Top End Linguistic Circle

Top End Linguistic Circle

(TELC logo ca 1990-2017)

(TELC logo from 2018)

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The history of the Top End Linguistic Circle

by Paul Black

(There is also a Powerpoint summary of the history up to 2014)

As I write this in January, 2018, the Top End Linguistic Circle (TELC) is about to be ‘relaunched’, so it seems to be a good time to summarise the history of the earlier vessel, which was not sunk but only in dry dock a bit for rejuvenation. While the term ‘relaunched’ encouraged me to develop this metaphor, it’s certainly an appropriate one: for nearly forty years TELC has indeed been a vessel for conveying scholarly discussion of language and linguistics.

I actually wrote much of the following in late 2014, perhaps feeling that my involvement in TELC was soon coming to an end. As it turned out it limped along for another three years. In any case, in view of more recent developments it seemed time to return to this history and update it.


The Top End Linguistic Circle (TELC) seems to have evolved in the second half of the 1970s after significant developments in linguistic institutions in the Darwin area. In 1968 the Australian Aborigines Branch of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) had moved their headquarters from Brisbane to Darwin, soon to occupy a substantial property in the suburb of Berrimah. In 1972 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced bilingual education for Indigenous Australians as a federal government initiative, and this began to be implemented fairly quickly by the NT Department of Education, which began programs in five schools in 1973 and six more in 1974. While the Department thus began to employ a number of linguists, others came to the Territory with the establishment of the School of Australian Linguistics (SAL) in 1974 as a school within the new Darwin Community College; see McKay (1991), Black and Breen (2001). After Cyclone Tracy demolished Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974, SAL ended up being located in Batchelor, about a hundred kilometers south of Darwin, but this was not far enough to inhibit contact with linguists based in or visiting Darwin.

TELC seems to have grown out of meetings of linguists of these several organisations, possibly as early as 1974. Neil Chadwick (personal communication) recalls that early meetings were often hosted by SIL. Due to the nature of SIL work, which may have brought linguists in from fieldwork situations periodically, one may wonder if these meetings were often simply SIL meetings to which linguists from the other organisations were kindly invited.

Barry Alpher (personal communication) believes it was 1976 when meetings started to be held under the name ‘the Linguistic Circle of Rum Jungle’, a name that he coined. Alpher was at SAL in Batchelor, and the name would be especially appropriate for meetings held in Batchelor, since it was close to the former uranium mine at Rum Jungle. Alpher also created the following design, with the name in both Pintupi (for lack of sufficient information to use a Top End language) and English; I am grateful to David Nash for sending me a scanned version.

Linguistic Circle of Rum Jungle

The significance of the two letters i in the design is not clear, nor just how and when the design was used.

Peter Carroll (personal communication) reported that he had copies of (1) an 8 August 1978 letter from George Huttar, of SIL, with a proposal for a get together of linguists, and (2) a program for a such a meeting held at SIL in Berrimah on 1-2 September 1978. Below is the program; the note at the very end of it suggests that this was a clear precursor to the Top End Linguistic Circle, whether or not it also represented a continuation of a Linguistic Circle of Rum Jungle as well.

          Friday 1 September
          3.30 Afternoon Tea and informal introductory remarks,
          5.00 Prof R.M.W. Dixon (ANU) on "Aboriginal secret languages".
          Saturday 2 September
          1.30 Dr K Ford (SAL) and SAL faculty members on "Aborigines and schools",
          2.30 Mr P Carroll (CMS)  "Linguistics, language and liaison",
            Mr M Hore (CMS)  "Computers for the Fieldworker",
          3.30 Afternoon Tea
          4.00 Dr B Sommer (Bilingual Ed and Dept of Ed staff)
            "The Implications of climbing up and down in Oykangand",
          5.00 Evaluation and Looking ahead: discussion leader Mr G Huttar (SIL).
          5.30 Barbecue Tea
          "This short conference is intended to bring together for fruitful interaction linguists, anthropologists, educators and others concerned with and within Aboriginal communities.  Sessions will be kept informal enough to encourage free exchange of ideas, with question and discussion expected."
          "During the final discussion we will consider future meetings and the possible formation of an association to promote more such interaction."

Apparently it was in 1979 that the name ‘Top End Linguistic Circle’ began to be used. This is also the first year for which I have been able to get specific information about a meeting held under that name, namely one in November at which David Zorc (personal communication) presented a paper on a ‘Functor analysis of Yolngu’. There is similarly limited information on occasional meetings through the 1980s, as can be found in the accompanying archive of material.

TELC in the 1980s

The first TELC meeting I myself attended was on Friday 13 March 1981, during a period when I had a temporary position at SAL. I recall that I was presenting a paper, and because I thought that some of SAL's Indigenous students might attend, I wrote (probably typed) out everything a planned to say, and then edited it repeatedly to avoid long sentences and academic jargon, and to simplify the language more generally (such as by changing ‘receive’ to ‘get’). As the meeting began I realised that students weren’t attending, but only linguists. I nonetheless read out the paper as I had written it, with some fear that the audience would think I was talking down to them, but I was surprised to find that it was just as if I were speaking in normal, colloquial English. That taught me a valuable lesson about differences between written and spoken English.

