Archive for the ‘Experience’ Category.

You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field – MLIP blog March 2017

MLIP blog March 2017

Ruth Singer recaps the March Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub (MLIP) a monthly discussion group.

On 1st March 2017, Alex Marley (ANU/Wellsprings) led a discussion on promoting language diversity in the field. The announcement for the discussion session looked like this:

You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field

As linguists, we are occasionally called upon to provide professional advice and consultation to government or community organisations. However, how our advice is received, implemented or interpreted can be disappointing and frustrating.

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Issues in the documentation of newer language varieties

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Linguistics in the Pub on Wednesday 29th of October, 2014 centred around the theme: Issues in the documentation of newer varieties. Felicity Meakins (University of Queensland) led the discussion. The announcement and short background reading are here.

This session marked the 5th anniversary of Linguistics in the Pub. Organiser Ruth Singer would like to extend a thank you very much to all participants, including ‘retired’ co-organiser Lauren Gawne. Lauren’s gap has been partly filled by the Monash PhD students coalition: Harriet Shepard, Jonathon Lum, Alan Ray and Jonathan Schlossberg (University of Newcastle) will be co-organising when they are not in the field. Interstate/international visitors – don’t forget let me know when you’re coming to Melbourne so we can have you along too!
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Sharing the load? Problems with the ‘lone depositor’ model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Traditionally collections in endangered languages archives are identified with a single depositor. This depositor is typically a researcher, who is not a member of the community in which the recordings were made. This depositor decides on access restrictions to the materials, ideally in consultation with the community. There are a number of quite separate problems with this position, for those who manage archives and for those who find themselves in the position of lone depositor. In this era of collaborative fieldwork, we can also ask whether the lone depositor model is the best one for communities who speak endangered languages. One suggestion is to make collections open access so that the depositor does not need to be contacted. Another suggestion is to name a number of depositors for each collection, so that no single person has sole responsibility. In this LIP we will discuss potential solutions to the problems of the lone depositor model in the light of participants experiences as depositors and archivists.
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Open access and intimate fieldwork

A report on the Linguistics in the Pub discussion Tuesday 11th March, Prince Alfred Hotel, Grattan St, Melbourne.

This Linguistics in the Pub discussion brought together fieldworkers who do research in Indigenous Australia, Africa, South Asia, Papua New Guinea and Nepal, as well as a computational linguist who has developed software to automate language documentation. The linguists were not all Australian, in fact we were lucky to have four participants who identify as European who are living in Australia, temporarily or permanently. The linguists’ experience in language documentation ranged from between 6-30 years and between them had deposited in the digital archives: DoBeS, Paradisec and ELAR. The timeliness of this discussion is demonstrated by David Nathan’s very recent ELAC post on the same topic.
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Useful and interesting websites and apps about endangered languages: July LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of this week’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

In this month’s LIP and last month’s participants shared in their latest discoveries in the world of apps and online resources. June’s meeting focused on software and apps that are useful to our work in doing language documentation. July’s meeting looked at websites and apps that are interesting because they give us some insight into what our co-workers are doing, providing inspiration for our own ideas. We basically surfed the internet together, with the help of a large tv on the pub wall and an iphone’s wifi hotspot.

The session began with a tour of three websites that each make available materials on a specific endangered language and are favourites of mine. These sites draw together resources produced over a period of time, showing how they relate to one another, as well as incorporating current blogs and forums. 

Murray Garde’s Bininj Gunwok site makes the language itself prominent as all the menu headings are in Bininj Gun-wok – you can swipe your mouse over them to see the English heading. This site has been used by a high school student I work with in northwest Arnhem Land, to teach herself how to read and write in her mother tongue. The usefulness of the site to a wide audience that includes native speakers, linguists and non-linguists has inspired me to plan for a similar site on the Mawng language. The Bininj Gunwok site has a download area where you can download a book on  the Kunwinjku dialect of Bininj Gun-wok by SIL linguists Steve and Narelle Etherington – a publication that was previously very hard to get. The blog area is regularly updated by Murray and provides much insight into the various interesting projects that he is working on, from ethnobiology to traditional fire management. No doubt the local communities Murray works with enjoy viewing the audiovisual files available on the blog. The blog has materials to support people who want to learn Bininj Gun-wok. Murray regularly uploads sound files, videos and transcriptions. These provide good transcription exercises. Learners of Bininj Gun-wok can also subscribe to regular instructional emails.
The Maori language site Te whanake shows what is possible for well-resourced endangered Indigenous languages. There is everything you could ever want here to support Maori language maintenance and Maori language revitalisation. There are videos, forums, online learning modules, online dictionary and pointers to the Maori dictionary app which looks wonderful, with sound files and images.

