September 02, 2022

The time Kriol went viral

Early in 2022, while doing my daily doomscroll on Twitter, I noticed Kriol becoming a topic of conversation. Excuse me, what? When part of my day job is trying to get non-Kriol speakers to pay attention to the fact that Kriol exists, I never expected Kriol to organically go viral! But it happened. And it wasn't cute.

Kriol goes viral

The story starts with Covid. In late 2021, the Aboriginal Health Council of WA (AHCWA) created a few short Covid vaccination videos in some of WA's main Indigenous languages, nobly wanting to make sure remote Aboriginal residents were as safe from Covid as urban Westralians. 

Made in collaboration with AIWA (Aboriginal Interpreting WA), five short videos appear on AHCWA's website - one with Mark McGowan on his own where he says:

Hello, my name is Mark McGowan. I am the Premier of Western Australia. This is an important message to keep Aboriginal people safe. You can die from the Corona, or get really sick. It's time to get the Corona needle, to keep people and country strong. The Corona needle will protect kids, old people, men and women. Many people around the world have already had the needle. It is free and it's safe. If you're worried, talk to your clinic or medical centre or go to Roll Up For WA on the internet. So go get your needle now and stay strong. Thank you. 

AHCWA also produced versions of this video in four of WA's biggest Aboriginal languages: Ngaanyatjarra, Martu, Walmajarri and Kriol. You can see them all here, under "translations". Each video sees the WA Premier standing next to that particular language's interpreter and repeating his English message from above sentence by sentence, allowing the interpreter to interpret consecutively.

Covid Vaccination video still image
McGowan and a Martu interpreter co-presenting a vaccination health message

Now, no one seems to have batted an eyelid after the Ngaanyatjarra, Martu and Walmajarri versions came out in late 2021. And the Kriol one had a quiet start too. That is, until a couple of weeks later when it absolutely blew up on Twitter and beyond. When I say that Kriol went viral, I'm not exaggerating. One of the most popular tweets led the video to be seen 1.2 million times! (That's about 100 times per actual Kriol speaker if you want to put in another, scarier way).

Polarised and ignorant (a typical Twitter debate)

Basically, it blew up when some of the worst right-wing trolls in Australia (and beyond) saw the Kriol version and decided it was "racist", essentially arguing that Mark McGowan's speech was just being repeated in English, but said in a different way but by an Aboriginal elder. The argument took hold and swept like wildfire.

The counter-reaction was swift and strong too, with many people quick to add to the Twitter storm by trying to educate people about Kriol, pointing out that it's not just a variety of English and arguing that to not know about Kriol was ignorant in and of itself and likely belied a lack of understanding and care about First Nations people, culture and languages (i.e. kinda bloody racist too!). 

Scrolling through the to-ing and fro-ing, it really was the pits (and a good example of why many people steer clear of Twitter!). If you want a taste of both sides, check these out:

July 10, 2022

Iron Ore mine turning Roper country red in less than two months

If you've spent any time on the Stuart Highway north of Mataranka in the last couple of months, you've probably passed some distinctive looking road trains carting iron ore towards Darwin. For the past six weeks, they have been steadily coming out of Northern Territory Iron Ore's mine which is part of something called the Roper Valley Iron Ore Project. What travellers on the Stuart Highway won't see is what those trucks are starting to do to country 150km east of the main highway.

I travel along this road - the Roper Highway - usually twice a week. The reddening of the area near the mine is noticeable. A week ago, I stopped to look at just how much dust was coating the roadside vegetation and the pics I tweeted caught the attention of ABC's Country Hour and the Environment Centre NT. 

