by the promoter, Ghil’ad Zuckermann!

The theme of this conference was Endangered Words, and Signs of Revival. What is an endangered word? Is it a word in a language for an idea that no other language has a word for? Is it a word in an endangered language? Is it both? Do they include the ephemeral words and phrases (e.g. the current Free free the refugees which I remember years ago as Free, free the ACT from, from the bourgeoisie). What does it mean to revive words? What habitats do endangered words survive on in? e.g. David Nash‘s paper noted that some words of Indigenous languages survive in scientific names – as Nicotiana rosulata subsp. Ingulba which J.M.Black named in the 1930s using the local Arrernte name for the plant. Discussion of this led to the mention of a fossil python, preserving a possibly ephemeral cultural reference: Montypythonoides).

Revival was front stage at the start, with a welcome to country and a speech in Kaurna by Jack Buckskin (Jack is starring in a recent film about his work). As if this wasn’t terrific enough, he followed it with a song he’d written in Kaurna, and played the didgeridoo (paying respect to the northern Australians who play it). It was a great tribute to what waking up a language can do.

The conference concluded with a related event that I really really regret missing — on Saturday, Kaurna people, descendants of the first missionaries, current Lutherans, linguists and lexicographers visited Pirlta Wardli (Possum house:the place where the first missionaries worked). They got together to recognise and celebrate the work those missionaries did on documenting Kaurna language and teaching Kaurna children to read and write their own language. There was a prelaunch of a Kaurna Learners Guide by Rob Amery. The event was supported by the Yitpi Foundation, which Tony Rathjen set up, and which has been a great and quiet supporter of Aboriginal languages.

Coming together at AUSTRALEX helps us realise that we can learn from each other. Dictionary-making seems at the outset so simple – how hard can it be to make a list of words and their meanings? And so many of us rush into it, and then discover problems, and have to think up solutions to them, when all the while other people have been dealing with similar problems. So it was great to see the makers of dictionaries for small endangered languages in discussion with people who mine the web to create huge corpora. There were talks on production of dictionaries and workflow (e.g. Lauren Gawne on two dictionaries she’s worked on – Lamjung Yolmo and Kagate) and on beginning dictionaries – Norah Zhong‘s dictionary of Western Yugur). Both papers raised the question of sources and corpora – so it was nice to set this against Julia Robinson‘s fascinating discussion of changing practice in searching for antedatings and historical evidence for the Australian National Dictionary. (Which raised in my mind the question of whether the privileging of literary sources is a legacy problem for English dictionaries on historical principles).

There was also a strong sense of history at the conference, paying tribute to the work of early word collectors – Luise Hercus described her first realisation in 1962 in Victoria, that there still were speakers and rememberers of many languages, and then how she devoted herself to recording them, and what they wanted recorded, which very often were songs and the places associated with the songs.

Archival work also featured, Mary-Anne Gale paying tribute to the organisation of Boandik materials by Barry Blake which Boandik language revivers have made considerable use of. Going to another country entirely, Lars-Gunnar Larsson described how much Ume Saami (southern Sweden) material had been recorded in the archives, and described how careful analysis of archival sources on Ume Saami had shown that there were village dialects, which differed systematically, rather than there being random chaotic variation in a language attrition situation. He also raised the question of conflicts between archival material and the later material on which Ume Saami revival has been based – [a dictionary of material collected during World War 2 by a German linguist, Wolfgang Schlachter, who was nearly blind. He lived with a Saami family who defended him when Swedes wanted to arrest him as a German spy.]

Similar kinds of conflicts are probably what led John Hobson to suggest returning “to a gentler model of prescriptivism” that will help communities trying to get revival underway. Few people can learn spelling, grammar etc under the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. Related to this are the difficulties raised by Peter Mühlhäusler for the new languages/English varieties of Pitkern and Norf’k of how to prepare a dictionary for a non-standard language, where families argue about what words to include – a situation familiar to many people working on small languages, whether traditional or new. (Worst pun of conference -description of Mühlhäusler, a ferret enthusiast, as Professor Eferretus).

I was particularly taken with the work on creating new terms, whether for Boandik (Gale), Kaurna (Jasmin Morley) or more generally in John Hobson‘s paper where he presented a resource for communities wanting to create new words – basically a list of strategies for doing this, and examples of it. Over the borrowing/copying strategy, Wanda Miller emphasised that linguists have a responsibility when they go out to communities to speak with the elders about copying words, and if a word is copied, then in our resources and books acknowledge where that word is taken from. John Hobson reported that a trial release to some University of Sydney Master of Indigenous Language Education students this year was greeted with praise. You can find the resource online here.

AUSTRALEX 2015 is probably to be held in New Zealand, home and exporter of many great lexicographers.

Signs of change?

London is about to experience Olympic fever again with the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games taking place tonight. Already disabled athletes have started appearing in the city and interacting with locals and other visitors.

The Paralympics provide a great occasion to focus attention on the issues and difficulties faced by disabled people across the world. The BBC reported earlier today that:

“if Chinese athletes perform as well in the Paralympic Games [a China did in the Olympic Games] it could help change attitudes towards disabled people in China. The Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008 played a huge part in changing attitudes, but campaigners say China still has a lot to do”.

Locally, the Head of Scope Cymru has made a similar point in the context of a survey showing attitudes to disabled people are worsening in Wales.