Beta mac version:

The sites above are a ones that linguist John Giacon has been involved with, providing a large range of resources for Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay languages of northern New South Wales, Australia. These resources can be accessed both online and through downloading. These two different access options have different advantages. Online resources can generally be accessed regardless of the operating system you use, although they are usually designed to work particularly well on one kind of device. Downloadable resources have the advantage that they can be used in communities which do not have reliable internet access. As long as they can be downloaded once, they can be accessed anytime without internet access.

We also chatted a bit about all the new mobile phone language learning apps around. There are so many that reviews are beginning to appear:

It’s no coincidence that the language learning apps profiled are all for Indigenous languages that are spoken in countries where Indigenous language initiatives receive substantial government funding: Australia, Canada, New Zealand. This highlights the need for cheap and good mobile apps which you can plug data from any language into. We have the free lexique pro software for creating online dictionaries but lexique pro sites do not view that well on a mobile internet browser. Free or cheap open-source apps are needed for the majority of endangered languages which are spoken in countries where little or no funding is available for these kinds of initiatives.

Lauren Gawne introduced us to her current fave site:

This blog, written mainly by Margaret Carew, is a prequel to the forthcoming online dictionary of central Australian Indigenous sign language. The blog tracks the progress of the Arandic sign languages project. Not a fieldwork blog, this blog discusses how the author works through various workflow and data management issues, in producing a dictionary of a visual language whose entries include videos of each sign. Lauren particularly appreciated the insight it provides into this process, which we all largely struggle along alone. Sharing how we work mundane but necessary things out could help reduce the hugely time-consuming nature of these tasks a bit by preventing us from reinventing the wheel. The site makes the collaborative nature of the project more apparent, featuring Indigenous linguist Liz Ellis’ explanations of the differences between signs and many photos of the project team hard at work. One other motivation for the site, apparently, is to help the participants come to grips with what it means to share information on the internet – in terms of your image and your knowledge and culture. Many participants live in communities without ready internet access. Negotiating the many ethical issues in putting such a dictionary online is much easier when participants and stakeholders a clearer idea of what it will mean for their images, voices, language and culture to be available online.

The discussion of the the Iltyem-Iltyem site led to some suggestions that linguists need a central site where we share such information such as a stack exchange or something like the physics arxiv: Certainly we have many sites where we swap information, such as the RNLD list, the Toolbox google group and other sites, so probably we’re doing ok as it is, we’re not a very unifed bunch.

Then we briefly browsed some central Australian  media sites – where youth arts, media education and language maintenance go hand-in hand through the activities of eight specialised media workshops in central Australia. is one of the oldest such projects, dating back to 2006 has some group outputs from media projects, such as the Jack and John film in the animating Yimi series. We watched it together and it was a hit.

These projects show how language maintenance activities can be combined with arts and education activities, and end up engaging many more people, particularly young people.

The next part of LIP took us to talking about the ‘big sites’: Wikipedia, Youtube and the Google endangered languages site.  We discussed how useful but often underutilised the Wikipedia pages on individual languages can be. It is a great place for a sketch grammar with links to the main references on a language. However, given there is little academic recognition of doing this, it comes down to whether an individual linguist gets inspired to work on the page.

