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Dalabon Oral Histories Project


Language Dalabon
Depositor Sarah Cutfield
Affiliation Monash University
Location Australia
Collection ID 0195
Grant ID IGS0040
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Dalabon is a severely endangered Australian Aboriginal language of a diaspora population which lives in southern and western Arnhem Land, Australia. As a result of the grantee’s contact with this community as a field linguist at Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation (Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre), younger Dalabon people have asked the grantee to train them in video-recording the oral histories of their elders in Dalabon. The grantee will conduct training, video-recording and transcribing sessions with Dalabon people, and use the data collected for PhD research into demonstratives, gesture and deixis in Dalbon. The grantee will also conduct speaker interviews and elicitation sessions on the research topic.


Group represented

Aboriginal diaspora population which lives in southern and western Arnhem Land, Australia
Dalabon people are a diaspora population who live in communities and outstations on their traditional territory such as Weemol, Gulin-Gulin, Kabulwarnamyo, Kamarrkawarn and Korbbolyu, as well as in adjacent territories in larger communities such as Wugularr, Barunga, Kunbarlanja, Maningrida and regional centres such as Katherine and Jabiru.


Language information

Dalabon (also known as Dangbon, Ngalkbon or Buwan) is a severely endangered Australian Aboriginal language of a diaspora population which lives in southern and western Arnhem Land, Australia. Dalabon is a polysynthetic non-Pama-Nyungan Australian Aboriginal language of the Gunwinyguan language family (Evans, Merlan, and Tukumba 2004; Evans and Merlan 2004). Speakers and linguists identify northern and southern dialects, distinguished by speech style rather than lexical or grammatical differences (Evans, Merlan and Tukumba 2004), or areally diffused features. Traditional Dalabon country is in south-western Arnhem Land in the northeast of the Northern Territory. Dalabon is most closely related to dialects of the Bininj Gun-wok dialect chain (Evans 2003) and shares language area boundaries with four Gunwinyguan languages: Bininj Gun-wok dialects, Rembarrnga, Ngalakgan and Jawoyn.

Dalabon is not used as a language of communication in any activity spheres. Dalabon people have not maintained a critical mass in any one location to ensure the use of Dalabon as their main communication code. Linguistic exogamy and the traditional practice of shifting to speak the language of the host territory have also contributed to the dominance of the regional lingua francas of the areas where Dalabon people have settled. In the north the lingua franca is Bininj Gun-wok, in the south it is Kriol (an English-based creole). The result of the dominance of Bininj Gun-wok and Kriol is very limited transmission of Dalabon to younger generations. Of the approximately 1,000 people who identify as Dalabon, there are approximately 10 elderly fluent speakers and 30 semi-speakers and language rememberers of middle age (Evans 2001; Evans, Merlan, and Tukumba 2004). There is no concentration of these speakers in any given community.

An orthography of Dalabon has been developed by Evans and Merlan during the course of their fieldwork, leading to the publication of the First Dictionary of Dalabon (Evans, Merlan & Tukumba 2003). This orthography is not presently used by Dalabon speakers. Only a small proportion of Dalabon people are literate in English and occasionally also in Kriol or Bininj Gun-wok. The present Dalabon corpus consists of field notes made by several researchers over a period of time (Capell; Alpher; Sandefur and Jentian; Coleman, Bordu & Bennett; Wightmann & Williams; Evans; Merlan; Cutfield), mythological texts, ethnobotanical (Wightmann and Williams 1998) and zoological wordlists (N.T. Department of Education 1994a, 1994b), pedagogical texts (Cutfield, Tukumba, and Brennan 2002-4), expository texts (Cutfield and Tukumba 2002), procedural texts (Cutfield 2003), and a small number of linguistic publications (Alpher; Capell; Sandefur and Jentian; Evans, Brown & Corbett; Evans & Merlan). The corpus is predominantly in a written (printed hardcopy) format, with some audio recordings (Merlan, Evans, Cutfield) and an increasing number of video recordings (Cutfield).


Special characteristics

This research was initiated by younger Dalabon people, who have asked Sarah Cutfield to train them in video-recording the oral histories of their elders in Dalabon. Sarah Cutfield conducted training on video-recording and transcribing sessions with Dalabon people, who were then closely involved in the research.
Dalabon is of typological interest due to its large class of demonstratives (which is the focus of my PhD research), its complex pronominal verbal prefixing and participant referencing strategies (including nominal incorporation and demonstrative use). Demonstratives in Australian Aboriginal languages are underdescribed and require large videoed corpora and detailed analysis of their semantics and concurrent gestures in order to fully describe their spatial and discursive reference (Evans 2003). The study of demonstratives in Dalabon is also particularly pertinent and urgent in the context of language shift, as the demonstratives are a word class semi-speakers of Dalabon rarely use, preferring to code switch to Kriol when making spatial or discursive deictic reference.


Collection contents

When completed, the collection will contain

  • a rich audiovisual collection of several different genres (personal narratives, telephone conversations, statements on language (acquisition) philosophy) recorded in several different languages (Dalabon, Kriol, Bininj Gun-wok), produced by speakers from different communities of differing ages (10 hours of oral histories of full speakers in Dalabon, 10 hours in Kriol or Bininj Gun-wok, 5 hours of language worker ‘practice’ recordings, 10 hours of additional texts by full speakers, 15 hours of speaker interviews on research topic)
  • time-aligned transcriptions
  • a Shoebox lexical database
  • media products for community members in the form of bilingual subtitled videos and images from these videos
  • a PhD thesis on the spatial, discursive and gestural reference of demonstratives in Dalabon


Collection history

The materials in this collection were gathered and prepared between 2006 and 2008 during Sarah Cutfield’s PhD research funded by ELDP.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Cutfield, Sarah. 2019. Dalabon Oral Histories Project. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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