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 -

April 28, 2020

Bless me and my amazing etymological discovery (well, not quite)

Like many I have spent much of the Coronavirus situation working from home, with all of its highs and lows. One highlight of my Covid experience is being stuck at home with a housemate who grew up in Côte d'Ivoire and speaks French. Not only that, but he's been quite open and willing to teach me some French and use it patiently with me as I struggle to move beyond beginner's level. (in case you're wondering: my French is still not great, but I am amazed how much I have learned in a few weeks and how much I can actually use it with my housemate now. So cool!).

I am often asking questions of him to improve my knowledge. The other day when he sneezed and I asked (as any good linguist would) 'what do you say in French when someone sneezes?'. À tes souhaits he said, pronouncing it as something like /ˈatɛˌswɛ/.

Immediately a lightbulb went off! That's the word 'atishoo' from that song we did in Kindy! I started raving:
And my housemate humoured me kindheartedly and went back to playing a game on his phone while I excitedly started to Tweet something along the lines of:

I was today years old when I found out that the word 'atishoo' we used to sing in Ring-a-ring-a-rosie actually comes from the French way of saying 'bless you' after you sneeze
But before sharing my *amazing revelation* to the Twittersphere, I decided to check on my discovery. I Googled 'Atishoo'.

Here's the Collins Dictionary entry:
Meaning: a representation of the sound of a sneeze
me: what?! no, it's an Anglicisation of a French phrase meaning bless you
Origin: C19. Of imitative origin  
me: what?! no! it's not imitative!
And Merriam-Webster and Cambridge online dictionaries were basically the same! Maybe Wiktionary is a bit more dynamic and has more to say?
Alternative form of 'achoo'. 
Ok, nope.

At this point, I was falling off my chair. Two bombshells in the space of 10 minutes! And me thinking that I had made the most amazing etymological discovery of the century. "Noone has ever made the link between 'atishoo' and 'à tes souhaits' before!" (And also "which dictionary do I contact about this and how much glory will be showered upon me!?!").

But luckily I Googled further and learned that I was not, in fact, the Neil Armstrong of sneeze-related vocab etymologies, but that there were plenty who had observed the link. The Wiktionary entry has a short discussion in the back-end user commentary:
Is this the anglicised version of what the French say after someone has sneezed which is:- "A tes souhaits" or God Bless you? If this is said quickly sounds like atishoo and the French do say it quickly after someone has sneezed. (me: Yes, der., but the one reply dismissed it as 'plausible, but unprovable')
Looking around, the link is made many times over in comments and blogs. Another example: language learning app Duolingo (which has been very helpful in my French development) has discussion boards and one commenter also noted the atishoo/à tes souhaits link when discussing a list of handy phrases:

By this stage, I was beginning to calm my farm. Plenty of people of recognised that the weird word 'atishoo' we all sang in Kindy had wriggled its way there from the French phrase meaning 'bless you'. And it makes perfect sense in the context of the song Ring a Ring o Rosie too:
Ring-a-ring o' rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down
The Wikipedia page about the song points out that 'rosie' (which doesn't exist in my English lexicon) is borrowed directly from the French word for rosebush: rosier. It makes perfect sense that the third line of the song would also be a French borrowing. I 100% stand by my etymology of 'atishoo'.

I accept that I am no expert lexicographer or etymologist, but surely me and many others who have noted the atishoo/à tes souhaits link have a convincing argument based not just on phonology but also looking at context of the song in which it occurs (which is I'm sure how most people come to know the word). It seems like a real gap if dictionaries are not making the etymological link and to me it's quite insufficient to just say its 'of imitative origin'.

Now who's gonna show this to a lexicographer for me? I'd love to hear more thoughts on this if you have any.