Oddly, I have no recollection of what my talk was about, but I can almost visualise the setting and some of the audience. Perhaps a dozen folding chairs had been set up in the southwest corner of the student-staff lounge at SAL in Batchelor, where there was a whiteboard we could use to write on.

As I participated in TELC meetings throughout the 1980s I did not have the impression of any particular person being in charge of TELC. It may have been that any of the linguists involved could propose a meeting for some reason or other, and if his or her colleagues at the same institution agreed they could simply extend an invitation to those at the other organisations. I don’t recall how programs were produced or distributed; these were the days before email was common.

The 1980s also saw the development of an applied linguistics program in another school within Darwin Community College, or what became Darwin Institute of Technology (DIT) by the end of 1985. In 1987 Darwin also gained an outpost of the University of Queensland called the University College of the Northern Territory (UCNT), with the former SAL linguist Patrick McConvell joining its Department of Anthropology. In 1989 DIT and UCNT were merged to form the Northern Territory University (NTU), and SAL was transferred to Batchelor College, where it soon became known as the Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics (CALL). In 1990 I moved from SAL into the applied linguistics program in the Faculty of Education of the new university.

The McConvell era: 1989-1997

It was about this time that some attempt was made to develop TELC into a more formal association, with official membership and dues. On 27-28 June 1989 TELC held a two-day conference at what had become the Myilly Point campus of NTU, the former UCNT, where Patrick McConvell was teaching, and thus surely he was the one to organise this meeting. A six-member steering committee was formed, with representatives from the NTU Faculty of Arts (hence Anthropology), the NTU Faculty of education, SIL, SAL (as it was then still called) within Batchelor College, the Adult Migrant Education Centre, and the NT Department of Education. Dues were set at $10 ($5 for students and unemployed) for the 1989-90 financial year, and it was also decided 'not to move toward having an incorporated association at this stage, and to continue with the arrangement whereby NT University assists with the accounts.'

That information comes from the first issue of a TELC newsletter called TELC TALK, which Patrick McConvell (the committee member from Anthropology) and I put together; I recall working with Patrick to use a Macintosh computer to develop the newsletter’s masthead, from which I later derived the design you can see on the left at the top of this page. The newsletter also listed Patrick as the contact person for membership information. Apparently he was also recognised as Convenor of TELC by this time, since a TELC business meeting on 23 November 1990 asked him to continue in this capacity.

The second issue of TELC TALK came out in October 1990. It says little about how TELC was operating, except that an announcement for a 12 October 1990 meeting on the first page notes that $10 was being charged ‘to cover costs for smoko, a light lunch, and TELC dues’. There is more information in the third, and apparently final, issue of TELC TALK in April 1991, which I think I had little to do with, since I had just taken up a two-year visiting position in Japan. This issue gave the minutes of the TELC business meeting held at the October meeting, noting that the membership was ‘Currently about 35 but not yet based on strictly defined policies. It may be desirable to keep participation fairly open, and yet some funds are needed for operations’ (p. 60). The second issue also gives a report on a meeting held on 23 November 1990. A note on finance suggested that 28 had paid the $10 fee (or more if some paid $5) and that further funding had been obtained from NTU:

The TELC account at NTU had a negative balance of -$351. After receiving assurances that the Faculty of Arts would be depositing a sum of $900 as was promised last year the Convenor deposited $280 received from subscriptions. (p. 62)

It was this issue's report of a 23 November 1990 meeting that asked Patrick McConvell to continue as Convenor and which described steering committee membership as follows:

Resolved that TELC members from each of the following organisation can nominate representative on the Steering Committee: AMEC [i.e. the Adult Migrant English Centre], CALL [i.e. the former SAL, now within Batchelor College], NT Dept. Ed., NTU/Arts [in effect Anthropology], NTU/Education. The editor of TELC Talk should also be a member and the Steering Committee would be able to second additional members.

To me the lack of mention of an SIL member on the Steering Committee seems odd. In any case, apparently the committee met on 30 April 1991, as mentioned in an email from Patrick McConvell to David Nash. I have not been able to find any further evidence of such meetings; when I returned from Japan in early 1993 I don't think TELC was still attempting to charge dues, and I knew nothing of a steering Committee, although Patrick continued to serve as Convenor.

Possibly as early as 1995 I developed a web site for TELC to be hosted by NTU, although the authorisation of the site by NTU's Dean of Education was actually dated 18 February 1997. This site (reproduced here) continued to provide records of meetings from 1995 through 2000. After 2000 changes in NTU policy made it difficult for the average academic to maintain such a site.

By October 1996 I was also managing a distribution list, and the details suggest that TELC information was generally being sent out by fax or (within NTU) internal mail. Email was not uncommon by this time, but at this point it was not being used for this particular purpose.

