Words and reconciliation

This year, 27th May to 3rd June is National Reconciliation Week (NRW) in Australia with the theme of “More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.” As the NRW website says:

“Reconciliation is a journey for all Australians – as individuals, families, communities, organisations and importantly as a nation. At the heart of this journey are relationships between the broader Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples … please remember the importance of privileging and amplifying First Nations’ voices as you add your voice to calls for reconciliation and justice. We all have a role to play when it comes to reconciliation, and in playing our part we collectively build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories, cultures, and futures.”

As a small contribution to this process, and in our pursuit of taking action to support all Indigenous languages and cultures around the world, the journal Language Documentation and Description Volume 20 (LDD20) will this month include its first paper with a section written in an Australian Indigenous language (and with a Summary of the paper in that language), namely:

“Kalaw Kawaw Ya (Saibai Island, Western Torres Strait Islands, Australia) – Language Snapshot” by Alistair Harvey, University of Queensland.

Kala Kawaw Ya (KKY) is spoken on the three most northerly Western Torres Strait Islands of Saibai, Boigu, and Dauan, as well as the Saibai Island satellite communities of Bamaga and Seisia which are situated on the Australian mainland Northern Cape York Peninsula Area. It currently has about 900 speakers, and the author, Alistair Harvey, is of Saibai Island descent and undertaking a PhD at the University of Queensland. As Alistair writes:

I am Lead Investigator on the Australian Research Council (Discovery Indigenous) project Saibai Island Language and Cultural Knowledge where I work closely with senior Saibai Island linguist and knowledge custodian Dana Ober and Senior Saibai Island knowledge custodian Walter Waia. Both were the claimants of the successful Saibai Island Native Title determination of 1999. The goal of the project is to develop and utilise a Saibai Island methodology to record and document language, oral histories, and cultural knowledge, as well as to add to existing corpora by utilising recent advances in recording technology and digital analysis of Saibai Island KKY data. My PhD studies aim to build on the outcomes of my research project by developing a corpus in which archival and future Saibai Island language and cultural resources will be situated. Archival material will be organised within the corpus to reflect the cultural framework of Saibai Islanders.

The paper gives a snapshot of the contemporary linguistic ecology of KKY, a history of linguistic and cultural research, plans for the future, and bibliography of published works. The Summary and Section 1 of the paper were translated into KKY by Dana Ober.

To the best of my knowledge this is only the second linguistics publication IN an Australian Indigenous language (as opposed to the hundreds ON these languages); the other was written in Kala Lagaw Ya, which is a sister of KKY:

Bani, Ephraim. 1987. Garka a ipika: Masculine and feminine grammatical gender in Kala Lagaw Ya. Co-translated and edited by Barry Alpher. Australian Journal of Linguistics 7, 189-201.

Let us hope that Alistair Harvey’s paper is just the first of many future publications in Australian Indigenous languages about the languages and cultures, and also hope that organisations like the Australian Linguistic Society which publishes AJL will take action and go beyond words to “collectively build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories, cultures, and futures”.


  • 1. LDD established a policy in 2019 of publishing Summaries in local lingua francas, as well as English. The first Summary IN the language that the paper is about was: Hussain, Qandeel. 2020. Punjabi (India and Pakistan) – Language Snapshot. Language Documentation and Description 19, 144-153.
  • 2. There is also (as David Nash reminds me): Granites, Robin Japanangka & Mary Laughren. 2001. Semantic contrasts in Warlpiri verbal morphology: a Warlpiri’s verbal view. In Jane Simpson, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin & Barry Alpher (eds.) Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages, 151-159. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. This chapter was written by Laughren in English and quotes extensively from mini-essays written in Warlpiri by Granites and translated and glossed by Laughren. Other work by Granites in Warlpiri remains unpublished.

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