The Wictionary and the Wikipedias in endangered languages were also discussed. The Tok Pisin site has over a thousand pages, but most of the more elaborate wikipedias in small languages are languages of Europe such as Rumansch. Next we talked about the Google endangered languages site. We speculated on whether there will be a snowball effect, with people starting to populate the Google endangered languages site with information more and more, or whether most language entries will remain shells.Lastly we talked about how Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are all providing data for our analyses these days, but there hasn’t been much discussion of how to go about this ethically.

Next month there will be a discussion of language revitalisation with participants Ghilad Zuckerman and Christina Eira. Sign up to the RNLD email list, facebook page or check the RNLD LIP webpage for more details.

Things you can do with outputs from language documentation projects: A LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Our first Melbourne LIP for the year at our regular venue got off to a rocky start when the function room was usurped by the local Touch Football team. Fortunately, we had such an excellent turn out – especially of local honours and PhD students – that we were able to make do in the general area by breaking up into smaller groups to discuss this month’s topic.

Most of the points discussed below are from either the discussion I participated in, and the general summary discussion we had at the end. This means ideas and discussion points may not be attributed to the correct people, but you’re welcome to add clarifying remarks in the comments below.
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Urban fieldwork: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The topic for the final Linguistics In the Pub in Melbourne for 2012 was ‘urban fieldwork’, lead by Rosey Billington. Rosey is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne working on the phonetics of Lopit, a previously undescribed language of South Sudan. Rosey is doing her fieldwork with Lopit speakers who migrated to Melbourne as refugees.

The definition of urban fieldwork was something that emerged from the discussion throughout the evening. The general consensus was that urban fieldwork in general occurs when a linguist works with speakers of a minority language in an urban centre away from the traditional homelands or villages in which the language is spoken. There are some variations on this. Some languages may become the minority language of an urban centre that is the traditional place that language is spoken, and therefore the speakers are not a migrant community. There was also a distinction made between situations where the diaspora live in the urban setting (some times for many generations) and other situations where speakers come in from their villages to work with linguists for a period of time. There is also a difference between urban fieldwork which is in the home country, or a neighbouring country, of the speakers, and those situations where the speakers of a language have migrated to an urban location in the country of residence of the linguist. There are some fringe examples as well, such as a linguist in their own city consulting with a speaker via phone or email. While all of these situations share the geographic feature of existing in an urban environment, there are unique challenges and rewards in each of these different situations.

There were many positive aspects of urban fieldwork that we discussed. There is the possibility to work on languages that may be otherwise inaccessible to most linguists due to political instability or remoteness. It also means that the type of linguistic work can be broadened beyond that which we can take equipment for, such as high quality recordings in studios for phonetic analysis. This type of work can possibly lead to future fieldwork in home towns or villages of the language. It also means that language documentation work can be done by people who may not wish to travel outside of urban centres for reasons of health, family or personal dispreference. In this way, it helps to break down the traditional model of ‘linguist as rugged adventurer.’ Urban field settings also mean that a linguist has access to things that they may not have access to in places that the language is traditionally spoken. This could be anything from electricity, to personal autonomy or the ability to consult with other linguists. There is also the opportunity to come in contact with many languages at once. This is useful when doing survey style work, or if complementing existing fieldwork on a single language with a brief look at neighbouring languages. After all, if a language is un(der)described then it’s likely that neighbouring or related languages are similarly lacking in description.

Urban fieldwork is an opportunistic activity, as one is making the most of the convenience of having speakers of minority languages nearby, who may otherwise not have had a chance to share their knowledge. Luise Hercus often made the most of this opportunism by visiting speakers of indigenous south-eastern Australian languages in prison. There is also the successful Saturday school model at the University of Hawaii where keen students improve their linguistic skills working with volunteer speakers of minority languages in a city that is vibrantly multicultural. There are existing networks for minority languages in many cities, through community organisations (libraries were also suggested as a good go-to), but there is also the opportunity to help set up language networks for migrants keen to maintain their traditional language. Migrants who move to urban centres tend to be more literate, and can often be more interested in maintaining their language in the face of more dominant ones (although this should not be presumed to be the case). There is the potential to help the more enthusiastic participants to get linguistic training. These speakers may also be more likely to interact with social media, and projects like Language Landscape that beautifully capture the spread of linguistic diversity and the fact that languages aren’t constrained to the geographic boundaries we often talk about.

