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The world has more than 7,000 languages, particularly in areas like New Guinea or Indigenous Australia, with hundreds of small languages. Why are there so many languages? In his quest for answers to this riddle, CHL’s Professor Nicholas (Nick) Evans gave genesis to the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity in 2014. The five-year Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate project hypothesised that exuberant linguistic diversification results from greater differences between how individuals speak in small-scale societies than in larger-scale ones.
The analysis of linguistic variation and change served as the foundation to address fundamental questions of linguistic diversity and disparity. The project addressed a crucial missing step in existing linguistic research by delving into what drives linguistic diversification so much faster in some societies than in others. It did so by undertaking intensive, matched case studies of speech communities across Australia and the Pacific, allowing researchers to detect variations in languages as they occur and compare the amounts and types of variation found in different sorts of settings, with a particular focus on small-scale multilingual speech communities. It aimed to generate an integrated model of language variation and change, building in interactions between social and linguistic processes. The research findings offered insights into the enormous diversity of human experience, vital for fields as diverse as cognitive science, human evolutionary biology, anthropology and archaeology.
The Wellsprings team worked on sites across Australia (Western Arnhem Land and Cootamundra), Vanuatu (South Pentecost), Papua New Guinea (Morehead District, Western Province), and Samoa, as well as linked Latin American sites in the Peruvian Amazon and the Andean foothills of Bolivia.
Four members of this cohort— Eri Kashima, Marie-France Duhamel, Alexandra Marley and Hedvig Skirgård—did some really ground-breaking work in their specific areas of research as part of the Wellsprings project. By the beginning of 2021, all four had graduated, each drawing high praise from their examiners for their innovative work.
Hedvig had completed her previous studies at the University of Stockholm, in a department renowned for its focus on linguistic typology—the systematic comparison of the world’s language structures—and brought those skills to complement the more fieldwork-oriented projects of the Wellsprings cohort.
In her thesis, Multilevel dynamics of language diversity and disparity in Oceania, Hedvig tackled the problem of why there are so many more languages in some parts of the world than others, focussing on the hundreds of languages of the Pacific. Why, for example, does Samoa have just one language, while Vanuatu has over 130, even though both countries have comparable population sizes and both were settled around 3,000 years ago? Tackling this question required her to master (and develop) a dizzying range of methodologies, including phylogenetic and geographical methods, Bayesian statistics and new visualisation and mapping techniques applied to an ambitious database of vocabularies and linguistic structures from languages around the Pacific.
While the ultimate answer to this enigma remains beyond the horizon, her research uncovered many surprising facts, such as unsuspected levels of structural difference between the languages of Polynesia. Among the most challenging aspects of her PhD, Hedvig recalls, was having to define the topic. She had to change the topic dramatically from an in-depth sociolinguistic study of Sāmoan to a typological and evolution-based project, which looked at more languages in the region. It was just too tricky to study Sāmoan from a variationist perspective within the larger project.
When asked about her favourite word or expression in Samoan, Hedvig chose Fiapotu. She explains, “It means ‘smart ass’, approximately, in Sāmoan. I think I got called it once. I don't mind it that much; I think I can be a bit of a smartass sometimes, and it's something I'm working on!”
Hedvig at work
Hedvig’s time at ANU involved much more than thesis writing. A surprised convert to the pleasures of Canberra and Coombs, among other things, she commissioned a special set of Coombs linked-hexagon earrings, got herself a Coombs tattoo, and teamed up with linguist Seán Roberts and data engineer Lars Yencken to make some major discoveries.
“I think a PhD is a very intense thing to do; it has consequences not just for your scholarly development but personal as well. I hope that I learned some humility, and alongside the scholarly output and the friends I made, that is what I am most thankful for. What really stands out to me as the highlight of my overall experience is more the gradual progression of my work, my friendships and my understanding of languages in the region.”
Recognition of the outstanding originality of Hedvig’s research led to her being offered a postdoc at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Close to 7 hours by road out of Darwin. A remote family outstation, with a community of 15–20 people. No phone reception. No internet. Accessible only by plane for six months of the year. Only solar power to charge devices, like basic research equipment. And a surreal memory of the time a helicopter arrived with a dead buffalo dangling from a rope, shot by rangers at a neighbouring outstation and then sent to Mamardawerre for meat.
