Arthur Capell and language codes

Post date: 
Tuesday, 11 October 2016

For many years, AIATSIS has been looking after Arthur Capell’s archive of over 230 reels that contain language recordings.

Among these are approximately 160 reels that contain recordings of non-Australian languages.  AIATSIS recently donated these reels to Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures.

Old words to be heard again “Arthur Capell was a foundation member of our Council and his early work inspired our referencing system for Australian languages which is still used by our linguists and collections staff today,” Mr Taylor said. 

“We have been the proud custodians of the original tapes for over two decades, keeping them safely preserved for future use.  But given the focus of our work we felt it was time to pass them on, and are pleased to be handing them to the CoEDL/PARADISEC team.”  21 September 2016

Preparation of this donation reminded me of an ongoing presence of Arthur Capell’s work at AIATSIS.  Arthur Capell was a foundation member (1961-1968) of the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS, now AIATSIS).

Among the significant contributions Capell made to the study of Australian languages was the introduction of ‘language codes’.

Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS
Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS

In his Linguistic Survey of Australia (1963), which Capell wrote for AIAS, he assigned a ‘language code’ to each Australian language.

Each code consists of an alphabet and a number. The alphabet represents a region where the language is located – Australia is divided into eleven regions and each region is represented by the first letter of the region name (Capell attributes David Moore for these divisions).

Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS
Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS

Why was there need for language codes?

This is because Australian languages were not written languages, and people started writing down Australian languages only after the arrival of Europeans.  Since there was no standard orthography, different persons (often with different language backgrounds) wrote the name of the same language in different ways as they hear.

Imagine I say a Japanese word to a group of people and ask them to write down what they have heard using English alphabet, they will probably come up with different spellings, especially if each of them has a different language background!  

For example, here is a section on Yuwalaraay in Capell’s linguistic survey (more alternative spelling of this name can be found in AUSTLANG).

Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS
Capell, A. 1963. Linguistic Survey of Australia. AIAS

Or sometimes, one language was referred to by more than one name. So language codes were used as unique identifiers and to manage variations of spellings and names. AIATSIS adopted this referencing system (but only the alphabets, not Capell’s own numbering. For example, the AIATSIS code for Yuwalaraay is D27, while Capell’s is D26).

Even today, many Australian language names do not have a standard spelling and there is no standard list of Australian languages. These language codes are still in use by AIATSIS as a unique identifier in AUSTLANG, a database of Australian languages, and AIATSIS Language and Peoples Thesaurus, a catalogueing tool for Australian Indigenous materials.

So don’t be surprised if you see the name of a language is spelled differently, just think about which language code goes with it!

Additional information

AIATSIS Australian Indigenous Languages Collection


Thank you, Dr Kazuko Obata, for this informative post! Although I had known that early European settlers used many different spellings for the same Australian language; and even that researchers well into the last half of the 20th century disagreed on what spelling system to use, even for the one language; I was surprised to learn that today, we still have no standard list of Australian language names. I have also read that even when the linguistic (researcher) community have chosen a certain spelling for a particular language, the linguist (speaker) community of Aboriginal Australians may prefer another! But perhaps this is not so surprising, when, to take a simple example from the current post, Dr Kazuko chooses the word "alphabet" where many Australians would choose the word "letter" instead. :-) In primary school they taught me that "the alphabet" of English contains 26 "letters". But many of my friends from Malaysia, Singapore and India, who speak different Asian Englishes, would use "alphabet" just as Dr Kazuko does. And it's not just a matter of different national or regional conventions. For example, my personal preference would describe the AIATSIS Language and Peoples Thesaurus as "a cataloguing tool" (or even perhaps as "a cataloging tool") rather than as "a catalogueing tool". The reasons for such personal choices of spelling are many - in my case, probably influence from becoming accustomed to the American spelling "dialog", widely used in IT, for a word that school taught me to spell "dialogue". As always, the question we need to answer is not: "What is right?", but: "What works?" I look forward to the day when we have a single list of Australian language names that everybody can agree on!
That’s a good point, ‘What works?’ rather than ‘What is right?’. This is one of the reasons why there is no standard list of Australian language names. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics maintains their own Australian Standard Classification of Languages which they use for managing the Census data – the list has to work for their purpose. ISO 639-3 is a list of living languages (not sure why, but maybe it has come from SIL’s interest in translating scripture text into indigenous languages?) so it is not very comprehensive. On the other hand, the AIATSIS Language and Peoples Thesaurus is constructed in the way that it works for cataloguing. As for ‘What is right?’, who has the authority to determine what is right? LINKS Australian Standard Classification of Languages ISO 639-3 Codes for the representation of names of languages -- Part 3: Alpha-3 code for comprehensive coverage of languages SIL 'SIL works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners' AIATSIS Language and Peoples Thesaurus
I am trying to find a list of the AIATSIS language codes that I can print out as a reference. The document at this link is not very useful as it does not list the languages alphabetically. Can you suggest another source/link that can be printed out? Thanks