You can hear me interviewed on NT Country Hour here (my bit starts at 06:00) and also see the resultant online article here

With this activity, I ended up in touch with the EPA's pollution hotline. They recommended getting more evidence of dust pollution so that they may have cause to investigate themselves. So the bulk of this post is my first attempt at providing them with more evidence. (Note: anyone passing through this area, please collect your own evidence. Especially if you find red dust getting into waterways. Notify the NT EPA here -

"Control" Sample

The first thing I did was some quick documentation at a site about 15km east of the mine turn-off (about 1km east of the Badawarrka turn-off). These images should show what dust impacts look like without the effects of iron-ore trucks going past: a "control" sample. Same road, same traffic minus the iron ore road trains. I also made sure I chose a section of country where the soil is quite red so that the dust would be noticeable on vegetation, like it is further down the highway. 

Lat: 14° 42’ 7.398” S, Long: 134° 26’ 58.89” E

Here's the dust on vegetation right on the verge of the road. You can see there is a light covering of dust on it:

I also made sure to check on impacts further in from the road, so I also walked a few metres (10m?) and checked for dust there. There, I couldn't really detect any dust:

April 03, 2022

The Oscar-winning Coda and its (mis)representation of interpreting (or, why I almost walked out of the cinema)

Ok so I'm a linguist not a movie critic but I am an avid movie-goer - part of the generation of Australians raised by Margaret and David to appreciate cinema and think critically about it. (I've even reviewed a few things on this blog: Short-doco Queen of the Desert, short film Lärr and some discussion of the brilliant Croker Island Exodus here). 

At this years Oscars, the film Coda surprised many by taking out Best Picture. It seems like few people have even had a chance to see it. Here in little ol' Katherine, we have a brilliant film society at our local Katherine 3 cinema, where each fortnight we get to watch something a bit different. In late 2021, I had the chance to see Coda there, long before it was thought of as an Oscar contender. Now that Coda is being talked about more than ever before, I wanted to share my experience of watching the film - especially because in one scene in particular, I was so angry that I genuinely considered walking out of the cinema - which would have been a first for me!

Overall, Coda (an acronym for Child/ren of Deaf Adults) has a lot going for it: excellent performances including by some inexperienced actors who bring authenticity to their roles as deaf users of American Sign Language. The film gives hearing non-signers a window into the lives of deaf people that most of us won't otherwise experience. And as a linguist, it's pretty cool to see linguistic minorities represented on the big screen and have issues like language discrimination touched upon in cinema.

I actually liked the film overall. So what happened to make me nearly walk out?

Well, something in the film hit me hard as a Kriol-English interpreter who has spent years in and around courts, providing linguistic assistance to Kriol speakers as they attempt to negotiate the bizarre, foreign world of the Australian justice system. Note also that in discussing this, I'm not trying to act appalled on behalf of the deaf community. I don't need to. I am within my rights to be aggrieved as an experienced court interpreter. 

So what happened? Early on in Coda, one scene shows the deaf parents at the doctors, and their daughter acts as their interpreter. This is often labelled 'ad-hoc interpreting', where no qualified or professional interpreter is used, but instead a family member or someone nearby fills the language gap as best they can. It happens a lot and differs from the use of a trained interpreter (the academic literature often calls us 'professional interpreters' and I will use this term here too but with a big asterisk pointing out that for Indigenous Australian language interpreters, it is generally impossible to get officially accredited to a "professional" level - there just isn't the testing available). 

The issues with ad-hoc interpreting are that the doctor and patients risk experiencing bias and personal involvement on behalf of the interpreter and the clear, accurate flow of information is typically jeopardised. It can also be traumatic and stressful for children to be obligated to perform such roles (and you'd think especially when you have to interpret stuff about your parents sex life like in Coda!). The advantages of ad-hoc interpreting are obviously convenience, so there does seem to be debate on how and where both types of interpreting (ad-hoc and professional) can be utilised in health settings. (Here's an example of further research on this topic). 

