University of Western Australia, 5th July 2010



Jim Wafer & Hilary Carey
University of Newcastle &

Waiting for Biraban: an historical and linguistic introduction to the earliest published scripture translation into an Australian language

This paper is an introduction to the earliest published scripture translation into an Australian language, the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld’s ‘Selections from the Scriptures’. It places Threlkeld and his Indigenous collaborator Biraban in their local historical context, and also in the broader context of missionary linguistics. It considers some unique features of this genre, and focuses on cases where missionary compositions provide the only records of an extinct language. We conclude that, in spite of a small number of anomalies, which are probably errors, Threlkeld’s usage appears to have been remarkably consistent with what we know about the functioning of Australian languages in general.

Judit Horváth
Aarhus University

Linguistic research and the origin of Hungarian

In this paper I am going to trace the linguistic thought of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (1784-1842) who was a proponent of the Oriental Theory of Hungarian people and language. Although his interest was primarily to seek the linguistic proof of the Central Asian origin of the Hungarians he succeeded establishing Tibetan Studies. In order to find the ancient homeland, Alexander Csoma de Körös walked to Central Asia. He was one of the first Europeans to enter Ladakh, and compiled the first Tibetan-English dictionary and Grammar (1834). Besides Tibetan he mastered and researched Marathi, Bengal and Sanskrit, before dying of malaria on his last trip across Tibet to Western China. The mission of Csoma de Körös to define the ancient homeland of the Hungarians failed, but with his extraordinary scientific contribution he became one of the most significant linguists in the history of linguistics. By the end of the 19th century the scientific dispute between the Orientalists and Finno-Ugrists provided enough evidence that Hungarian should be placed among the Uralic language family.

William B. McGregor
Aarhus University

A.P. Elkin’s contribution to Australian Aboriginal linguistics

A.P. Elkin (1891-1979), professor of anthropology in the University of Sydney from 1933 to 1956, had – aside from his influence on the discipline of anthropology – a considerable impact on the development of Australian Aboriginal linguistics during the second period of research on Aboriginal languages (1930-1960). This was largely indirect and political, and in this paper I overview Elkin’s contribution to the development of the discipline, and situate this within the academic politics of the times and the development of anthropology as a discipline in Australia. However, Elkin also made a more direct contribution to Australian Aboriginal linguistics in the shape of original linguistic research carried out in the course of his anthropological research. I survey this, focussing in particular on Elkin’s Nyulnyul data, gathered in the Beagle Bay Mission in 1928, during his first Kimberley fieldtrip. This data is important given that Nyulnyul is highly endangered (there are no fluent speakers), and the limitations of the existing Nyulnyul corpora.

David Moore
University of Western Australia

A history of the RGS orthography in Australia

The transcription of Aboriginal languages in the early period of research in Australian linguistics
Before the widespread use of the IPA, early researchers were able to use systems of transcription which became adopted widely for the recording of Aboriginal languages. Many of the researchers of the first period were trained in classical languages and had experience of orthographical systems which could be applied to foreign languages. The work of many researchers was not simply ad hoc or disorganized. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) orthography was being used by some researchers in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this paper I outline the history of the RGS orthography and its use by researchers in Australian Aboriginal language research.

Clara Stockigt
University of Adelaide

A history of case description in Arrernte

This paper investigates the ways in which Arandic nominal morphology has been varyingly portrayed within theoretically distinctive periods of research into Australia’s indigenous languages. Since Arrernte remains extant, the time-depth of its grammatical description affords a rare opportunity to investigate the type of misconstructions, oversights and overemphasis which analyses based in a classical model have tended to make of Australian morphology. Contextualising descriptions of a single language across a broad sampling of theoretical framework is of likely benefit to the study of dead and dying languages, often reliant solely upon accounts informed by archaic schema.

While the period of linguistic description prior to 1910 is sometimes dismissed as having been dominated by missionaries and amateurs, the work of Lutheran missionaries actively involved in South Australian language description during this period should be viewed as state of the art. Carl Strehlow’s naming of an Arrernte core grammatical argument as ‘ergative’ for instance marks what is possibly the first mainland Australian usage of the term (1908: 699); ‘ergative’ was not used to describe Arrernte again for a subsequent fifty years.