Documenting Burarra dialectal variation within the multilingual ecology of north-central Arnhem Land

Documenting Burarra dialectal variation within the multilingual ecology of north-central Arnhem Land

Language: Burarra (ISO639-3:bvr)
Depositor: Jill Vaughan
Location: Australia
Deposit Id: 0488
Grant id: IPF0256
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit
Speakers of Burarra (north-central Arnhem Land) identity four dialects of their language, but much variation that distinguishes them survives predominantly in older speakers, outside of the urban centre, Maningrida. This project will produce a stratified corpus of naturalistic language use across a range of genres from speakers across the Burarra region, and will gather rich data about multilingual practices and language ideologies. As well as providing a significant record of cultural, mythological and local territorial knowledge, the project’s fundamental focus on dialectal and other variation will enhance our understandings of the linguistic construction of difference in a highly multilingual context.

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Burarra is a non­Pama­Nyungan language of north-central Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is most closely related to Gurr­goni, Ndjébbana and Nakkara, and together they make up the Maningridan subgroup of the Arnhem language family. Burarra is a prefixing and classifying language, with a four­way semantically­driven noun classification system, and predicates which take prefixes agreeing in number, person and gender with subject and object. Verbal structures are both polysynthetic and periphrastic, and a system of verb serialisation is used to express temporal, spatial and other aspects of complexity in event structure (Carew 2016b; Green 2003). While Burarra is non-Pama­Nyungan, it has long been in contact with Pama-­Nyungan (Yolŋu) languages to the east and is thought to show evidence of this (Carew 2016b). The nature of this influence is of particular interest to typological work in the region.

While Burarra has been described as a relatively stable language in the Australian context (classified as ‘Developing’ in Ethnologue’s EGIDS (Lewis et al. 2016), this status belies the fact that many aspects of the language and its use are highly endangered, and that the sociolinguistic context of Burarra is currently undergoing significant change.

‘Burarra’ is in fact a designation subsuming four dialect groups – An­barra, Martay, Maringa and Gun­nartpa. While the broader Burarra group counts for some 1000 L1 speakers, much of the linguistic variation that distinguishes these subgroups survives predominantly in older speakers, and in a subset of ‘shibboleth’­like terms that function as strongly indexical socio­territorial identity markers. The dialect labels also continue to be important identity categories, even as differentiation in linguistic practice changes. Documenting this endangered variation is a core part of this project, as only one of these varieties has been previously explicitly targeted for documentation (Gun­nartpa, representing a minority of the Burarra group – see Carew 2016b). The An­barra group has been the subject of some anthropological attention (Hamilton 1981; Hiatt 1965; Hiatt & Clunies­Ross 1977; Jones & Meehan 1978; Meehan 1991). Other previous work (e.g., Glasgow various; Green 1987; Graetzer 2012; Trefry 1983) deals by­and­large with Burarra at the macro level, typically working with Maningrida­based speakers with only minor reference to dialectal variation. The Maringa subgroup associated with the eastern coastal region of the Burarra territory is of particular interest, as almost nothing is known about its linguistic characteristics. Many (although not all) speakers distinguish it as a dialect, and some describe it as a Burarra/Yan­nhangu mix.

The sociolinguistic context of the Burarra­speaking community has undergone considerable transformations in recent decades. Formerly, Burarra speakers lived on country from the mouth/western bank of the Blyth River, east to Yinangarnduwa (Cape Stewart), and south beyond the Cadell River. Now many reside in Maningrida (a township further west founded in the late 1950s), and some move between here and Darwin. Fewer speakers live permanently on outstations. The Burarra make up the largest linguistic group in Maningrida and the language now has a large L2 speaker community, functioning in some settings as a kind of lingua franca (although not a fully­fledged communilect). The evolving nature of the speaker community, alongside dialect­levelling processes in this urban context as formerly more isolated speakers interact on a regular basis, has had important consequences for the shape of the language among younger/town­based speakers, and is a major factor in the endangerment of dialectal variation.

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Jill Vaughan
Affiliation: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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