Back to Coda though - this doctor-patient-adhoc-interpreter scene is early on in the film and, while it irked me a little, it's not the scene that really bothered me. The function of this scene seems more to contextualise the characters - the internal dynamics of the family and the external dynamics of how they interface with hearing-dominant society. And it's used for comedic value too which you can see in this partial clip here: 

But again, this scene didn't worry me too much because despite its problems I could see its function as a scene-setting device.

Skip through to the film's dramatic climax though and we arrive at a scene that really made me bristle. I've never walked out of a cinema before but boy did I have a visceral urge to storm out in disgust. Instead, I think I just sighed really loudly and annoyingly and waited til my blood stopped boiling and could settle down enough to somewhat enjoy the film's conclusion. 

This scene was during the dramatic peak of the film, when the family's fishing business is threatened over losing their licence for not meeting maritime regulations. The father appears in a local court over the matter. But again, we see the daughter acting as her father's ad-hoc interpreter but this time, in court, interpreting for the judge. If I was able to somewhat accept the doctor scene... this one? Absolutely no way.

Courts and judges know that people appearing before them have the absolute right to understand their court matter. Lawyers know this too. I would also suggest that most if not all deaf people know this too. It is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) which forms part of the International Bill of Human Rights. Without an interpreter, a defendant who doesn't speak the language of the court is not receiving the fair trial they are entitled to. 

But in the scene in Coda, there was an interpreter there: the daughter. And yes she is clearly bilingual in English and American Sign Language and does interpret. What's the issue? The issue is there is NO WAY a court should be allowing an ad-hoc interpreter to act as the court's interpreter and interpret for a family member. The daughter character is untrained and has a clear conflict of interest. The judge has no quality assurance that justice is being served and no assurance that the rights of the defendant to a fair trial are being met. I can't believe the makers of this movie decided this scene - offered with no critical discourse around it - was in any way acceptable.

But what does it matter?

March 11, 2022

"It's all good. He had scissors": a brief linguistic analysis of the moment Kumanjayi Walker was shot

In late 2019, Zachary Rolfe entered a Yuendumu home and not long after, a teenager now known as Kumanjayi Walker had been shot three times and died soon after. 

The body-worn footage captured the moments of the shooting and what the two police officers, Rolfe and Eberl, said at the time. 

Pragmatics is a part of linguistics that lets you analyse the intentions of what people say. This definition works well:

Pragmatics is a field of linguistics concerned with what a speaker implies and a listener infers based on contributing factors like the situational context, the individuals’ mental states, the preceding dialogue, and other elements. (source)

However, it doesn't really require a linguistics degree to get insights into what was happening when Walker was shot, based on what the two officers said (as reported here).

Immediately after shooting Walker three times, Eberl, who was the officer in physical contact with Walker (rather than Rolfe who had shot Walker), said:

“Did you-? Fuck”.

It's apparent to anyone that for someone to say this, they need to be surprised. They are taking time to comprehend. The swear word used as an exclamation also indicates it’s a serious matter. 

Would Eberl have said this if he instead felt his safety or life was threatened by Walker? No. There would be relief or acknowledgement, perhaps regret. But not surprise and lack of comprehension.

Rolfe's words that come next are also telling:

“It’s all good, he had scissors in his hand, he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you”

 Firstly, "it's all good" is an utterance of reassurance. In direct response to Eberl's "fuck", it shows that Eberl had felt something bad had happened and Rolfe's immediate response was to reassure. However, it's worth noting the subject of the reassurance: it was Eberl and probably Rolfe himself. But not Walker. Walker had been (ultimately) fatally shot but Rolfe's reaction and concern was directed to Eberl, evidenced by the "it's all good". 

The other noteworthy part of what Rolfe said was: "he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you". The reality was (I believe) that Walker had attempted to stab Rolfe in the shoulder once. Firstly, Rolfe re-interprets this event as an iterative one (stabbing more than once, rather than a single event). Rolfe then projects an event onto Eberl's own experience ("he was stabbing you") which is an odd thing to do because Eberl had every reason to be as, if not more, aware of what he himself was experiencing than what Rolfe might believe Eberl was experiencing. 

