Indigenous vocabulary projects and information systems

An exciting information project has been created to digitally encode indigenous vocabularies derived from the records of Daisy Bates (from around the turn of the twentieth century).   A paper explaining how the information systems were set up has been written by Nick Thieberger (university of Melbourne) and Conal Tuoh (Queensland) (1).   I was interested to read that the authors of this database had concluded that valuable context could be retained by a system that was concerned with the specific data they had available first, and not with fitting the data to a preconceived relational database system. As they said (in conclusion):

“While the more usual approach to archival lexical material has been to extract lexical items into a relational database or spreadsheet, the data could not be coerced into such a form now without a significant amount of interpretation and loss of contextual information.”

My own exploration of how best to store information systems has led me to consider the pros and cons of relational databases, and this project illustrates why it is necessary to be closely scrutinise the specific data you are deailing with, to maximise the benefits of transforming it into forms that are useful.

I will be very interested in using the database to improve my own understanding of indigenous languages and provide a way for engaging more fully with local culture.  However, we must reflect on the fact that this exists through historical circumstances, and is both defined by those circumstances, and limited because of them.  I will be using it as a collection of language-relevant historical artifacts of information gleaned from indigenous speakers.  I am aware that Daisy Bates’ own research into the actual situation was peculiarly limited by her own perspective and views.  In 1938, she published “The Passing of the Aborigines” which reflects her erroneous views at that time.


(1) (2017) Thieberger and Tuoh, “From Small to Big Data: paper manuscripts to RDF triples of Australian Indigenous Vocabularies. URL Link.


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