April 01, 2016

Kriol Proujek: update

So many weeks, so many communities, so many interviews but no updates on this blog since I got all excited about the start of my Kriol Proujek! Oops!

In case you're new here, I'm working on a research project trying to figure out dialects of Kriol. The plan is to visit all the communities east of Katherine where Kriol is spoken, interview people (asking the same questions each time) and work out what differs linguistically (and what doesn't) between communities. It's old fashioned dialectology basically - not very different from what people in England or America did when they went from state to state or village to village to lookout for different dialects. Except it's with Kriol.

Well, two and a half months in and the project is going really well. I've visited seven communities: Bulman, Beswick, Barunga, Jilkminggan, Minyerri, Urapunga and Borroloola and done twenty interviews involving 42 people. That means I now have about 40 hours of Kriol recordings to transcribe!

Driving into rain, on return from Borroloola (Carpentaria Hwy, March 2016)
In between, I went to Sydney for a week to share details about the project with others in the research centre I'm in: the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Languages, aka CoEDL. I presented a poster that described the project's background, methodology and a few early bits of information. You can check out the poster here.

Presenting my project poster at CoEDL Fest, Western Sydney University, Feb 2016
The interviews have overall gone extremely well, thanks to so many brilliant people who have volunteered to participate. Finding people has been pretty random. In some communities, I know quite a few people and that's a good starting place, so I've interviewed a few people I knew already. Other places, I've had to introduce myself to strangers and workout other ways to find people to interview, but it's usually worked out really well. It's been a surprise, but most of the people I've interviewed didn't know me from a bar of soap before the interview.

Part of the interview is a picture task. This is from an interview we did in a Minyerri backyard, Feb 2016 
And that's been really amazing - that a bunch of people have been happy to sit down for an hour or two and answer a stack of questions from a strange Kriol-speaking Munanga they've never met before. And to do it all in Kriol - a language that is not typically used between strangers, especially between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. So many of the interviewees have done a great job of using casual, local Kriol and rarely switching to English or English-ey Kriol. It says something about them as excellent research participants, but it must also say something about the benefits of being a good Kriol speaker. I must come across with sufficient authenticity/fluency that most people feel comfortable talking how they'd talk without Munanga around. And I'm a bit chuffed about that.

On top of that, many of the people I've interviewed have shared some great yarns, insights and personal stories. Some quite touching stories, some genuinely hilarious. Sometimes, I feel completely unworthy and humbled by the generosity and openness that a lot of people have shown me. Other times, I'm just happy and grateful. Okay, so it probably helps that they get a few bucks from the university for their participation, but it's not like it's a 10-minute job. These really are quite extended interviews these guys are doing.

Of course, not every interview has gone brilliantly, nor has every bush trip. None have been disastrous though, so overall, I'm feeling really positive about the progress.

And the info itself? Well... revelation after revelation basically. I've barely transcribed or gone over the recordings I've made yet so I can't say anything concrete about what I've been learning. But despite that, I have a growing list of variables - currently about 50 - that seem to be pretty obvious markers of different dialects within Kriol.

A variable isn't a word as such, but something that has different words or forms (called variants) with the same meaning or function. So, for instance, in Australia, 'plant' is a variable, that has the variants 'plahnt' and 'plent', depending on where you're from or how posh you are. A more famous variable in Australia is swimwear: how you'll say 'togs', 'cozzie', 'bathers' or 'swimmers', depending on where you're from.

In Jilkminggan, I was completely spoiled by a friend letting me stay with him in this great spot (Feb 2016).
In Kriol-speaking communities, there are some obvious and well known ones. I mentioned some in my last post, but more and more keep cropping up. Some are differences in pronunciation (aka phonological variation). In Beswick and Bulman, 'water' is pronounced woda but in Ngukurr it's wada or warra. That alternation between a and o is also reflected in the verb that describes rocking or cradling a baby or kid to quieten it down/put it to sleep: Beswick mob say worroworro but around the Roper, it's warrawarra.

Variation in pronunciation also seems to help people from Minyerri/Jilkminggan distinguish themselves from people from Ngukurr. People from all those places are usually said to speak just 'Roper Kriol', but there looks to be ways to break that down further. The verb for 'get' in Ngukurr is gajim, but I'm pretty sure I heard Minyerri mob and Jilkminggan mob say gejim or even gijim. In Barunga, Beswick and Bulman, you'll really only hear gedim.