So then the utterance "he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you" becomes a kind of verbal floundering, a seeking out of an interpretation of events that might add support to the "it's all good" reassurance. But the statement was inaccurate and included projections onto Eberl's own experience. So ultimately, it's not convincing as an interpretation of facts. It can really only be understood as representing a desire to explain and reassure. 

So basically what happened was shock/surprise/disbelief from Eberl, concern/reassurance from Rolfe towards only Eberl (and not the deceased) and then Rolfe's inaccurate verbal scan/search for justifications of his own actions.

To me, all of this indicates that in the moment of the shooting, then and there, Eberl and Rolfe knew it shouldn't have happened.

Rolfe was cleared of all charges related to his killing of Kumanjayi Walker on March 11, 2022.

September 26, 2020

Lärr: a gentle film revealing a gently evaporating world [short-film review]

Shorts films about endangered languages and culture form a small niche genre but there are quite a few out there. I've never seen one as gentle and beautiful as Lärr.

Films in this micro-genre tend to do a few familiar things. They may be pedagogical videos, focusing on cultural practices that aren't being maintained well enough, and explicitly ask audiences to watch, learn and remember. There might be expressions of serious concern for the language and cultural shifts taking place and we see rhetoric from elders and cultural champions urging for action. Then there are ethnographic films - more 'fly on the wall' views of everyday life where constructing narrative or organising scenes to shoot are not primary concerns.

Lärr is a 16-minute look at life with some of the last few speakers of Wägilak in the world, on their country, doing very Wägilak things. But the beauty of Lärr is its softness. The four men in the film let you gently into their world, on the remote outstation of Ŋilipidji. Gorgeously narrated by Natilma (Roy) Wilfred, he quietly ushers viewers in and slows us down, so we can walk and sit with him and the other men as they fish, make things (spears, lettersticks, bush string and more) and talk and sing. The pace of Lärr is a wonderful reflection of the pace of outstation life where, somewhat paradoxically, not much happens but there is always something happening. 

And what I really like about Lärr is that its messages are not overt. The men simply show us what they know and do and the beauty and value of it comes through intrinsically. Their skill and confidence and love for their own culture and language shines. We value it not because we are told it's important but because we see, through them, the beauty and treasures of the land they walk and interact with. 

Credit must then also go to the producers: the Ngukurr Language Centre, Nicola Bell - who filmed, directed and edited Lärr - and Salome Harris who worked on the narration and translations. The film reflects a deft touch and gentle nature and an eye for craft and detail. On the linguistic side, the Wägilak content and English translations reveal a mindfulness and depth of understanding and are quite beautiful in some places. 

Translating from Indigenous languages to English is really rather hard. Well, it's hard to do well. It can be fairly easy to arrive at clunky sounding sentences, sentences that omit nuance and sentences that, well, just aren't pleasant to read. Salome and the team's knowledge and translation gifts come through here, again elevating Lärr above similar films. 

When Natilma shows us how bush string is made, he says "mel-guḻiny muka wiripuwatjtja yolŋuwatjtja ŋalapaḻwatjtja" and the subtitling is just lovely: "the old people were fastidious, you know, about how it was done". We see Lukuman trying to light fire the old way and calling on help from afar:

Brrrrrr! Gatjpu! Wäŋaŋara dhawalŋara nhe dhul'yurru!
(Come on, give it to us! Help us ancestors! On this country you'll light!)

But the bit that really made my eyes water and jaw drop was in the final scenes. I don't want to spoil it here, but there's an expression I'd never heard before that I found just so profound that it made me emotional. It's where Natilma tells us: 

Yurru ḻuku napu ŋayathama yaŋanh'thu gathaṉdja napu, Djalkiridhu, ḻukudhu.
And, well, if you don't know Wägilak you'll just have to watch. I don't think you'll be disappointed by Lärr, and it's freely available on ICTV: (That it hasn't yet reached film festivals or NITV/ABC/SBS is a shame).

