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On Thursday I’m heading to Adelaide for the Australex 2013 linguistics conference at the University of Adelaide. The topic – Endangered words, and signs of revival.

I volunteer with a project to revive an endangered language called Barngarla, which was spoken by Aboriginal people in the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. During the missionary days people weren’t allowed to speak their language or teach it to their children, and within a few generations it had all but disappeared.

Old documents written by missionaries recorded a Barngarla dictionary and grammar, and Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who’s also organising the conference, and a team are using them to revive the language. It’s ironic (in a wonderful way) that the missions wiped out the language while also preserving it and ultimately became key to reintroducing it. Barngarla is now being taught to people once more.

The Australex conference is celebrating 175 years of Lutheran Missionaries’ Aboriginal Lexicography (writing dictionaries.)

I find it interesting that linguistics shares so many words with biology. Linguists talk about endangered languages and hybridisation, while biologists have DNA transcription and translation. My explanation is the oft-used by imperfect analogy of DNA as a “recipe book” or “instruction manual” – placing it more firmly in the realms of language.

It’s actually a bit strange that we still think of DNA this way, that we haven’t updated it to, say, a hacked Wiki – sometimes edited by viruses. Hey, that’s not a bad analogy actually. Both are built up over time and the contributions of many, and aren’t exactly perfect but they do the job. Except that there’s not so much junk on Wiki’s as there is in DNA, but in both cases humans are pretty good at sorting the junk from the useful stuff.

I’m looking forward to the conference and meeting more of the people involved in reviving the Barngarla language, and hearing about similar projects in Hong Kong and Tibet. It should be an interesting few days, and I’ll try to keep you posted on what I hear.