Other times, variation is lexical - that is, a whole different word is used. Kinterms are particularly key here. For example, Beswickmob call their mother's elder sister mulah, but in Ngukurr, they're just your mami. But there are plenty of non-family related variables too. One I have only just learned about is the verb for 'accompany': some Beswick interviewees introduced the term balpbara to me, which I'd never heard before. When I was in Jilkminggan and Minyerri, I was told that they say marawi for the same thing. I'd never heard that word before either!

The examples just keep coming, and I haven't even started going over the recordings properly or done any careful analysis. I'm looking forward to that!

I have another few months to finish off the community visits and interviews - still a long way to go. But next week, I'm going back to UQ for a week so they remember what I look like.

Random selfie outside the new Beswick shop (March 2016).
In the meantime, stay tuned for more revelations. If you're interested, that is. I haven't been too sure what to do with this blog while I've been doing this project. On one hand, I could make this more of a journal, with posts every day or two. That'd be fairly easy to do because I'm usually learning and doing enough. On the other hand, does anyone care for that much info? Maybe I'll just aim for the occasional update when I feel like it. Happy for your thoughts on that... until next time...

January 29, 2016

Kriol Proujek: making a start

I don't often blog about what I get up to anymore. Too busy ranting about what other people are doing it seems! I never even blogged about finishing my thesis or getting a new job at the University of Queensland (as a Postdoc with the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language). That was all last year though and I'm not going to go into that now. Instead, why not just pick up from where I am today, which is in Beswick community, listening to a raging wet season storm going on outside. It's night-time now but here's the view from my awesome accommodation this afternoon:

Today was the first day in which I started my new research project proper (that is, actually getting out and about and making recordings, rather than doing preliminary office-based stuff). My current project (which I'm just calling Kriol Proujek for now, for simplicity's sake) is an attempt to find out how Kriol is different in all the communities it is spoken in, east of Katherine.

Like any language, Kriol varies from place to place. Every Kriol speaker knows it and can tell you about it. Like English has Australian English, American English, British English and so on, Kriol has similar variation. And just like us English speakers can talk at length about what we say different to Americans or Poms, Kriol speakers can do the same. My project tries to capture that variation. Not too dissimilar to all the cool stuff that's been in the news lately about variation in Australia English, except that this project is smaller scale and on a different language.

So today I finally got started with making recordings and headed to Barunga, 70km from Katherine, where a team of local women are already working as language research assistants. They were a great help. Two women offered to sit down and go through a whole bunch of questions and ended up doing a 90-minute interview with me. So good! Except now it will take ages to go over such a long recording - the joys of sociolinguistic interviews.

I was pleased with my first interview. I tried to mix it up with sections of conversation, a bit of telling stories, a picture task that aims to obtain comparable stories across everyone I interview, questions about how they perceive and identify different Kriol dialects and also going over a few lists of words that I know are only used in some places. It worked well and didn't seem to be a mind-numbing experience for the women I interviewed.

A few tidbits of what I learned? Well I already guessed or knew some of the obvious differences. Key differences between Ngukurr Kriol (that I speak) and Barunga Kriol are the pronunciation of words for 'there' (jeya vs deya) and 'that one' (tharran vs darran) and different words used for 'eat' (dagat vs. idim) and listen (irrim vs lisin). But there were a bunch of things I didn't know. Like the word for cousin (cross-cousin, to be precise) - the women reported that they say gaj (derived from 'cuz' i.e. cousin). In Ngukurr, you'll hear kas, but not gaj. In Ngukurr, you'll also hear barn.ga but the women I interviewed said they don't say barn.ga. The four grandparent terms you hear in Ngukurr all the time: abija, amuri, abuji and gagu - for the young Barunga women it was just nena (nana) and grenpa.

My favourite new word I learned though was a non-English based verb, something I wrote a whole chapter on in my PhD thesis. When you look surreptitiously, or 'peep', Ngukurr mob will use the verb ngarra. Barunga mob know ngarra too, but have another word they use: roihroi (or royhroy - where the 'h' is a glottal stop). Who knew?! Well... obviously several hundred people around Barunga knew, but I didn't. Haha.