April 18, 2020

Speaking four, five or *even six* languages: some musings on English discourse on multilingualism

I have read phrases such as "so'n'so speaks English as a third, fourth even fifth language" enough times that it has started to strike me as rather odd:
For many on the desert, like elder Reggie Uluru, English is a foreign language, or used as a third, fourth or even fifth language
Source: Sydney Morning Herald "The end of Uluru's long quiet conflict which baffled both sides" (November 1, 2019) [link]

While this expression is not particularly common it seems to be a minor trope. It comes in different guises; it can be used with cardinal instead of ordinal numbers:
However Chaoke noted more than a decade later that the usage rate of Evenki remained quite high, and that it was still common to find Evenki speakers who were proficient in three, four or even five languages.
Source: Wikipedia "Evenki language" [link]
Or with a different series of numbers:
The main language groups living in these communities are Jawoyn, Mielli (sic), Ngalkpon, and Rembarrnga, and Elders generally speak several languages, with English as a fourth, fifth, or even sixth language
Source: Smith, Clare & Gary Jackson. 2008. "The Ethics of Collaboration: whose culture? whose intellectual property? who benefits?" in Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: engaging descendant communities [citation from p174]
And while my own experience is that I've come across this trope mostly in reference to Aboriginal Australia, this is subjective and likely due to the stuff I come across naturally. It certainly exists in other discourses:

The reason this phrase has started to stick in my mind is because it is odd.

Firstly, the number sequence is bizarrely specific yet also arbitrary: why is the 3-5 range of language abilities sometimes apparently important and other times the 4-6 range? Try Googling variants of the phrase using different number ranges and see what you get. I particularly like expanded ranges like this one that has a two-to-five range:
Reporting news is an important aspect of Aboriginal life particularly in remote communities, but what benefit does it serve broadcasting in English when members of these communities speak English as a second, third, fourth or even fifth language?
 Source: CAAMA "Utilising Aboriginal Language in Remote Media" (October 2, 2017) [link]

Secondly, the use of the emphatic adverb even reflects the arbitrariness of the phrase further. The function of even in discourse like this is to convey surprise, something unexpected or something extreme as in my made-up example:
Even Bette Midler criticised Scott Morrison's handling of the bushfire crisis
So why would one writer apparently find it extreme for someone to speak "even five" languages while another writer feels that speaking "even six" languages is extreme. Here's an example from the Australian Senate Hansard from October 26, 1955 that marks the 'surprising' level at "even nine" languages:
Some of those immigrants are friends of mine, and they are highly cultured people. Many of them can speak six, seven, eight, and even nine languages...
Source: Senator Grant (NSW), Australian Senate Hansard, October 26, 1955 [link]

No particular reason seems to exist why the various number ranges are selected and no particular reason to select a number and mark it as surprising with the use of even. Additionally, there is actually no semantic reason to use the phrase at all, as all examples can be reworded using the widely understood term and more precise 'multilingual'. (If the emphasis of even is needed, just modify it to  something like 'highly multilingual').

So what is going on with the use of this "N, N+1 or even N+2 languages" structure when it is actually not necessary semantically, arbitrary and possibly unnecessarily verbose. Here are my two theories:

Most of the examples I've cited are Australian and Australia is well known for having the Monolingual Mindset that affects countries like ours that are heavily English-dominant. Multilingualism is seen as exceptional and so under Monolingual Mindset discourses, it may not be enough to use a more clinical term like 'multilingual'. We need to make some sort of dramatic flourish out of multilingualism. My theory here can be easily debunked if I looked at discourse in more multilingual societies and found this structure exists there too, but I do think that in the Australian context this is a reasonable theory.

The other thing I think going on is it is used as a rhetorical device; a stylistic turn to persuade audiences to appreciate or be impressed by multilingualism. In countries with Monolingual Mindsets like Australia this can be quite relevant. But is it a successful rhetorical device? I'd argue yes. Despite me writing about the phrase here in a way that is problematising it, the phrase is not so incredibly common that it has become an eyeroll inducing cliche. I would say that to most people who read/hear it, it does have the desired persuasive effect.

So what's my overall point? None really. I just liked thinking about this phrase that on the one hand seems so specific and informative but on the other hand is so weirdly arbitrary. And the sort of public dialogue we have about language and multilingualism in Australia always interests me. I thought I'd throw my musings out there because sometimes others have equally interesting thoughts and ideas they sometimes share. Comments welcome!

Excerpt from: Smith, Clare & Gary Jackson. 2008. "The Ethics of Collaboration: whose culture? whose intellectual property? who benefits?" in Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: engaging descendant communities [citation from p174]