A digital ark for language

You’d expect all of the advanced digital technology we have today to be a godsend to the painstaking movement to revive and repatriate Indigenous languages. But right now, a paper dictionary of an Indigenous Australian language has a better chance of long-term preservation than an online dictionary. 

Take the example of the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains.

It stopped being spoken as a first language in 1929 with the death of Ivaritji (Amelia Taylor).

Sixty years later a Kaurna language renewal movement began in Adelaide with Kaurna people relying largely on a grammar and dictionary

self-published in 1840 by two German missionaries, Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, with the help of a grant from the Governor.

Some copies of the book survived, and were made visible through library catalogues. We owe the later distribution of the book to the State Library of South Australia, which published a facsimile in 1962, and then to Howard Groome, an educator who reprinted the book in 1982.

The success of the revival movement is demonstrable: Kaurna language is now visible in the Adelaide cityscape, heard at public events, and taught at schools and university.

What we need is some dedicated national digital infrastructure to preserve and make accessible the many wonderful complex online dictionaries, digital artefacts, databases, and software programs that people are creating for Indigenous language research and revival.

Consider the fate of the Wagiman dictionary, created by a handful of speakers of the language from the Pine Creek area in the Northern Territory. The authors – all now deceased – created in the late 1990s a well-organised digital dictionary with information about the language, the speakers, Wagiman stories, and some useful references.