I only had time to do that one interview today in Barunga but it was a good start. I'm optimistic about being able to go back for a week or so and make myself more known to more people and do more interviews. It will be a case of rinse, cycle and repeat as I try and do this across the whole region east of Katherine. I'm in Beswick now and will aim to do two more interviews before heading back to Katherine. Next week, I'm going to Minyerri for a few days to do the same thing.

Wish me luck!

January 26, 2016

Survival stories

Good ol' Australia Day. We all deal with it (or don't) in our own way. Typically, I lay low and don't give myself a holiday. I keep working and apply myself to some task pertaining to Aboriginal languages which relieves my coloniser complex somewhat.

I completely see how it is seen as a day of survival. Being exposed to endangered Aboriginal languages, sometimes I reflect on how remarkable it is that the languages have survived this far into colonisation at all. But that's just language survival. There are so many inspiring stories of Aboriginal people surviving particular events, discrimination and hardship. All Aussies value a good against-the-odds story. So this Australia Day, I thought I'd share a few survival stories that I find very moving:

Croker Island Exodus

I was just talking about this documentary yesterday when I caught up with a friend in Katherine - her mum was one of the kids who went on this walk. During the 2nd World War, the mission on Croker Island - which was home to kids who had been removed as part of the stolen generation - were running out of food and had to get off the island. The missionaries took them on a boat and walked them a few hundred kilometres to Pine Creek and they eventually spent the war near Sydney. It's an amazing tale and the documentary, Croker Island Exodus, is one of the best I've ever seen:

It screened on ABC a few years ago but I've never caught a repeat unfortunately, though you can buy it. So highly recommended. It's part historical documentary and part good yarn. One thing I loved is the kids they use in the recreation scenes are all descendants of the original 'walkers'. For me though, the kicker comes right at the end: old Alice, who is delightful and warm throughout the film, sits in a park and is asked about being removed from her family as a little girl. She's not bitter, she loves her Croker Island Family and has had a great life, but 90 or so years on, when she starts to talk about it, the tears flow. So much time, so much life lived, and a happy elderly women still cries for the family she lost. Heartbreaking.

If there was one movie I could force all non-Indigenous child protection workers to watch, to demonstrate the effect of removing Aboriginal children from their families (which happens an awful lot - yes, today), it'd be this one.

For an extended interview with the film's director go here.

Kwementyaye Briscoe

Just over four years ago, Kwementyaye Briscoe was drunk and left to die in a police cell in Alice Springs. Aboriginal deaths in custody aren't supposed to happen anymore. And certainly not like that. Kwementyaye Briscoe is far from the only Aboriginal person to have died in custody in recent years, but the reason I mention this, is because of this interview with his aunt, Trisha Morton-Thomas, following the coronial inquest. It floored me when I saw it and it still makes me cry. I feel a little reserved about sharing it because Trisha seems quite vulnerable, but then again, she probably agreed to the interview knowing its rawness would be powerful. And it is:

Every time an Aboriginal person dies in tragic and unfair circumstances, family have to survive and Trisha's interview gives a sad-but-eye-opening window into what that is like. When asked what should happen if police are found to have been negligent, through tears Trisha says: "What I think should happen, is this should never happen again". 

Yet what is so amazing about Trisha Morton Thomas (who you may recognise for acting roles in things like 8MMM and Radiance) is that later that year, she appeared in an episode of Redfern Now that dealt with exactly this issue. She played the mother of Luke Carroll's character, Lenny, who dies in custody. It is absolutely extraordinary to see her in that episode. Without context, she's fantastic. With context, it blows my mind. Again, I can't find a clip but here's the preview - unfortunately without Mona, but if you look at ABC's web extras, the Making Of clip shows a bit more. I don't think survival gets much tougher than that. 

If you can stomach it, here's the coroner's report relating to Kwementyaye Briscoe's death.  

