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The Quest to Build Australia’s First Indigenous Language Wikipedia

The academics behind "Nyungarpedia" are not only trying to build a new wiki, they're trying to create a database of knowledge that relies on oral tradition rather than Western-style sourcing.

by Alan Weedon
Jun 5 2015, 5:00pm

Image via Wikimedia.

Wikipedia is available in several indigenous languages, but no Australian ones. Which isn't super surprising—creating a fully translated digital web of information is a huge and complex job. But it's one that researchers from the University of Western Australia, Curtin, and Sydney Universities are willing to take on. They've set out to create of a version of the site in Nyungar—a language native to southwest Western Australia.

Sydney University's Clint Bracknell is an associate researcher on the project. He's aware of how complex the job his team is taking on, and wary of creating any unnecessary hierarchies in the process.

Their primary challenge lies in convincing Wikipedia to completely rethink the way it values Western knowledge. As it stands, the site defaults to Western ways of thinking—academic journals, senior academics, and other written materials back up most of the site's information. Nyungar won't be able to do this because it's primarily an oral language; it doesn't have an established written tradition. For a Nyungar Wikipedia to exist, the current site needs to accommodate non-Western ways of sharing knowledge.

"We don't want to impose Western-style academic authority, because we want to privilege Aboriginal voices on Aboriginal information," Clint told VICE.

One way they're looking to achieve this is to lodge citations orally. As opposed to a written document supporting each piece of information, you could potentially lodge an audio or video file to backup a statement.

"Who is speaking and where that person is from in the region has a big impact on the veracity of our information, and we'd be looking to cite that via audio or video," Bracknell says.

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Australia's Indigenous languages have long been in a precarious position. During the late 18th century, there were as many as 750 distinct social groups with a similar number of languages and dialects. Today, only 250 of those languages remain, with many not being spoken daily.

Nyungar is one exception. The 2011 census recorded an additional 137 active speakers from 2006—and it's the only Australian indigenous language to have its own children's program. This makes it the perfect Indigenous dialect for this project to center on, given there's a growing user base that would ultimately benefit from the digitization of their language. If this proves successful, it could also act as a template to re-invigorate other Australian indigenous languages.

Shortly, the team will begin workshopping the process by inviting language teachers from the region to flesh out what the page could look like from a user's perspective. Bracknell says this will sort out the underlying problems in organizing an oral tradition—like sorting out standardized Nyungar spellings without discouraging diversity. Nyungar for example, also goes by Noongar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, or Nyungah.

After the project's initial workshops finish, they will be looking to engage with the language's daily speakers.

"As researchers, it shouldn't be us making the call. The whole language community is special, and they've been doing what we've been doing for a lot longer than us," Bracknell says.

It's easy to get complacent if you're a native English speaker; your mother tongue is one of the best-resourced languages in history. Nyungar didn't have that advantage, so for the research team, there's a lot of people wanting to get this "Nyungarpedia" right.

"We've got to think about language, people, and country as one," Bracknell says. "They all take care of each other, and that'll be lost if we keep having to dilute the way we look at the world."

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