Like with any type of documentation work, there are also many challenges with an urban fieldwork project. Many of the challenges are shared by all language documentation projects, but some are unique to urban fieldwork situations. It should be noted though that no one at the LIP discussion thought that any of these were deal-breakers when it came to doing this kind of work.

People who live in urban centres tend to lead urban lives, and this counts for linguists as much as the people they work with. There is the pressure of regular work, and other commitments that people in villages or towns may more flexible about. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t enthusiastic about the work, but it can be harder to pin them down.

It may be also difficult to get University fieldwork funding for this kind of documentation as it is not occuring in an ‘exotic’ location (and can often be happening at the university itself). This, coupled with the fact that if an urban centre is in the linguist’s own country the cost of fairly paying people for their time can be a lot more expensive than if working in the speaker’s home country, means that the expenses for this kind of fieldwork can be a strain. Also, when working in a country like Australia, the university may be reluctant about paying participants in cash, which can lead to more administrative work for the linguist, and undue stress for the speakers, for whom officially recognised payments may interfere with their wages or pensions.

There is also a problem of time with urban fieldwork, in that there in an abundance of it. Because the linguist is not bounded by the need to return home if they are already working in their own city, then plans can be constantly put off. There is no novelty of being the returned visitor to motivate people to work with you.

One topic that we kept returning to throughout the night is that speakers in urban centres are often a diaspora community, and there has traditionally been an idea that speakers in the diaspora do not truly represent the linguistic situation in the homelands. It is true that working with urban groups may limit access to knowledge about traditional practices, festivals and some genres of speech.

When the speakers are diffused within an urban environment it can be harder to define the community you are working with. A great deal of care needs to be taken in doing socio-linguistic background interviews to ensure that all speakers are from the same area, and the same dialect. With a diaspora you may also find you have a limited number of speakers of the target dialect, and these will always be a non-representative demographic – usually younger and more literate. They may also be more multilingual, or have influences that don’t exist in the traditional areas, such as English, Arabic, a new religion or tertiary education. Nick Thieberger framed this within the debate around ‘authenticity’ in language documentation. We need tor realise that language documentation occurs in an increasingly globally mobile environment, and that this type of fieldwork is as valuable as any other. The ability to audio-record sessions can negate the idea that this type of work is less authentic, as it is then possible to compare the data from the urban diaspora with that from the original homelands at a later time. We talked about the need to acknowledge the community that you’re working with, but that always labeling your work as “Melbourne Lopit” etc. devalues the kind of work done on urban fieldwork projects.

In multicultural and linguistically rich cities like Melbourne there is potential for some great work to be done. It seems that many linguists are keen, and the speakers are keen, and so now we need to help universities and funding bodies also see the value of this work.

This was the last LIP in Melbourne for 2012. In December we will be bringing LIP to ALS as Linguistics by the river, returning to the topic of language variation and documentation. LIP will be back in Melbourne early in 2013, topic suggestions are welcome.

Researching child language in the field: October LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of the last week’sLinguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

A number of linguists in Melbourne have recently begun documenting child language in the field. In the November 2011 LIP we discussed what you need to think about if you want to document child language and why you might document child language as part of a broader language documentation project (see blog at The most recent LIP, led by Lauren Gawne and Birgit Hellwig last week, revisited the topic of child language documentation. This allowed those who have recently returned from the field to discuss some of the problems they faced and how they dealt with them. In particular, we looked at the gap between what is possible in remote fieldsites and some of the assumptions in the field of child language acquisition about what type of data is needed to study child language development. The quantity and frequency of data that can be collected in remote fieldsites is quite different to what can be done in the developed world. The limitations can be quite simple. For example, not being able to get accurate information on children’s ages.

To kick off the discussion we looked at ethics, from a personal point of view. The previous LIP on child language was criticised for focussing too much on the requirements of institutional ethics boards at universities, schools etc. So we discussed what types of decisions researchers had made to satisfy their own ethical concerns. A number of researchers said that they had no plans to make their recordings public. This goes against the current trend to make recordings of endangered languages as open as possible, given community consent.

