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’.
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 letter and a number. The letter 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).
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).
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 cataloguing 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!