Collection fishing

“The Secret of the Totem”

There is too much that could be said about this front cover of Andrew Lang’s comparative description of Indigenous totem systems entitled…  The secret of the totem (1909):

(Later spin-offs no doubt included The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Totem, and Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Totem.)

The horror-house lettering gives promise of grotesque and intoxicating savageness, while the central image draws an equivalence between European heraldry and indigenous totemism with the suggestion of an erotic rite about to be consummated between a naked Sea eagle (?) woman and her Eaglehawk man.

It puts me in mind of an observation by Philip Jones, in the multi-authored volume Politics of the secret (1995):

[…] the belief in a single [Aboriginal] element or artefact holding the key to a complex of challenging problems was not just the province of anthropology, or archaeology or psychology. It also found expression in the popular literature of the time, notably in the novels of Rider Haggard. The Rider Haggard ethos, thriving today in the cinema, in which brave European men journey through forbidding country to unearth treasures and unlock mysteries to which even the savage tribes who guard them have lost the key, is revealed again and again […]




Writing systems

First application of Eskaya proto-font

With permission from cultural owners, and from me, a wayfarer in the Eskaya Ancestral Domain has made a large poster of Eskaya writing. He did this by accessing the nearly complete PARADISEC collection to download characters from the sadly-nowhere-near complete Eskaya font.


It’s really great to see the first material application of this arduous and costly digital brought to the community. Since this is largely a symbolic, rather than a pedagogical poster I don’t want to be a pedant but I must point out some of the oddities which Eskaya teachers have apparently already brought to the attention of said wayfarer:

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What I'm reading

Best Journalism of 2016

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.

A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic. 

As always, the pieces are listed if they made me think differently about something but I do not agree with everything that is written. This is a syllabus, not a manifesto! For those who want more, you can read up on 2013, 2014 and 2015 by following the links.

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Just published

Making up words is harder than it looks

I have a new article “The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language”, out in William Labov’s new journal, Asia-Pacific Language Variation. This is the last time I’m going write about the Eskayan language until my book is eventually complete.

The take-home message? Inventing exotically ‘foreign’ vocabulary is as hard as creating authentically ‘native’ vocabulary, but engineered lexicons are nonetheless great for expressing subtle language ideologies.

Spanish-English-Eskayan wordlist. An explanation of the script in column three is here.

You can download the article here.

And if you don’t want to read it, here are a few representative quotations:

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What I'm reading

Academic texts I have known and loved

I have a habit of telling everybody what I’m reading online, but not so much about what I’m reading for research. Here is a short list of books and papers that I’ve come across over the last ten years and that I consider to be personal landmarks for one reason or another.

Looking back over the list, I’m almost disappointed in myself. If I was really out to impress others I would have added lots of monumental tomes staking out various important paradigm shifts and intellectual turns and been more attentive to diversity.

But that wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Texts are listed here because the authors have influenced my thinking in some way, or presented a Big Idea that has captured my imagination, or they may simply have an engaging writing style that has sucked me in despite making poor arguments for which I have decided to forgive them.

These are all the works that I can think of off the top of my head. I will update this post as I think of more.

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Collection fishing

Secret intelligence files as illuminated manuscripts

Tim Sherrat has been trying to automate the process of finding redactions in ASIO files. You can read about it here.

Some of the censor’s redactions are appealingly whimsical. Here are a few of my favourites:






Recently, I enjoyed some pleasingly artistic East German ‘manuscripts’ at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig. These two are favourites:


Inquiry into the defacement of Comrad Honecker’s image



Complaint to the national broadcaster: ‘The Black Channel Sux’


Collection fishing

All the best Philippines studies resources in one place

For some time I’ve been collecting and organising links to digital sources on the Philippines on this page. It’s been ‘under construction’ for about two years and I’ve finally got around to finishing the damn thing after a conversation with a Philippine scholar at a recent workshop.

This is the kind of digital bibliography that I would have loved to have at my fingertips when I began my research and it’s very much skewed towards themes that are dear to my heart. But now that I’m setting Philippine studies to one side for a while, I can safely say that the page is in a form that is mostly final. Click here and enjoy!