Just to give an example, I have decided to keep access to my recordings of child language closed, until the children are 18. If they are happy for me to open access to their recordings after they are 18, I will do so. However since I am currently recording children in groups at least 3 people, it is likely that in many cases I will not be able to contact all participants so the recording will remain closed. One of the issues we returned to a number of times in the evenings is that our recordings are often made in open environments, which means that many people wander through the field of view. This is in contrast to mainstream child language data, which is usually made in a room through which only a limited number of people pass by. It was mentioned that the CHILDES language database is a great example of an open access archive but it lacks much data from endangered languages. CHILDES contains data recorded from many different studies of child language acquisition. However to upload data to CHILDES you must have the consent of every person who appears, even if just walking past. This is not going to be possible for many recordings of endangered languages in remote areas. It is often difficult to find a room to record in and even if one is found, it is likely that many people will pass through it.

Some of the other assumptions about child language acquisition research that can prove difficult in remote settings:

  • that a mother and child pair form natural conversational partners (they may rarely engage in idle chit-chat)
  • that adults typically play with children (it may be the case that children typically play with other children, not adults

Since it is often difficult for a mother-child pair to engage in conversation in front of the camera, some suggested structured tasks, such as those used at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Although others pointed out that this makes it difficult to study language socialization, because you are asking people to engage in a culturally foreign activity. Others suggested identifying local games that could be used in language acquisition research.

One big problem in applying the standards of child language acquisition research to remote contexts is the difficulty of obtaining recordings of the same child over regular intervals. Many of the linguists attending the LIP session work in Papua New Guinea and Australian Aboriginal communities. They pointed out that children and often their whole families move around much more than they had expected. The set of children living in a community may barely overlap from one fieldtrip to the next.  In addition, some child language researchers recommend making recordings every 2 months or so, and it is not possible to do this in remote settings. The limitations are partly financial and partly due to the time needed for the linguist to travel to the remote location from their home.

There was quite a bit of time devoted to the technology used to record children, who are rather more mobile than adults. One researcher recommended the use of teddy-bear shaped backpacks for children. These can carry the heavy transmitter of the radio microphone. Everyone agreed that noise is a big issue. Even if there is no wind, which small radio microphones don’t handle well, children’s motion invariably causes noise. One researcher only recorded in areas without many leaves as the noise of these being crushed beneath children’s running feet was too loud.

Birgit Hellwig discussed some of the data from her recent 2 month fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea which she did with child language acquisition specialist Evan Kidd (ANU). She said that by the end of the 2 months, the community they were visiting had more or less gotten used to the cameras and exactly what it meant to have child language researchers in the community. One thing that Birgit emphasised is that what participants need to do is not as obvious to them as we might think. Birgit gave a lovely example in the use of the frog story task. The frog story ‘Frog: where are you?’, is a short children’s picture book without any words. Children were asked to tell the story in their own words. It became apparent during the course of Birgit’s 2 month fieldtrip that changes in how children told the story from week to week were related to narrative practices in the community. The story was circulating in the community, just as any story does, and changing slightly over the course of time. Rather than each new child that particpated in the task telling the story afresh, ‘in their own words’, each told it as it was in its current form in the community. This resulted in remarkable convergence between tellings that were recorded around the same time.

It became clear from the discussion that we can’t expect to do research on child language in the same way as it is done in more controlled environments. We will not get comparable quantities of data for each child. However, whatever we do record is likely to be really interesting. We only have data on child language for a small number of languages, so anything will help.

Participant Observation: A LIP discussion

This post recaps the May meeting of Linguistics in the Pub, whose topic was More than just being there? The place of participant observation in linguistic fieldwork.

Two weeks ago at Linguistics in the Pub, we discussed an issue that many linguists never really consider, but which is central to many anthropologists’ work: the role of participant observation in our fieldwork and research.

