This is a re-post with the kind permission of the crew at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, a great group of linguists untangling all matters of things to do with how we communicate*.

A workshop on birds at Barrapunta in Arnhem Land involving traditional owners, ranger groups, scientists and representatives from the eco-tourism industry has proved invaluable to the linguists who also attended. A highlight was discussion about a bird responsible for starting fires.

ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language director Professor Nicholas Evans and PhD student Alexandra Marley attended the workshop, hosted by the Mimal rangers and Barrapunta traditional owners.

The workshop idea came out of earlier planning for the 2017 Arnhem Land Fire Abatement season. The hope was to strengthen techniques and management for looking after birds by bringing people together from all areas and sharing knowledge.

Dalabon speakers Dudley Lawrence and son Leon singing Lorrkkon ceremony songs about birds. Photo: P. Cooke

Professor Evans said the workshop was a fantastic idea that worked well to bring indigenous knowledge and western science together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. “It really is about creating forums where important information can be passed on to the next generation,” he said. “As linguists, it is also an opportunity to work with community on language.”

Otto Campion, who works with the Arafura Rangers, was among the Indigenous people who shared knowledge. “Things are changing because of human behaviour,” he said.

Bringing together scientific monitoring knowledge with knowledge from families on the ground was one way of getting a clearer picture of how change was taking place in the region. “We need to be listening to what is happening on the ground and learning and sharing that information,” he said. “Knowing your country, where you come from, all that is important.”

Otto Campion addresses the workshop. Photo: N. Evans

Terrah Guymala from the Warddeken Rangers said he enjoyed the workshop. “It gives me a lot of confidence to see people talking about the birds in their own language; hearing the old people speaking in their language,” he said. “Back in the dreamtime, we believed animals were like us, the birds, all the reptiles were people like us.”

He said the old knowledge was important for today’s land managers, such as the concept of treating animals more equally. He said modern techniques such as the use of camera traps to monitor species were also essential in the efforts to protect and better manage the region.

Alexandra Marley said she felt privileged to be able to attend and witness the transfer of knowledge from elders to the next generation of rangers. She said songs were sung and stories told in at least four different traditional languages (Kunwinjku/Kune, Dalabon, Rembarrnga and Wagilak) as well as in Kriol and English. “The older people were really driving it (the knowledge),” she said. “I was fascinated by stories of a firebird; people got very excited about it.”

Professor Evans said he was among those excited to hear re-tellings of the activity of a hawk species that hunts by picking up burning sticks and dropping them ahead of the fire front.

He had first heard of the bird many years ago when he encountered the Dalabon word Karrkkanj, but its exact identification and relation to other birds that circle above fires had been unclear. During the workshop Otto Campion explained: ‘karrkkanj is like the boss (in starting fires), the other birds are just following him’. One focus of the workshop was on getting eyewitness accounts of cases where karrkkanj have been seen starting new fires, apparently deliberately, for their own purposes of hunting the small reptiles and grasshoppers that flee before it.

Karrkkanj is also ritually significant as the one who founded the Lorrkkon mortuary cycle – the practice of initially placing bodies on tree platforms after death, then holding a Lorrkkon ritual a couple of years later when the bones have been picked clean by birds, so that they can be placed for safekeeping in a hollow Lorrkkon pole carved with clan designs.

At the Barrapunta workshop two Dalabon elders, Dudley Lawrence and Maggie Tukumba, sang several sections of the Lorrkkon cycle, each featuring the movements and behaviour of a different bird or animal.

To follow up with more precision after the workshop, Professor Evans met with the Dalabon elders to identify the birds more precisely and go over the words of the Lorrkkon song cycle.

This allowed clarification of the rather confusing overlap of three bird names, karrkkanj, ngalmirlangmirlang and wunwunbu. Karrkkanj, it turns out, is a term for the Black Kite but can also be applied to two other raptor species, the Peregrine Falcon and the Brown Falcon.

The Peregrine Falcon can also be known more specifically as ngalmirlangmirlang and the Brown Falcon as wunwunbu; these are said to be husband and wife.

Maggie Tukumba at Barrapunta. 

“Working on Dalabon is a never-ending quest,” said Professor Evans after the workshop. “My Dalabon teacher Maggie Tukumba is around eighty, and worries she is forgetting things, but will stay up half the night trying to remember a bird name we haven’t recorded yet, then give it to me the next morning.

And working on special language, like the Lorrkkon cycles, throws up all sorts of amazingly specific words which I’ve never heard before.

One that came up this trip, in the ‘leg’ of the song cycle tracking a djamunbuk (male Antilopine Wallaroo) as it tries to flee a hunter, was the word kahmudngalalahminj. This means ‘its (the wallaroo’s) fur stood on end (in fright at being hunted)’. The surge of collective knowledge and conference-like intensity of the workshop threw up a whole host of details like this – that’s one of the great benefits of bringing so many experts together in one place.”

Professor Evans discusses bird names with Dalabon speakers Maggie Tukumba and Dudley Lawrence. Photo: A. Marley

Alexandra and Professor Evans were also able to pilot a new kinship app ‘Kinsight’, which Professor Evans has developed with CoEDL project manager Ben Foley.

“Some of the young rangers were really enthusiastic about the app and could see how they could use it in their work,” said Alexandra.


Group photo at top: Laurie Ross


* Some information about the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL)

The  Centre is investigating language as a diverse, dynamic and evolving organism that interacts with our perceptual processes in ingenious ways. Understanding why the world’s languages are designed so differently—and how our minds acquire and exploit them to achieve different outcomes—will help generate important scientific insights and exciting new technologies.

What We Do

We are investigating how languages vary, how we learn them, how we process them and how they evolve.

We aim to integrate typology and descriptive linguistics, evolutionary approaches, and studies of learning and processing across a wide range of linguistic types with the aim of setting up a new approach to language that places diversity, variation and change at centre stage.

At the heart of the Centre‘s work are four basic puzzles – language diversity, language learning, language processing and language evolution.

See more about CoEDL’s work here.