Claire Bowern writes:

Two great new projects for language just got research funding. Nick Theiberger and Rachel Nordlinger (of the University of Melbourne’s linguistic department) are “doing great things with small languages” in work funded by the Australian Research Council.

When linguists make a record of a previously unrecorded language, they have a fairly standard way of doing it. They typically compile a dictionary or a list of words of the language, a grammar — that is, a description of how words are put together in sentences, and how they are inflected, and some examples of narratives, stories or texts. This way of making a record of a language was developed about a hundred years ago and is heavily oriented towards making a record of a language in a book (or several books).

These days, of course, we can take advantage of multimedia to make better language records. We can now easily link sound recordings to a transcript, we can create sound and video clips so that online dictionaries have auditory pronunciation guides, and we can make dictionaries in lots of different formats (like this mobile phone dictionary for the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains). Procedures for making published records of a language, however, are still firmly anchored in models that produce books, so this grant is a welcome contribution to language work.

Meanwhile, in the US, Kimberly Christen of Washington State University has received funding for the further development of Mukurtu, a computer program for archiving language data (images, sound files, text, etc). There are other online archiving programs (DSpace, for example, or even Google Docs) but Christen’s program is a little different. It has a strong emphasis on Intellectual Property and allowing users to manage what others can see, and what they themselves have access to. This is important in some areas in Australia, where it is inappropriate to show pictures of people who have recently passed away. More prosaically, it also allows anyone to archive materials that they would like to preserve but which they don’t necessarily want to release to the world (for example, I may want to make an archive of all my family photos, and for reasons of convenience I’d like to keep them all in the same place, but I wouldn’t want all my baby photos generally viewable…) You can see an example of Mukurtu in action at the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal.

Both these projects have an Australian Indigenous focus, but they are also reaching out beyond Australia to the region and to other Indigenous groups. This is important; while 90% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are endangered, this is not a uniquely Australian problem, and so programs like this, with wide applicability, are very welcome.