Bla Mela Langgus

Lastly, and turning to language themes, in 2015 the Ngukurr Language Centre's, Grant Thompson, put together a short doco called Bla Mela Langgus "our language(s)". It's about the survival of traditional languages, in a place where language loss and endangerment is obvious and of community concern. Grant did a tremendous job, assisted by Jenny Denton, and I'm completely biased with my affection for the video. It did go on to win a community broadcasting award, so I'm not the only one who loves it. 

Unfortunately, Indigitube (where the doco is hosted) doesn't seem to have an embed function, so just follow the linkhttp://www.indigitube.com.au/video/item/2500

I know all the people on the video and they're all treasures. Through all the language work I've done at Ngukurr, I'm continually amazed that people still carry on trying to support their traditional languages when they are so embattled. Survival personified, if you ask me. 

Well that's all I wanted to share. Obviously this is a drop in the ocean. If you have some similar stories or videos of survival that have stuck with you, I'd love to hear them. And hopefully you've got something out of the one's I've shared.

January 02, 2016

Kriol Kwiz on Twitter

If anyone's on Twitter and interested in learning something about Kriol, you're welcome to follow me there (https://twitter.com/KriolKantri), as I trial Kriol Kwiz.

After Twitter added a poll function, I realised it could be a neat way to instantly transmit some little Qs about Kriol to a few hundred people. For a language like Kriol, this can be especially useful because there really are very few avenues for non-Kriol speaking people to learn (or learn about) Kriol. Yet there are hundreds of such people living and working with and around Kriol speakers across a large part of Northern Australia. I regularly get requests or hear concerns about the lack of opportunities out there for people to learn Kriol. The Twitter questions are, of course, not going to fill that gap but hey, it's something!

I've been trialling it for a couple of weeks now and it seems to be getting a bit of response. Here are some examples:

I do post the answers as well but unfortunately, Twitter doesn't easily allow for much further explanation, e.g. about Kriol's distinctive spelling system, or any finer points of grammar, usage, or dialectal variation. But until a proper Kriol language learning course comes along (and it's on my to-do list!), it hopefully makes some small contribution.

I also think it's a nice way to use Twitter to promote language learning/education. I haven't seen anyone else using it in this way. I'd be curious to know if it's something that others are doing or might consider trying for other languages.

November 28, 2015


My PhD adventure is closed, after five long years. I wrote a massive thesis that you can look at here.

I don't know if I have anything to say that hasn't already been said about what it's like to do a PhD. It was full on. I learned heaps. It took over my life. I resented it. But I got a lot out of it. It was a selfish enterprise. But I did good community work throughout. 

It was gross but great. Boring yet exciting. Expensive yet enriching. Gruelling yet luxurious.

Strange beast that it is. 

Thanks to supporters and thinkers for your assistance. I am graduating on December 18. I am now left with an equally conflicting good-slash-melancholic hole in my stomach and brain. (I always felt my PhD in my stomach - does that sound weird?). Bear with me while I work on getting over this PhD-post-natal depression. (That's a thing, right?).

October 01, 2015

Don't give them any money

In Katherine, it's common to get 'humbugged' at Woolies (the local supermarket). Humbugging is basically an unsolicited request for something - usually money. It's different to begging. It's typically done between people who already have some sort of relationship. Anthropologists call it demand-sharing, and it's actually a way of maintaining healthy family relationships. In remote communities, it's typically reciprocal and a leveller. But in town where there's alcohol and wealth disparities, it's more complicated. Humbugging pisses off a lot of white people - especially people who don't know and/or like Aboriginal people. For me, it is what it is. It's a cross-cultural challenge and the prevalence of it in Katherine town itself is a symptom of social inequality. Sometimes it's a pain. Sometimes it's just a means to start a conversation. Sometimes it's a way for me to help a friend in need.

So, as it often goes, I dropped into Woolies Katherine and on my way out was stopped by someone I know and he asked me for money. He's a young man I've known for over 10 years, since he was about 12 - I don't know him well, but enough to say hi to. He was with his wife and they were drunk, a bit noisy and extra friendly. I didn't want to give them money which was okay with them (if not a bit disappointing). That didn't matter much - we still were having a brief friendly chat despite them being pretty all over the place.