Those of us interested in endangered languages might think of sign languages and the Deaf community (since all sign languages are endangered and subject to pressure from speakers of majority spoken languages), however, as UK Deaf Sport reminds us: “many Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, particularly in physical or intellectual ability. Rather, we consider ourselves to be part of a cultural and linguistic minority”. There is in fact a separate Deaflympics, “the second oldest multi-sport and cultural festival in the world, with a proud history stretching back to the first Games in Paris, in 1924” and sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. It was recently announced by Craig Crowley, President of the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, that the next Summer Deaflympics will be held in Sophia, Bulgaria in 2013 (following the cancellation of plans for Athens).

The visibility (no pun intended) of sign languages among linguists, and the wider community, has been slowly increasing in recent years, however, like other minorities and the disabled there is still some way to go. For example, the list of DoBeS projects of the Volkswagen Foundation does not include any sign languages at all, despite the information for applicants [.pdf] stating that “documentation projects may focus on endangered dialects, moribund languages as well as sign languages”. The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS has so far funded eight projects on sign languages, namely:

Corpora for several of these are available in the Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS, namely Auslan, Malian sign, Indian village sign, and Inuit sign.

We have also run training events at SOAS designed to sensitise hearing researchers about sign languages, the most recent being a workshop in “Sign language documentation for linguists working with spoken languages” held in May 2012. The 2009 3L Summer School at SOAS included a plenary lecture (by Adam Schembri and published in Language Documentation and Description Volume 7) and a course on documentation of sign languages. The Summer School was attended by a number of Deaf students, and the constant presence of British Sign Language and American Sign Language was a factor in sensitising hearing students to the needs of their Deaf colleagues.

There seem to be mixed indicators of the current state of affairs, however. The 2010 3L Summer School in Leiden included a course on Documentary Sign Linguistics, and a course on Advanced Sign Language Documentation, however the programme for this year’s 3L Summer School in Lyon focussed on revitalisation and did not highlight the situation of sign languages explicitly. Similarly, next year’s Linguistic Society of America 2013 Linguistic Institute has no courses on sign languages and linguistics.

Increasing interest is apparent in some places, however. Colleagues in the Department of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore reported to me recently that their undergraduate course “Deaf Culture and Sign Language” has been heavily oversubscribed by students wishing to learn about “the socio-cultural world of Deafness and the history and use of sign language”.

It would be interesting to learn more about what is happening in other parts of the world in relation to sign languages and linguistics.

Think-tanks or museums

Here’s where I spent the morning:   HASS On the Hill.
One reason I went is because I’d like to know how to get policy-makers and implementers interested in the information that university researchers have on matters like – language education, mother tongue medium instruction…

Before it started, I caught up with a Chinese colleague who told me of her latest project, to translate a book on Aboriginal society and culture into Chinese. She was looking for a reputable Chinese publisher, and was saying regretfully that this would need Guānxì 關係 (connections, networks, relationships, influence).

Then we were addressed by:

  • 1 current public servant (Terry Moran, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which – for readers outside of Australia – means a very large cheese indeed, the person who runs the Australian federal public service)
  • 1 former public servant now public policy researcher and university administrator(Peter Shergold)
  • 1 politician (Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research)

What I learned can be expressed as four Q&As.

Q:   How can university researchers influence public policy creating and implementation?
A:    With great difficulty.

Q:    Why?

  1. Public servants and politicians (P&P) have to make policy fast. University researchers often don’t provide research on time.
  2. P&P don’t have time to read much. University researchers often write inaccessibly and in inaccessible journals.
  3. P&P have to work out policies in secret because otherwise their adversaries will seize on work-in-progress and use it to destroy acceptance of the policy. University researchers are a chatty lot and not good at keeping research/policy advice secret.

Q:    So where do P&P go when they want swift, accessible research that won’t be spread around?
A:    Strategic consulting firms. Think-tanks.

Q: What can we do?
A: Create personal relationships…..

Guānxì 關係 all over again.

Here’s where I wish I’d spent the morning
National Museum of Australia: A tribute to Bob Edwards
I got there just in time for the closing session, in which a politician (John Bannon), a bookseller (Michael Treloar) and Bob Edwards himself talked of how an orchardist became curator at the South Australian Museum, founding director of the Museum of Victoria, of the Aboriginal Arts Board, shaped the present of museums in Australia today, and still remained a nice guy. The charm that sold cucumbers, along with his knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal art and culture,  became the vital ingredients in selling governments and philanthropists on the need to support our heritage.

China, Australia, publishers, museums, language policy, in the end it’s always Guānxì 關係. When coupled with knowledge, enthusiasm, efficiency and honour, it works to all our benefit. When not..

Trung-Yiddish translation

As I mentioned in a previous post, recently anthropologists have pointed to the need to highlight issues of concern, especially in the public media. I suggested that linguists are ahead of the game here, and doing fairly well at “express[ing] their views in public forums, including the popular press”.

The media sharing site YouTube is now being used by various language groups, and by researchers, to present materials in, and highlight issues about, endangered languages. Possibly one of the most unusual contributions is a video report produced by Ross (aka. Shmuel) Perlin, who completed the MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS in 2006 and is now a PhD student at Leiden University. Ross is doing fieldwork in Yunan province in south-west China on the Trung language, a Tibeto-Burman tongue spoken by a few thousand farmers and related to Rawang and Nu. Ross/Shmuel Perlin’s video describes and illustrates his research and is in Yiddish with English subtitles. One of the most charming sections is his Yiddish (and English) translation of a Trung ghost story.