Repatriation and Preservation

Returning language materials and archival records to speech communities



In addition to the Centre’s work to gather language material collections, train members on best-practice archival processes and data management and support PARADISEC, another important aspect of CoEDL operations, particularly for the Centre’s Archiving program, was efforts to support the repatriation and preservation of heritage language materials.

For many studies of language and culture until the late 20th Century, researchers would extract knowledge from a community without returning these treasured materials. CoEDL took a number of initiatives to amend past practices by working collaboratively with communities and making the outputs of these collaborations accessible. Sometimes, improving accessibility involved digitising information gathered during earlier research and repatriating these materials to communities. In other cases, CoEDL members developed resources to support the preservation of traditional knowledge and the passing of this knowledge to younger generations.

Read on to discover three projects CoEDL members participated in, including the repatriation of language recordings to communities in the Daly River region of Northern Australia, the digitisation of papers from an early twentieth-century ethnographer and a project to document and develop resources about kin and clan knowledge in the Nagovisi language.

Daly River Languages

The Daly Languages project was a collaboration between CI Rachel Nordlinger and CoEDL Affiliate Ian Green to digitise and repatriate Ian's extensive field notes, recordings and analyses of many of the languages of the Daly River region in Northern Australia.

Between 1980 and 1996, Ian collected 157 hours of recordings, as well as dictionary materials and grammatical descriptions, for 11 Daly languages. These included Batjamalh, Emmi, Magati Ke, MalakMalak, Marramaninjsji, Marranunggu, Marri Ngarr, Marrithiyel, Marri Tjevin, Matngele and Menthe. Many of the people that Ian worked with and recorded were among the last fluent speakers of their languages.

As a long-time collaborator with Ian, Rachel identified the opportunity to digitise his materials, which had been in storage until 2014. CoEDL supported this digitisation effort and the files were made accessible in the PARADISEC archive.

Rachel and Ian then repatriated copies of the digitised recordings. In July 2016, they travelled through the Daly region and distributed over 40 USBs containing language material. The recordings were met with much emotion and joy.

“It was a special moment and really highlighted the symbolic importance of actually going back to these communities and giving back what is theirs,” Rachel said, recalling when a man spontaneously embraced her after receiving recordings of his late father speaking Marri Ngarr.

The repatriation of language recordings back to community gives people ownership of their language and their family's recordings; means these recordings can be used in language maintenance and revitalisation efforts; and acknowledges their significance as critical sources of identity, culture and knowledge.

“For us it was a necessary thing to do, and something well overdue,” said Ian. By 2016, all of the languages he had recorded had fewer than ten speakers, and five of the languages had no fluent speakers left at all.

This loss of language is a loss for humanity. Languages hold irreplaceable knowledge of the natural world and teach us about human cognition.

“The knowledge in these languages about the land and the environment is beyond what we currently know,” explained Rachel, whose fieldwork in the Barkly Tablelands of the Northern Territory on the local Wambaya language uncovered eucalyptus species known in Wambaya but without scientific names. Additionally, some linguistic features may be present in only one or two languages and could reveal new information about what humans are capable of with respect to language.

“The faster that these languages disappear without us understanding them, the more we lose in terms of knowledge about ourselves and what it is to be human,” Rachel said. “In that sense this should matter to all of us.”

The Daisy Bates Project

Fewer than 50 Australian Indigenous languages are still spoken, and only about 15 of those are being passed on to the next generation. With these languages under threat, it is critical to make quality historical sources available, particularly to Indigenous Australians who want to relearn and reinforce their languages.

CoEDL was therefore proud to support the Digital Daisy Bates Project led by CI Nick Thieberger, which digitised the valuable papers of the ethnographer Daisy Bates.

In 1904, Daisy Bates sent a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. The responses to her questionnaire are preserved in 25,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescripts. These papers are the last remaining record of some Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion.

The papers are important not only for understanding the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Indigenous communities can reconnect to their languages through the papers, trace their named relatives and establish the continuity of their language over time, which has been used to support Native Title claims. Beyond linguistic use, the papers also present a record of local plants and wildlife, valuable for biology research, land care and historical heritage.

The collection includes 25,000 pages of wordlists of Australian languages and around 4,000 pages of typescripts, names at least 123 speakers, lists over 90,000 individual words and provides grammatical information in the form of sentence responses.

For most of their existence, however, the Bates papers were largely inaccessible as hardcopies in State and National libraries.

Through the Bates Online project and in collaboration with the National Library of Australia, Nick Thieberger coordinated the digitisation and compilation of Bates’ questionnaire responses into an online searchable database, complete with maps showing where the words and phrases come from and images of the original notes and typescript.

Alongside Nick, CoEDL student Sasha Wilmoth and Alice Kaiser-Schatzlein wrote a computational script to assist with making the wordlists searchable, while Conal Tuohy designed the structure of the dataset. For more information about the project and to explore the collection, visit the Digital Daisy Bates website.

Developing community materials for Nagovisi

In 2015, CI Bethwyn Evans worked with Nagovisi speakers to document and develop classroom resources for their language (also known as Sibe), with support from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP). Such language documentation projects are a way for linguists to support communities to preserve traditional knowledge so that it can remain part of their living heritage and sociocultural future.

Bougainville Island is home to at least sixteen different ethnolinguistic groups, which maintain social connection through networks of kin relations and histories of clan origins and migrations. This knowledge is embedded within their languages and oral histories, but it is currently threatened by the dynamics of a rapidly globalising world.

Nagovisi is spoken by several thousand people living in small, scattered villages in the mountainous inland of south-western Bougainville. Although Nagovisi is spoken at home in most villages, Nagovisi speakers of all ages comment that younger generations have not learnt traditional knowledge and customs. These are key for navigating the Nagovisi world and play a significant role in modern life as Bougainvilleans face the challenge of negotiating a new political status following the 2019 referendum for independence.

In this context, Beth and the Nagovisi community documented oral histories and knowledge relating to clans and kin relations. Kinship relations shape everyday life in Nagovisi villages, including expected behaviour and interaction between individuals, marriages, and visits to other villages. Clan origin and migration stories represent Nagovisi history and explain current patterns of connections among and beyond Nagovisi-speaking villages. Documenting knowledge of clan and kin with older Nagovisi speakers supports younger Nagovisi to keep these traditions and histories alive and to recreate the role of kin and clan in modern Nagovisi life.

Beth also helped to develop resources to bring Nagovisi language into primary school classrooms. Since formal education is conducted in English and Tok Pisin, young children who speak Nagovisi at home face the challenge of learning to read and write in languages that they do not yet speak. Beth collaborated with the Teleipi Human Resource Development Centre in Panam village to create a Nagovisi alphabet chart and school readers. They also made posters that highlighted the differences in kinship words between Nagovisi, Tok Pisin and English.

Further information

To learn more about these and other CoEDL projects, explore the Connections data in map or list form.


Hero image: Sand drawing as captured for the Western Desert Verbal Arts project. Image: Jennifer Green.

Image 1: As part of the Daly Language project, recordings of the region’s Indigenous languages were returned to families of the speakers on memory sticks attached to wristbands. Picture: Rachel Nordlinger.

Image 2: The Daisy Bates papers laid out at the launch of the online portal in 2018. Image: Nick Thieberger.

Image 3: Nagovisi speaking children of the Panam community at school. Image: Panam community/Bethwyn Evans.