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June 2011 Issue
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Endangered languages have a new champion

The University of Adelaide has appointed Australia's first Chair of Endangered Languages - Israeli-born, Oxford-educated linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann.

Professor Zuckermann, who holds an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellowship, has vowed to make Adelaide a world centre for language revival.

His new role as Professor of Linguistics and Endangered Languages in the School of Humanities will involve both research and teaching, with the aim of establishing a new sub-discipline of linguistics - "revival linguistics".

"Along with my colleagues Professor Peter Mühlhäusler and Dr Rob Amery, I shall be analysing how to resurrect languages that are no longer spoken or about to become extinct," Professor Zuckermann said.

These include more than 100 Aboriginal languages that are "critically endangered".

Professor Zuckermann said one of his goals was to raise the value of language diversity in today's society, given the prediction that 90% of the world's 6000 languages will disappear by 2100.

"From an Australian perspective, it is critical on a number of fronts that Aboriginal languages are revived and preserved.

"These fascinating, complex languages provide a sense of identity for Aboriginal people, reflecting a close interaction with their culture, heritage and history. Reclaiming and maintaining Aboriginal languages helps to empower some Indigenous people and give them a strong sense of pride and purpose."

Professor Zuckermann said Aboriginal traditions, spirituality, ecology and land were inextricably linked to their languages.

The multilingual Israeli academic is internationally renowned for his innovative and provocative approach to language revival (Modern Hebrew in particular), defining himself as an anti-purist.

"I don't think we should be rigid about languages. They are forever changing and evolving and are the result of cross-fertilisation of numerous lects and languages.

"Even if you isolated a community on the moon without external influences, you would find in the space of several generations that their language would have altered significantly."

Professor Zuckermann holds doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge universities and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, United States, China, Israel, Singapore, Slovakia and Australia. He has also been a senior research fellow in Italy and Japan.

He has published several books and numerous articles in eight different languages.

Professor Zuckermann has also consulted to the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford University Press, among many others, and delivered hundreds of keynote speeches, plenary conference papers and public lectures.

Although he officially started at the University of Adelaide in February, Professor Zuckermann spent the first three months of his appointment as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shanghai International Studies University.

"I hope to make Adelaide known in the world as the place where revival linguistics emerged as a new paradigm of linguistics," he said.

"We have the core expertise here - with strengths in Kaurna, Israeli and creole languages - and with the help of the Mobile Language Team, established in 2009 through Federal Government funding, we can go a long way towards supporting and reviving Aboriginal languages in South Australia as a first step," Professor Zuckermann said.

To read more about the University of Adelaide's work supporting Aboriginal languages and resources in South Australia, visit: ua.edu.au/linguistics/mlt

The University of Adelaide offers both undergraduate and postgraduate linguistics degrees. If you're interested visit: ua.edu.au/programs/2011

Story by Candy Gibson

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Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann
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