Connecting language and landscape

When it comes to language, how well do we actually understand the structure of syllables and words? Associate Professor Mark Harvey's 2015 Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project aims to determine this through the documentation of a severely endangered Indigenous language.

Dr Mark Harvey

"We will focus on the Kaytetye language because of its unusual structure. We believe this work will show that current models of syllable and word structure may require significant revision," Harvey said.

Harvey, who is a member of the Faculty of Education and Arts' Endangered Language Documentation, Theory and Application (ELDTA) research group, will consider the implications of Kaytetye sound structure for general theories of phonology, and more importantly, for ideas about universals in language. The project will also preserve Indigenous heritage through the extensive documentation of Kaytetye – which is a severely endangered language.

Field work for the project will be undertaken with the Kaytetye community in Neutral Junction Station (Artarre) in the Northern Territory. Here, the Kaytetye language is notbeing acquired by children, and there are no fluent speakers younger than 30.

Indigenous communities are concerned that cultural and linguistic knowledge is not being successfully transmitted within Indigenous communities and to the general Australian community

"Indigenous communities are concerned that cultural and linguistic knowledge is not being successfully transmitted within Indigenous communities and to the general Australian community," Harvey said.

"Recent studies have shown that engaging with traditional language and culture improves health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For these reasons, the successful maintenance of Indigenous cultural identities is a priority target for both Indigenous communities and all levels of Australian government."

Harvey is also working on a 2014 ARC Discovery Project, titled, Reconstructing Australia's linguistic past: Are all Australian languages related to one another?

As the title suggests, the project focuses on whether all Australian languages are, in fact, derived from a common source language or what is better known in scientific circles as proto-Australian.

This will be determined through an analysis of the endangered Aboriginal language Yanyuwa. Harvey will look at implications of 'yes' and 'no' responses to a series of questions relating to Australia's pre-history and general queries of human pre-history. It also involves the extensive documentation of the language, which is spoken by the Yanyuwa people around the settlement of Borroloola (Yanyuwa burrulula) in the Northern Territory of Australia.

"This research will provide a descriptive grammar of Yanyuwa, a book evaluating the proto-Australian hypothesis, and articles discussing the significance of the success or failure of the hypothesis for theories of the general human past," Harvey said.

Over the past 30 years of his career, Harvey has also focused much of his research on Aboriginal social organisation.

"I differ from other analysts and propose that the clan and kinship system are not internally consistent, but should be analysed as on-going and variable compromises between other more consistently maintained and sometimes conflicting patterns," Harvey explained.

"The most consistently maintained system in Aboriginal social organisation is not clans or kinship systems but rather constructions of the landscape. My investigations are based on extensive site mapping work with Aboriginal people. I have detailed the specific ways in which these constructions anchor discussions of land ownership (clans, tribes) and kinship, particularly marriage."

A third ARC-funded project sees Harvey is working closely with the University of Ballarat to develop a clear understanding of Indigenous spatial knowledge to support the Australian tourism industry. This investigation involves discerning the Indigenous meanings of places, animals and plants; a study known as ethnobiology, which examines the dynamic relationships among peoples, biota and environments throughout the history of time. This information will then be shared in a range of accessible and educational materials designed for tourists and visitors.

"Research on the construction of the landscape is accorded great significance both by Aboriginal people and the research community. It is of particular concern that information collected should be archived in an easily retrievable manner, subject to culturally appropriate monitoring. This is, to date, an essentially un-investigated area of research," Harvey said.

"It is my hope that this research will help our tourism industry to grow by sharing what is a very significant part of our history."

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.