We had a bit of difficulty nutting out exactly what we mean by participant observation, given that everything we do is in some way, participating, and we all agreed that there was something a bit different about linguistics from anthropology, something that allows us to be more objective. Perhaps it’s that our subject matter, while deeply and inextricably ingrained in culture, can be observed independently of culture, that is, without the researcher having to necessarily embed themselves deeply into the culture. We’re lucky though, because we can enter a community in order to learn the language, and while doing so, become integrated into the community in a more deeply cultural sense. Anthropologists by definition, are there to learn about the culture, which immediately sets up a very different dynamic between the researcher and the members of the community.

Integrating more with the community can present rare opportunities for language learning, such as being able to participate in events and so forth that outsiders generally cannot access. The question presents itself though: is it permissible to covertly conduct linguistic research, in the form of note-taking, for instance, at such an event?

This is a tricky one. Some events would be more suited to doing so, such as going fishing or hunting with some community members and taking notes on things such as lexical items. There would of course be other types of events where covert note taking would be unacceptable, such as at a funeral.

So if we go into these communities with the stated purpose of learning the language, and sometimes, permissibly or not, use that as a foot-in-the-door to access other areas of the culture, then how well do we in fact learn the language? As a general rule, not particularly well. This is not surprising sometimes, when the language being studied isn’t actually used commonly, or when it’s a very difficult language to acquire. Becoming proficient in a language, even if you’re a linguist, takes either the sort of linguistic genius that only a few people in our trade possess, or long-term, deep integration and years of targeted personal investment, which, to be frank, not many of us at the table are all that willing to put in. We all have pressures in our daily lives – teaching duties, other jobs, families and friends – that mean it’s just not possible, or desirable, to go to the field for any more than three weeks, and even for a trip as short as that, we always take our stove-top espresso machines.

This may have been a result of the fact that those linguists who do live in the communities whose languages they study, typically cannot make it to Linguistics in the Pub on a Tuesday night in Melbourne.

Looking more into the idea of covert data collection, we all agree we’re lucky that we’re linguists, and not, for example, anthropologists of religion. I brought up this particular subject as I have friends who do religious studies, and one in particular is gaining entry into, and covertly studying, an otherwise clandestine community by allowing the community members believe that they are interested in joining.

We also discussed the pragmatic considerations of being taken for a member of the community, and how this can affect our research. Lauren related the experience of a colleague, Amos Teo, who quite coincidentally happens to look like the members of the community whose language he is studying and therefore enjoys easier access faster than others, such as Lauren herself, although this too comes with its own downsides. Jill Vaughan, who’s working on the identity and sociolinguistics of the Irish diaspora, and who has a variable accent from standard Australian right through to Northern Irish, has become aware in listening to her recordings that the degree to which she subconsciously uses her Irish accent can have an effect on the interview, and being taken for a member of the community can mean that her interviewees are less willing to be explicit about certain things, believing her to just know this stuff in virtue of her in-group membership.

We found that questioning the role of participant observation in our data collecting mean that we had to be more honest with each other about what it mean to be working ‘in the field.’ We also felt that we have a lot to learn from anthropological practices, but as always, each field situation, and each field worker is unique and deserves its own considered approach.

The topic for June’s Linguistics in the Pub will the use of technology in the field; the advantages and disadvantages, a topic raised on this very blog by Peter Austin some weeks ago. We will meet at Prince Alfred Hotel on Tuesday June 26th at 6pm. See the LIP page on or contact Ruth Singer for more details.

Yet another 40 years on

This month marks the 40th anniversary of my first venture into linguistic fieldwork and my first data collection on an Australian Aboriginal language. Looking back it was a kind of crazy way to start my career, but nonetheless one that got me set on a path that has given me the chance to work on 12 Australian languages and meet and learn from some amazing people.

Like the story of how I started Linguistics at ANU that I told last year, this one has an accidental component, but one affecting someone else, not me. This will become clear later.

