July 10, 2010

warri-ngarlini (I returned)

I suppose I should start posting again now that I'm back in Ngukurr and experiencing lots of neat things again and feeling removed from mainstream Australia (hence the need to write about my experiences to process them and share with others so to feel a little less alone). I'm now into the 'fieldwork' phase of my PhD studies which is the bit that I'm most excited about. I have to be honest and say that after spending so many years working so closely with Aboriginal (and a few Islander) people on their languages, I find University environments quite strange in that there you talk/hear about small, Indigenous languages a lot but in an environment that is removed from context. Even though I adjusted to that during my 3 months in Canberra, now that I'm back in Ngukurr, I can feel that disjunct unsettling me again. Or maybe it's just that I'm really enjoying being back here and feeling so satisfied to be involved in exciting on-the-ground work again.

This is only my second week back in Ngukurr but I feel like we've achieved lots already - and lo and behold all our plans have gone to plan! (It is one of my favourite personal achievements that I feel like I have learned to work collaboratively and effectively in Ngukurr - a skill that I reckon takes a few years to develop and certainly something that all young non-Indigenous professionals grapple with when they first try and work in communities - okay, I'm tooting my own horn a bit there but I'm on a bit of a high at the moment...)

So I got back to Katherine about a month ago after a really great three months in Canberra at ANU. It took a little while to adjust to University again and get my rusty academic brain exercised again. But I really enjoyed the environment there and there are lots of great linguists and students there - all doing interesting work throughout SEAsia, Australia and the Pacific. Certainly very stimulating and I've found coming back to 'the field', I'm better equipped to study, learn and engage with working on languages here.

Last week was my first few days in Ngukurr. I hadn't been here for nearly a whole year so it was great to see lots of old friends/adopted family and lovely to feel welcome. Also great was that the Marra mob I used to work with were more than happy to get stuck into working with me. I brought back a bunch of recordings from the AIATSIS archives in Canberra - the oldest dates from 1959 and features lots of long passed Marra people that old people here knew and hadn't heard for goodness-knows how long. Straightaway we got stuck into transcribing and translating some recordings that were never transcribed or translated before. Pretty exciting. My rusty Kriol and Marra skills are coming back to me pretty quickly and will hopefully keep developing.

After a quick break where I went to Darwin to meet with my supervisor, I'm back again this week and again, we got stuck into more work. On my second day back, the Marra mob and I started planning to head to Numbulwar where three old sisters and their younger brother live who are all really strong Marra speakers and use it everyday for general communication - something that I think is pretty rare for such an endangered language. And yesterday, we made our first trip there to meet with them. It was absolutely awesome. They spoke so much Marra I was grinning ear-to-ear and getting a little bit emotional too! We listened to some of the archived recordings together, made a few new recordings and started talking about my project to work towards 'informed consent' - the response so far is really positive which I find heartening.

So I'm really enjoying being able to hear so much Marra and concentrate on the language, as well as finding out more about Kriol, as well as working together with Marra people all-the-way. Very satisfied.

And some language tidbits:

Yesterday, the old ladies at Numbulwar clarified a word on the old recording that the Ngukurr mob didn't know and wasn't in Heath's grammar/dictionary: muwurl - which we now know is the tail part of a muwarda (canoe) but is different to the word for tail-of-a-dog (jigurr).

And on the Kriol side, I'm learning more verbs that aren't taken from English: JJ told me that ngum-ngum means hitting someone on the back and jawak is similar to gula (argue, fight, yell) but different because it's not targeted at anyone in particular - when you jawak it's like when you are really angry and broadcast your yelling publicly for everyone to hear.

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