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LANGUAGE DOCUMENTATION

ARCHIVING CONFERENCE

ELDP Project Highlight: Documenting varieties of Kun-barlang, Northern Australia

This week, we are featuring highlights from the project ‘Comprehensive pan-varietal, ethnobiological, anthropological record of Kun-barlang’ by Isabel O’Keeffe, Carolyn Coleman, Linda Barwick, Ruth Singer, Janet Mardbinda, Sandra Makurlngu, Nathalia Gumurdul and Talena Wilton. The project is documenting the remaining varieties of Kun-barlang (ISO 639-3:wlg), a highly endangered language spoken in northwestern and central Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. Fewer than fifty full speakers remain and most are elderly. The deposit is available to explore on the ELAR catalogue.

The data in this deposit may contain the names, images and voices of Indigenous people who have passed away. While the people who collaborated in this research wished to be recorded and named, speaking the names of recently deceased or playing audio or video of them in the presence of Indigenous people in northwestern and central Arnhem Land might cause distress. When discussing any of this deposit with Indigenous people in northwestern and central Arnhem Land sensitivity should be exercised and advice sought from the research team and/or members of the local communities.

On the impact on community and speakers:

The documentation project has continued to raise the profile of the Kunbarlang language and to promote language use and documentation work in the community. For example, a recently-formed women’s rock band at Maningrida (‘Ripple Effect’) mentions Kunbarlang in one of their songs about the languages of Maningrida. They are also planning to translate and/or compose some songs in(to) Kunbarlang. Ripple Effect band member (and PhD student/RA for this project) Jodie Kell said that she heard a couple of young women speaking Kunbarlang at the Garma festival in Eastern Arnhem Land, and when she asked them about whether they spoke Kunbarlang, they said, “of course we do!”. So perhaps there are more young people learning at least some Kunbarlang than we realise!

You can listen to Ripple Effect’s song Ngúddja on Youtube:

The project is also providing ongoing opportunities for inter-generational collaboration and the opportunity for young people to hear and learn more Kunbarlang from older speakers. For example, in a recent workshop in Darwin, a senior Kunbarlang woman, Millie Djamuddjana, was able to work with her kakkak (daughter’s daughter) Talena Wilton, her mawa (brother’s son’s daughter) Sandra Makurlngu and her rdoyrdoy (brother’s son’s daughter’s daughter) Nathalia Gumurdul.

Wilton has continued to work with her kakkak (‘mother’s mother’), Djamuddjana, to make recordings and annotations. Wilton commented recently on how this work with her kakkak made her feel: “I am proud to be working on this project for my kakkak’s language, Kunbarlang. Last night I was enjoying typing the language into ELAN so much I forgot to drink my coffee!”.

Makurlngu has worked with her son to create recordings of a newly composed yiwarrudj manyardi ‘church song’ in Kunbarlang and they are currently working on a new one for an upcoming funeral for a senior Kinbarlang man. Makurlngu has also been helping her daughter (Nathalia Gumurdul) and niece (Janet Mardbinda) learn to transcribe and translate Kunbarlang. Mardbinda has been sharing her knowledge of ELAN, assisting Makurlngu and N Gumurdul. Gumurdul also did some work with O’Keeffe recording her makka (father’s mother’s brother) Paul Naragoidj in Darwin in 2017. After the recording session, she explained ‘I can’t speak Kunbarlang, but I understood most of what he was saying!’

Sandra Makurlngu and Gerard Gumurdul record a Kunbarlang yiwarrudj manjardi ‘church song’. This song is an original composition in Kunbarlang.

The field-based Reasearch Assistants Mardbinda, Wilton and N Gumurdul have been growing in their confidence in learning to type Kunbarlang and to be able to identify and translate words in the recordings, with assistance from Makurlngu and Djamuddjana. This has provided them with some employment and has assisted them with skills for future language-related study or work.

Nathalia Gumurdul, Sandra Makurlngu, Talena Wilton & Millie Djamuddjana take part in Kunbarlang workshops in Darwin.

Kunbarlang songs and multilingualism

Archival audio of Kunbarlang songs, recorded in the 1980s by Carolyn Coleman and not yet documented, have been discovered. The recordings are of the late songman Micky Nalorlman singing Kunbarlang love songs. His son, Soloman Yalbarr, told the project team that his father used to compose and sing many of these songs and that they were in multiple languages (Mawng, Kunbarlang and Kunwinjku). Colemand and O’Keeffe were able to work with Yalbarr in July/August 2017 to transcribe these songs, which were in Kunwinjku and Kunbarlang. The songs provide further evidence of the song traditions reflecting and contributing to the multilingualism and linguistic diversity of the region.

Emotions and metaphors in Kunbarlang:

In our recent documentation of emotion terms in Kunbarlang we have discovered a range of new terms and metaphors, including many metaphors that are identical in neighbouring languages (Mawng, Ndjébbana, and Kunwinjku) despite the fact that these languages are from three typologically different language families. This work on emotions, as well as comparative lists of ethnobiological terms will provide data that will assist furhter comparative work on these central and western Arnhem Land languages, and ultimately may contribute to work on the linguistic pre-history of Arnhem land and the linguistic diffusion that has or has not occurred.

On language competence and maintenance in smaller languages:

The receptive competence of Makurlngu’s children and of Djamuddjana’s children and grandchildren provides further evidence to support the importance of receptive multilingualism in the maintenance of smaller languages (see Singer and Harris 2016). The new recordings of receptive multilingual conversations and the identification of similar types of conversations in archival material will provide significant data to further our understanding of multilingualism and the maintenance of small languages in this region and beyond.

Kunbarlang lerrk (Kunbarlang language) also have a Facebook page with updates from the project and the community. Visit the page here!


Singer, R & Harris, S. 2016, ‘What practices and ideologies support small-scale multilingualism? A case study of unexpected language survival in an Australian Indigenous community’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol 214.

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