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October 2014

Topic      Issues in the documentation of newer language varieties

Discussion led by Felicity Meakins (University of Queensland)

Date       Wednesday 29th October 2014

Time       6:00 - 8:00pm

Venue     Upstairs room, Prince Alfred Hotel, 191 Grattan St, Carlton (corner of Bouverie St), ph ‪(03) 9347-3033‬‎

Food and drinks available at the venue.

Contact   Ruth Singer if you have any questions



By now it is well understood that traditional Indigenous languages are losing speakers rapidly and tragically. While a concerted effort has been directed towards the documentation of traditional Indigenous languages, the languages spoken by most younger generations in remote Indigenous communities are less well understood. It is generally assumed that a shift to English is underway in remote Indigenous communities, but this is not always the case.

In the last decade, the program of language documentation in Australia has extended to languages spoken by younger generations. Now we have descriptions of young people's varieties of Dyirbal, Pitjanjantjatjara and Murrinh-Patha; as well as descriptions of dialects of Kriol (Roper River, Kimberly, Barunga, Tennant Creek) and mixed languages Light Warlpiri and Gurindji Kriol.

Understanding the first language of younger generations is important for a number of reasons including education models, which take into account the first language of students, and models of language evolution and change. Nonetheless many issues arise in the documentation of non-traditional Indigenous varieties.

  • Documenting non-traditional languages is potentially face-threatening to communities which maintain a strong ideological link between identity and language competence
  • New language varieties are often considered substandard varieties by older generations
  • New language varieties are often consider linguistically less interesting by linguists
    • variation is assumed to be unprincipled (the fallacy of ‘random variation’)
    • simplification of morpho-syntactic systems is assumed often without rigorous examination
  • Much of the work on new varieties has been undertaken within rubric of education rather than typology
  • Newer varieties are then often viewed through the lens of English or a traditional language which often leads to the above problems

The Rhydwen (1995) reading is a first person account of a linguist launching into work on a newer language variety, Barunga Kriol. It documents some of the difficulties outsiders face when learning these languages and touches on issues of language prestige and perceptions of complexity.



Rhydwen, M. (1995). Kriol is the colour of Thursday. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 113, 113-119


LIP is coordinated by Ruth Singer (University of Melbourne)

LIP is an occasional gathering of language activists and linguists in Melbourne. All are welcome. Those in other parts of Australia and the world who can't make it to the Melbourne LIPs are encouraged to organise a local gathering to discuss this topic and support language activities in your area.