Lärr is so gently and beautifully created that it's easy to forget that we're actually listening to a critically endangered language. Keeping that in mind, it makes the film even more beautiful and the men we see and hear walking us through Wägilak worlds even more special. 

Postcript for some trivia and acknowledgement of the living legend that is Natilma (Roy) Wilfred: if you're a linguist you may be familiar with the American linguist Jeffrey Heath who, in the 1970s, spent time in Southern Arnhem Land and did quite amazing descriptions of five different languages, including Wägilak. Natilma, as a young man, actually appears in Heath's archived recordings from the 1970s and, to my knowledge, he is the very last person still with us who Jeffrey Heath recorded. Natilma is a legend. 

This year, he has helped deliver Wägilak lessons for all the kids at Ngukurr School, spending two days a week there, fully committed and only absent when required elsewhere for other cultural obligations. I walk past the Ngukurr Language Centre on my way to work at 8am and nearly every morning, I wave hello to Natilma who is waiting there, with his dog, for the Language Centre to open. The other day, I heard that on (at least) one occasion, he had been sitting there waiting for Language Centre to open from before dawn. 

Lärr is available now on ICTV;

Lärr. 16 minutes. Wägilak with English subtitles. Filmed on location at Ŋilipidji Outstation. Featuring Roy Natilma, Andy Lukuman Peters, Peter Djudja Wilfred, Bruce Liyamunyan Wilfred. Produced by Ngukurr Language Centre. Directed, filmed and edited by Nicola Bell.

Big thank you the Ngukurr Language Centre and Salome Harris for help with the Wägilak text used in this article.

September 20, 2020

A new domain for Kriol? Kriol as a language of economics and business

Bible translators translated the bible into Kriol because they thought it would be the best way for Kriol speakers to learn about Christianity. When Barunga School started a Kriol literacy program, it was because people thought Kriol speakers would learn to read and write faster if they learned literacy in their first language. When Kriol interpreters interpret in court, it's so Kriol speakers can get (marginally more) equal access to the justice system. I could go on...

All the reasons I could cite for choosing Kriol over English tend to have foundations of social justice, communicative efficiency, or other social/cultural reasons related to education, spirituality and more. One domain that is absent is economy and business. English remains the language of wealth and business; Kriol is for 'not-for-profit' purposes.

Well so I thought until I saw these work vehicles around Ngukurr recently. A plumbing and gas fitting company in Ngukurr helping with the new housing developments (I'm guessing):


I was pretty surprised to see that the company name was clearly a Kriol name - and a well-spelled Kriol name at that! Ai sabi means 'I know'. And not because it's a business coming out of a Kriol-dominant community. Trade and works companies like this are all based in towns like Katherine and service remote communities on an as-needs basis.

What I find very interesting about this is that the use of Kriol in a business name is not to do with symbolism, communication or social justice. It's surely primarly and economic decision. This company has decided that using Kriol for their name is a good business decision. And that's pretty huge really - Kriol stepping into a new domain. 

Ma... kipgon! 😎

June 06, 2020

Aboriginal Lives Matter (a GIFset) - Kwementyate Briscoe (d. 2012, Alice Springs Police Station)

Kwementyaye Briscoe, 27, died in police custody in Alice Springs in 2012. The Coroner found that some police were immature and utterly derelict in their duties. He said the death was preventable and should not have occurred. Briscoe had committed no crime. He was taken into custody for being intoxicated and was dead 5 hours later. No police officer was sacked and no criminal charges were laid. More info on the case:

432 Indigenous people have died in custody since the 1991 Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

“This should never happen” - Trisha Morton-Thomas, Australian Actor (Radiance, Redfern Now, 8MMM) and Kwementyate Briscoe’s aunty. 


Source video: ABC -