This pretty much describes the rustic surroundings that were home to Alexandra Marley for 13 months during her fieldwork as part of her five-and-a-half years of PhD research. Her research in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, was focused on tracing the variation and change of the Bininj Kunwok language, a (Gunwinyguan) language of Northern Australia, which is in the Non-Pama Nyungan language group. At around 2,000 speakers and with children still acquiring it as a first language, Bininj Kunwok (or simply Kunwok) is one of the strongest Australian Aboriginal languages.
The title of Alex’s thesis, Kundangkudjikaberrk: Language variation and change in Bininj Kunwok, a Gunwinyguan language of Northern Australia, came to the fore during her months of fieldwork. The word was uttered by a resident of Kabulwarnamyo, who described the convergence of dialects and clanlects she had witnessed in her lifetime. It literally means ‘mouths coming together into a single group’ and, according to Alex, not only describes succinctly the primary research focus of her thesis, but demonstrates the fantastic structural beauty of Kunwok in the way it allows speakers to combine elements to convey complex ideas as a single word.
Alex’s research and fieldwork provided a detailed portrait of variation within an Australian language. By incorporating a number of complementary methodological and theoretical frameworks to examine a suite of variables, her thesis laid the groundwork for a new direction in variationist studies, and for an understanding of the socio-cultural forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, the great linguistic diversity found on the Australian continent.
Alex recording Rosemary Nabulwad
It is her fieldwork that Alex cherishes as the most rewarding takeaway from her PhD. The connections made with people there that will last her a lifetime, as will her appreciation for the vast and rich cultural heritage of the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this country.
From left to right: Stacey Lee, Alexandra Marley (holding Stacey), Evelyn Narorrga, Janice Nalorlman, Margaret Nabulwad, Doreen Nalorlman (deceased), Rosemary Nabulwad, Estella Nadjamerrek, Conrad Maralngurra Front row: Randy Lee, Ewen Nayilibidj, Tyson Maralngurra
“From my fieldwork, one of my favourite memories was the day a huge dead buffalo was delivered by helicopter, hanging by chain with a hook through it hocks. It had been shot by some rangers at a neighbouring community (a couple of hundred kms away) and then flown over to Mamardawerre to be butchered for meat. I foolishly asked if it was still alive, much to the mirth of my hosts!”
Dead buffalo being transported to Mamardawerre
Alex currently has a post-doc fellowship with the CSIRO at the Australian National Herbarium, looking at expanding the utility of the botanical collection to support Indigenous traditional knowledge and language transmission.
Following a career in IT in Auckland, a change of track to the study of English and Pacific literature introduced Marie to the field of linguistics. A short stint of fieldwork on the language spoken on the islet of Atchin, Northeast Malekula, Vanuatu was her choice of subject for her Masters in linguistics, and later she assisted Miriam Meyerhoff’s research on another Vanuatu language (Nkep, Espiritu Santo Island). This familiarised Marie with variationist methods, and all of this ultimately led to her PhD research with the Wellsprings project.
Marie’s thesis, Variation in Raga A quantitative and qualitative study of the language of North Pentecost, Vanuatu investigated the existence and spread of linguistic variation in the speech community of Raga /raɣa/, on the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu. It was primarily a field study, firmly grounded in the survey of social and linguistic data collected in 2015–2017 in north Pentecost, from 58 men and women representing three generations of speakers.
According to Marie, Raga presents little innovation from the reconstructed proto forms, and no regional diversity. These features set the language apart within the Vanuatu high-diversity context. Her thesis, therefore, examined variables in three different linguistic domains and investigated the mechanisms of uniformisation that inhibit the spread of innovative variants in this community of 6,500 speakers. Several factors combine to favour the linguistic conservatism exhibited by Raga. Endogamous marriage practices, maintenance of strong ties with relatives over long distances and generations, reliance on customary mutual obligations, high socio-historical status of the Raga society, and practice of a single religion all impact on the homogeneity of avoana ata raga, ‘the language of Raga’.
For Marie, the qualitative approach of her research was the most challenging aspect of the PhD. “It is particularly difficult to interpret the social factors that influence linguistic variability when dealing with an unfamiliar social context. But it also has its advantages; for example, as an outsider I had no bias towards one social group or another.”