Our story begins in March 1972 when I was in my second year BA (Asian Studies) course at ANU and enrolled in Bob Dixon’s Australian Languages course that he was teaching for the first time. We had just started off, getting an overview of the national linguistic scene in the 18th century and starting to study Dyirbal from north Queensland using the draft of Bob’s book that was published by Cambridge University Press later in the year. We raced through phonology (bypassing phonetics — have a look at the structure of Bob’s Dyirbal grammar to get an idea of how he dealt with these topics at the time) and on into nominal cases and verb conjugations. All very exciting stuff, especially as I gained the impression (perhaps wrongly) that so much of this was new and we were learning about exciting stuff that the old codgers like Capell and Wurm got wrong.

The time came for the end of Term 1 and the Easter holidays (Easter Sunday was 2nd April 1972) after which we had our first assignment due. I mentioned to Bob that I was going home to visit my family in Nemingha for the holidays and he said something like “great — you can do your assignment on the Kamilaroi language from that area”. He pointed me to the work of William Ridley and R.H. Mathews (see Austin 2008 for references) and told me that he had spent a few days in the town of Moree in 1971 as a result of his car breaking down on his way back to Canberra from fieldwork in Cairns (the incident is mentioned in Dixon 1984). During his enforced stay Bob had tracked down and interviewed six people and, as Austin 2008 says:

According to his fieldnotes, Dixon found that ‘no one remembers more than a few words’. … Together these people were able to recollect about 150 vocabulary items but no morphology or syntax. Dixon lodged recordings of the first two consultants at AIATSIS Canberra (AIATSIS Archive tape 2615).

Bob gave me access to his notes and the list of interviewees and suggested I go out to Moree (a mere 288 kilometers north-west from where my parents lived) and Toomelah Aboriginal settlement near Boggabilla, a further 125km north of Moree, to see if I could check his materials and collect more data for my assignment. As it happened, my mother knew some social services personnel in Tamworth who put me in touch with a medical team that made regular visits from Tamworth to Aboriginal patients in Moree and who kindly offered to let me go along with them on their April visit. They also organised for me to be accommodated by a local Moree nursing sister and her husband, and to accompany her on a day trip to Toomelah. So I set off, 19 years old and really unprepared, never having (knowingly) met an Aboriginal person before, let alone interviewed anyone or tried to write down what they might say to me. My only phonetics training was a few classes in first year and Bob’s quick overview, and I had zero training in fieldmethods (that came the next year when John Haiman had us working with a speaker of Hua from Papua New Guinea). Bob’s only advice that I recall was to buy some packets of cigarettes (“they like Marlboro”) and offer them to people as an inducement to talk to me — I remember this led to a couple of weird conversations: me “Wanna smoke?”, interviewee “Thanks. Aren’t you going to have one?”, me “No, I don’t smoke”, interviewee “Huh?”.

Anyway, I ended up spending three days in Moree and Toomelah, interviewed five people (only two of whom, Leila Orcher and Ron McIntosh, had been interviewed by Bob) and created my first ever fieldnotes. I left Moree and hitchhiked the long way back to Tamworth (via Narrabri and Gunnedah), somehow managing to catch rides that got me back to Tamworth before dark on the same day. I probably covered 1,000km in the five days but I had had my first fieldwork experience and have never looked back for 40 years.

I managed to complete the assignment for Bob and got an A for it. I went back to Moree and Toomelah in December 1973 for my second field trip, with a car and a tape recorder this time, and re-interviewed and recorded my 1972 consultants plus six other people (for details see Austin 2008). The result was 212 cross-checked vocabulary items and half a dozen sentence-length fixed expressions in Gamilaraay (as it later came to be known) that people remembered their parents or grandparents using (and unanalysable by the interviewees), like yuulngin ngaya ginyi, dhalaa dhuwarr “I’m hungry, where’s my bread?”. My next trip to an Aboriginal community was in 1974 when I accompanied Luise Hercus to South Australia to meet Diyari (Dieri) speakers and be introduced to her style of fieldwork as an apprentice. But that’s another story.

Austin, Peter K. 2008. The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research. In William McGregor (ed.) Encountering Aboriginal languages: studies in the history of Australian linguistics, 37-58. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
[ prepublication version available at]

Dixon, R.M.W. 1972. The Dyirbal language of north Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1984. Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.