P.S. Below are a few images that appear in one of the texts included on the resources page. They’re from the English edition of Paul de la Gironière’s 1853 memoire Vingt années aux Philippines: Souvenirs de Jala-Jala. 

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Just published

The bells, the bells

I have an article just published in the Journal of Folklore Research, “Excavating a hidden bell story from the Philippines: a revised narrative of cultural-linguistic loss and recuperation“. A word of caution to anyone considering submitting work to a prestige journal – after passing peer-review this took more than two years to be published!

A snippet:

As an outsider to the Philippines I have been intrigued by these stories for what they appear to reveal, not about the locus of lost wealth but about the postcolonial national psyche. A striking common theme is that of resources unjustly withheld from their deserving recipients, corresponding to periods of colonial occupation and political suppression. Just as the original confiscation of resources was overshadowed by violence, there is always a danger associated with their recovery. Here, a kind of malignant agency is ascribed to the treasure such that the undeserving claimants are always punished for their presumption. I argue that these stories are not just about lamenting a loss of resources but are also a way of accounting for a perceived cultural deficit in terms of intangible heritage. In other words, they serve as a cryptic response to what the pre- eminent Filipino nationalist José Rizal described as “the specter of comparisons” (el demonio de las comparaciones).

Update: Over at Rappler I have an op-ed covering the most tabloid-sensational aspect of this research: ‘Yamashita’s gold has been found and it’s not what you think‘.

And the MPI media release has been picked up in a few places:


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Just published

In joyful strines: The ultimate record of Australian vocabulary

Pinned to the wall of one of the offices of the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra is a cartoon of a monk being interrupted as he patiently illuminates the Book of Kells.

The caption: “Deadline? Nobody told me anything about a deadline.”

Such was the journey of the Australian National Dictionary, a tome that last emerged from its hermit’s grotto in 1988, to reappear 28 years later in even greater splendour.

Late last year the manuscript was piled on a desk and illuminated in red ink:

Australian National Dictionary manuscript

And here it is now, all bound and jacketed:

Advance copy

The continuity on this project is truly remarkable with a number of the same lexicographers contributing to both the 1988 and 2016 editions.

Oz lexicography's larrikin rat-pack: Mark Gwynn, Amanda Laugesen, Bruce Moore, Julia Robinson.

Australian lexicography’s rat-pack: Mark Gwynn, Amanda Laugesen, Bruce Moore, Julia Robinson.

I would like to think that since 1988, attitudes to Australian English have matured. In linguistic research, more and more regional diversity is being detected, and despite the occasional self-hating wacko most speakers recognise the richness, expressiveness and sheer oddness of our lexicon.

When I read British or American stories to my children I often flip the text into Oz English. I’m not being a nationalist, I just enjoy owning the words.

I worked on the new edition of the AND for a mere six months in 2011, plodding through Aboriginal words in Australian English beginning with ‘M’; marn grook and Moomba are particularly memorable.

As an historical dictionary the AND is not only a record of the words we now choose but an account of how we once spoke. Many of the terms I investigated were utterly unfamiliar to me and may have entered into speech for a decade or less. These words are lexical polaroids of a society in transition, and a reminder that even if relatively new and popular terms like budgie smugglers eventually pass into obscurity, they will still be remembered by the AND. 

Writing systems

One ring to fool them all?

Sven Van Haelst of Maaseik in Belgium is an archeologist by training who recently discovered this copper/bronze ring in his backyard. He would like help identifying the script used in the inscription.
Sven_Ring inscription
From haphazard corridor discussions at the MPI we have arrived at the following:
  • It may be a kind of decorative script since there seems to be quite a lot of repetition, but if the signs are purely decorative, why are they on the inside of the ring?
  • 3, 5 and 7 are possibly the same character, and this might be modified with a diacritic in 9
  • 4 might be a diacritic modification of 1, by the same mechanism
  • If it’s not decorative and is representing language, there are higher odds that it is an alphabet or alphasyllabary, given the rate of repetition (albeit in a tiny sample) as opposed to a syllabary
  • Not sure 1 is a character at all, people often use this sign as decorations/fillers inside rings.
  • This might be some alphabetic rendition of a name, or perhaps a private cipher (possibly recent)
If anyone has any ideas about this please let me know and I will update this post with new theories or information.
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