At which point, a "concerned citizen" walking past made a point of detouring towards us and gives me some completely unsolicitied advice:
Don't give them any money. 
He said it to me without any evidence of self-consciousness despite him speaking loud enough so that all three of us could hear. I looked at him blankly and said quite coldly: "It's fine. I know these people". And he slunk off, and the drunk guy I was talking to also raised his voice and said something cranky in his direction as he walked away.

I was stunned at this person's boldness. It was so insulting to me, my friend and his partner. I did not need to be "saved" by a random stranger. I found the stranger's behaviour wildly more inappropriate or "anti-social" than that of the young drunk couple. I did not look distressed and my "advisor" did not first check to see if there actually was a problem. I know the couple were drunk in the afternoon and not in a good way, but to assume that it's ok to tell me "don't give them any money" right in front of them? I'm sure it would make them feel utterly worthless. But it's part of this small-minded uncaring ethos among some (many?) in Katherine that "anti-social behaviour" must be stamped out. And at the same time, reflecting a lack of understanding that anti-social behaviours are also the stuff of rude, open hostility and racial profiling like what this random stranger exhibited.

FYI, the guy who humbugged me originally? He has a problem with alcohol and he's been involved in the revolving door of a justice system that we have in the NT for several years now. Both those things are quite likely due to his cognition and judgement being affected by foetal alcohol syndrome and/or petrol sniffing. Despite this, he has still managed to make valuable contributions to a cultural organisation I've had some involvement with over the years. He's a nice guy who makes bad life decisions for reasons that aren't entirely in his control. It is not okay for a stranger to treat or speak to him like he's a piece of trash, nor assume I need "saving" from having an interaction with him.

My only hope is that my unsolicited advisor realised pretty much straight-away that he'd overstepped the mark and next time won't be so quick to judge.

August 11, 2015

en God bin gibit wi langgus: the challenge of reconciling language policy at the Roper River Mission

For some reason, a little utterance comes to my mind every now and then, which one of the dear elders I work with in Ngukurr said on a recording back in 2011:
... en God bin gibit wi langgus. 
It means 'and God gave us (Aboriginal) language(s)'. It's such a simple, emphatic statement. I'm not religious, but I really like the sentiment. I like that, according to her, Aboriginal languages have an unshakeable, undeniable value because they were given to Aboriginal people/placed on Aboriginal land by God. 

My Country - Gertie Huddleston (2002)*

The elder who said this, did so as a quiet afterthought at the tail end of a group discussion. It was almost drowned out by others, easily dismissible, but I picked it up and it has stuck with me. The main discussion involved a bunch of elders sitting around talking about language policy at the old Roper River Mission which I'd asked them about as part of my PhD research. Another of the women contributed the most, describing in some detail the punishment and denigration that she and her peers experienced at the hands of missionaries relating to the use of traditional Aboriginal languages. She became quite passionate in describing the situation and the hurt it has caused. 

It's a common theme among their generation. They all experienced the punishment and denigration, and they've all lived through the decline of their languages until the current situation where they're now barely spoken by anyone, if it all. It has hurt them individually and as a society. It must be acknowledged however that languages disappear for a complex range of interconnected reasons. A small group of missionaries are not capable on their own of sending a bunch of languages to the metaphoric palliative care facility I work with them in. So while the Roper River Mission by and large treated Aboriginal languages very poorly, additional and greater contributing factors led to their decline. But the missionaries' direct and interpersonal disdain for traditional languages makes them the clearest symbol available to community members in Ngukurr who understandably seek something to hook their hurt on regarding the loss of language.

But it's still a challenging topic to many community members. Most are Christian, and value the church. Most have a great deal to be thankful to missionaries for - education, love and genuine care for their welfare. So I think it is difficult for the generation who were punished for speaking traditional languages to reconcile that with all the positive things that they gained from the mission time. And that utterance from the old lady - ... en God bin gibit wi langgus - also encapsulates that tension. She loves God. She's a very Christian lady. She also loves learning and speaking traditional languages and has worked tirelessly to stem their decline. She'd just listened, agreeably, to a clear description of how missionaries 'took away' their languages. But how did that happen when they were otherwise good and godly. And how could missionaries do that to her languages, when those languages were placed there by God himself.

I don't know either olgamen.

*Gertie Huddleston passed away in 2013 and was one of the mission residents subjected to language policies of the mission.