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Documenting and describing the Dalabon language of south-western Arnhem Land

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Cutfield, S. (2009). Documenting and describing the Dalabon language of south-western Arnhem Land. Talk presented at the AIATSIS Research Seminar Series. Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, Australia. 2009-10-19.

Documenting endangered languages has emerged in the past decade as a specialised subdiscipline of linguistic research activity. Australia has one of the highest rates of language endangerment in the world. Perhaps because of this, many of its linguistic researchers are world leaders in language documentation, especially in relation to conducting ethical fieldwork with indigenous communities. For example, the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS) drew up its guidelines on the Linguistic rights of Aboriginal and Islander Communities in 1984, twenty-five years before the Lingustic Society America followed suit. In this presentation I seek to describe the methodologies linguists use when working to document and describe endangered Australian languages, and position this work in an the context of an international movement to document endangered languages all over the world. I present my ongoing and collaborative work with the Dalabon language community of south-western Arnhem Land as a case study. Dalabon is a severely endangered language, with only five remaining ‘master speakers’ of the language. There are however a number of younger ‘semi-speakers’ who are actively engaged in documentary and revitalisation work on their language. I examine our respective motivations for our collaborative work, and describe the process of working in the motivation ‘overlap’.