Anthinia Temakon preparing food - Above Loltong Bay – March 2016
But the fieldwork was also most rewarding. The unfamiliarity of situations and behaviours kept Marie very focused, and realising how adaptable one can be was also a pleasant surprise. Marie reminisces about one particular incident during her research among the local community. In the field, the role of Derek, a Raga speaker, was to explain the project to prospective participants and to conduct interviews. He had arranged a meeting with his uncle, a man in his late fifties who said that he wanted to contribute to the project. After the uncle had greeted them, Marie unloaded and prepared her recording material, while Derek explained what they were expecting to record. The man then started to speak. Marie looked at Derek to check if she should start recording, but he shook his head. Derek’s uncle went on talking and was seemingly becoming more animated. He had no intention of being recorded, and he was explaining why to Derek. Then the uncle addressed Marie, in Bislama. She was criticised for having recorded young people, who didn’t speak Raga well but whose kind of Raga language would be archived, remembered, and passed on.Marie was also criticised for looking for changes in the Raga language, a language that had never changed, and would not change. There was not much for Marie to do but apologise to Derek’s uncle, pack up her material and leave. Derek was very embarrassed, but the important thing was that he remained on good terms with his uncle.
Laying the red mats before a ceremony, in front of the nakamal
“It was unpleasant but also valuable for me to hear what this man had to say about my research. It was instructive: I had learned that young people probably spoke Raga differently (how differently, then?). But most importantly I was rightly reminded that speakers of minority languages may take exception to the objectification, dissection, and probing of their taonga (treasured possession).”
Marie With Joshua, transcriber, Loltong 2016
One of Marie’s favourite words in Raga is Bwaraivina, which can be translated as ‘good work!’ Villagers would often greet those returning from the garden with a bwaraivina! Marie was pleased when it was used in reference to her work. She intends to continue her good work in the field of language documentation, in the Pacific region. She has recently applied for an ECR grant to work on under-documented Eastern Polynesian languages in French Polynesia. For now, she is applying linguistics to a feasibility study on vocal biomarkers (acoustic features as diagnostic tools), for a centre of research in Auckland.
Flashback. Eri had just finished her honours thesis at the University of Melbourne. As she headed into the library for her casual job, she bumped into one of her tutors, Dr Lauren Gawne (now based at La Trobe University), who told Eri that Professor Nick Evans had been awarded the ARC Laureate Project grant and was looking for PhD students. One of the PhD positions was to work on a language in Papua New Guinea, and Eri’s honours thesis topic was an investigation into what’s called “multiple past-tenses” in three Papuan languages.
Even today, Eri often reminisces this turning point of sorts, telling many that she wouldn’t have applied for the position had she not heard about the project! The Wellsprings project, for Eri, was an extraordinary opportunity to be involved in cutting-edge topics, and gave her so many chances to connect with other people working in related fields. It really opened her eyes to many things, ranging from the complexities of fieldwork, the ecology of academia, and of course, about what “language” is and how it changes over time. The fieldwork was quite challenging, given it was in a remote and under-developed part of the country with some traditional world views. Processing the language data was also very labour-intensive, since very little is known about the language in terms of Western academic scholarship. As such, much of the data preparation was done manually by language consultants and Eri.
Gestural examples of gihe and gsou
Images of Data collection. Top-left a typical recording set up for narratives. Top-right the cassowary picture task set up. Bottom-left a coconut interview session. Bottom-right transcription work by Mr. Gima Zoga and Mr. Karuwa Wagra
Eri’s thesis, Language In My Mouth: Linguistic Variation in the Nmbo Speech Community of Southern New Guinea was a description and documentation of language variability in a speech community of rural Papua New Guinea. The thesis had three components: a qualitative description of the speech community, a quantitative investigation of speech variability, and what's called a sketch grammar of the language. The language, called Nmbo by its speakers, is spoken by about 1,000 people in a very multilingual part of the world, where people will speak anywhere between four and eight languages very well. The language had not been described in modern linguistic terms, so Eri’s sketch grammar was a preliminary description of some fundamental aspects of the language.
Doing her PhD project as part of a wider project meant Eri automatically had colleagues, so the best part for her was that she didn't have the common “feeling isolated” experience that many PhD candidates go through. The PhD students could check in with each other all the time, and the postdocs were very supportive and happy to help out where they could. Currently, Eri is working as part of a European Research Council-funded linguistics project at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She works at the intersection of considering the relationships between society, culture and language, and would like to keep working in spaces where this is relevant. The ERC project very much builds upon her experiences of working with lesser-known language communities, and also her experience working in a team of linguists with different expertise.
Eri on site during her fieldwork
“Being part of the Wellsprings project, and this current ERC project, has definitely shown me that I like working on cutting-edge topics with a tight team full of smart and nice people!”
Here’s wishing Eri, Marie, Alex and Hedvig all the best in their new ventures, and we hope that their paths cross CHL and ANU once again the future. Keep the CHL languages and linguistics flag flying high!
For more on the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity program, click here.