One thing that can be learned from the records of meetings is that at least 18 to 34 papers were presented each year from 1994 to 1997, even though the information on some of these years may be incomplete. Some of the meetings ran for a whole day, and a second two-day conference was hosted by the Katherine regional Language Centre on 4-5 July 1997.

The next twenty years: 1998-2017

At the end of 1997 Patrick McConvell left Darwin and I took over as Convenor. After that the number of papers averaged only seven (well, 7.1) a year over the next twenty years, with as many as ten or more in only five of those years, as can be seen from the chart on the right.

Papers presented each year 1994-2017

In part the decline in the number of papers may have been due to my management style. I believe Patrick may have promoted TELC more actively than I have done, believing that the success of the Circle should depend more on how useful it was to others, rather than on my own efforts. Thus as Convenor the main thing I did was to simply act as a contact point, waiting to hear of linguists passing through Darwin who might be willing to present a paper or from local linguists who felt it was time for a meeting. I would then send out a call for papers and raise the possibility of someone else hosting the meeting at their organisation, hosting it myself at NTU if there were no takers. By the time of a distribution list dated June 1999 this was done largely by email, and in later years it has been entirely by email. (In 2003 I was again away in Japan, and I think I arranged for someone else to serve as Convenor, but I understand that no TELC meeting was actually held during that year.)

However, another factor in the decline of meetings was surely the decline of linguistics in the Top End. Patrick’s departure alone may have had a significant impact, since linguistics did not last long within the Anthropology Department of NTU after he left; indeed, soon the whole Department was cut back drastically. In addition, near the end of 1998 the NT Department of Education cut back official support for bilingual education. On the positive side, from about 1998 to 2002 the Asia branch of SIL moved its one-year linguistics course to the SLI’s local SIL’s Berrimah site, bringing in a number of linguists and many linguistic students. Even so, a meeting held on 22 June 1999 was the last that ran for long enough to include lunch, with later meetings being held only in the morning or afternoon.

Since that time there has been a further decrease in linguistics in the Top End. After 2002 the SIL Asia course was relocated to Manila, and most SIL work on Australian Indigenous languages moved to Alice Springs. Thus a small office in Palmerston became enough to accommodate work on languages in the Timor region of Indonesia, with the local SIL branch now being known as Australian Society for Indigenous Languages, or AuSIL. Meanwhile, NTU became Charles Darwin University (CDU) in 2003, and over the following years it also began phasing out its applied linguistic program, with the Master of Applied Linguistics the last to go in about 2010. The Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics (CALL) of what is now the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE) continues its linguistic program, including its Bachelor of Indigenous Languages and Linguistics (BILL), and these are also available to CDU students. However, my impression is that the program has just a few staff catering to small numbers of students.

I retired from my CDU position in March 2015, and since then the university has lost two others with substantial linguistic background. At the same time, it has employed a professor to undertake linguistic research, and it is maintaining a program in Yolngu Matha studies. There are still a couple of linguists in the NT Department of education, and also in an organisation I only recently became aware of, namely ARDS Aboriginal Corporation.

The relaunch: 2018

I thought it was time for me to step down as Convenor when I retired in 2015, since I did not expect to continue to have access to CDU facilities for holding meetings. However, I was soon reappointed in an honorary position, and it seemed easiest to continue for the time being. There was no TELC meeting that year, but one each in 2016 and 2017, and following the last meeting, on 31 August 2017, I passed the leadership of TELC over to a group, who have actively been developing ways to better promote the Circle, such as through the use of social media. Their work is reflected in the redesign of the TELC home page on this site, which now links to sites that they control directly. Since this group may be evolving, I will leave it to them to write their own history, except that I will mention just one name here: David Nathan kindly developed a new logo for TELC, the one you see on the right at the top of this page, to replace my older, pixilated version you see on the left. I understand it was David’s intention for the logo to appear on a white background, but I don’t think it looks too bad on the one on this page.


David Nash provided me with key information and materials, including a copy of the first issue of TELC TALK, which I had completely forgotten. I am also grateful to Barry Alpher, Peter Carroll, Neil Chadwick, Karen Courtenay, Kevin Ford, Nick Reid, Michael Walsh, and David Zorc for their various advice and assistance.


Black, Paul & Gavan Breen 2001, ‘The School of Australian Linguistics’, in Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages, eds Simpson, J., Nash, D., Laughren, M., Austin, P. & Alpher, B., Pacific Linguistics, Australian National University, Canberra, pp. 161-78.

McKay, Graham, 1991, ‘Linguistics in the education of speakers of Aboriginal languages: The first decade of the School of Australian Linguistics', in Linguistics in the service of society: Essays in honour of Susan Kaldor, ed. Ian G. Malcolm, Institute of Applied Language Studies, Edith Cowan University, Perth, pp. 35-53.

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Last modified 4 Feb 2018