We are pleased to welcome Karen Mezentsef as an Associate of Batchelor Institute. Karen is a student at the University of Melbourne, studying in the Department of Linguistics. She is doing an honours project on Central Australian Sign Language, working with material recorded at Ti Tree with the language team there. This team is led by April Pengart Campbell, Clarrie Kemarr Long and Eileen Pwerrerl Campbell and have been working with Batchelor Institute and linguist Jenny Green since 2011 on recording and documenting sign language. Karen is now working with some of this material, and contributing some of her findings to the online website for Central Australian Sign Language, which can be viewed here:

It’s great to welcome you to the team Karen!

Read on for a profile of Karen and why she is interested in Indigenous languages in general, and sign languages in particular.

I have always been curious about sign languages – what was this other way of communicating with the hands? It has always fascinated me, and I have always wanted to find out more. To this end, I took a ‘Deafness and Communication’ breadth subject in my undergraduate degree, which examined the signed languages for the Deaf/deaf or hard of hearing, and the social implications of Deafness/deafness, primarily focusing on AUSLAN in an Australian context.

There were many reasons why I chose this Honours project to work with Indigenous sign language. First, it differed from what I had learned about signed languages – this was not a primary sign language for deaf signers, but a sign language for communities where signers were not predominantly deaf.

I also sought to challenge myself, as we had never analysed sign languages in my linguistics major, and I hoped to observe the parallels between signed and spoken languages, and in which ways they differed. I wanted to understand language as nuanced bodily movement, rather than the relatively static nature of written or spoken forms.

Another reason was that last year I attended Dr Jennifer Green’s public lecture and book launch of her PhD work – Drawn from the Ground: Sound, Sign and Inscription in Central Australian Sand Stories (CUP 2014) – and was inspired and intrigued by her research. When I was given the opportunity to choose a topic focusing on sign and working with Jenny, I happily took it.

As a student of linguistics and anthropology, I am acutely aware of the implications of scholarly research undertaken in remote communities, where the balance of power between researcher and community member is in question. If the linguist benefits from this work, in the form of publications on research undertaken in these communities and any ensuing academic prestige resulting from this work, and nothing is given back to the communities, you have to ask the question – what’s in it for them? This has always deeply troubled me when thinking of going on to further academic study, as it seems that the very act of recording data and documenting language introduces an unequal exchange relationship between researcher and informant.

From an ethical viewpoint, it greatly appealed to me to be working with data that is collected with constant feedback and communication with the communities under focus, and where the researchers give back resources which can be utilised by these communities (such as the online sign dictionary).

My thesis supervisors are Dr Jennifer Green and Dr Rachel Nordlinger, and my thesis is focusing on how flora and fauna are articulated in Central Australian sign languages. I will be utilising the data collected by Margaret Carew and Dr Jennifer Green as part of the Iltyem-iltyem project, primarily focusing on the signs recorded at Ti Tree of Anmatyerr sign, and comparing these with Adam Kendon’s data on neighbouring Warlpiri sign.

I have some experience working in Indigenous communities which was afforded through an internship I was awarded by RUIL (Research Unit for Indigenous Languages, in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne) and RNLD (Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity) which allowed me to participate in a DRIL (Documenting and Revitalising Indigenous Languages) training workshop at Mabu Yawuru Ngang-ga language centre in Broome, WA, last December. There I found a community passionate about revitalising the Yawuru language, and this experience solidified my belief that I wish to engage in language revitalisation efforts in my future linguistic career.


‘Flora and Fauna in Central Australian Sign Languages’ (Working Title)

Karen Mezentsef

University of Melbourne


Australian Indigenous sign languages stretch across Central Australia, with varying levels of mutual-intelligibility across communities, often with differing accompanying spoken languages. These sign languages are used by both hearing speakers and deaf signers alike, from use as primary means of communication as a part of mourning practices, through to other activities in daily life where speech is undesirable or impractical, such as hunting, or communicating at distance. The communicative practice of these communities is multi-modal, where interlocutors employ sign alongside speech, and drawing, and where many practitioners are multilingual. In this paper I investigate how signs in the semantic domains of flora and fauna are articulated in the sign language of the Anmatyerr people, utilising material collected in Ti Tree, NT, as part of the ILS, ARC and Hans Rausing ELP funded Iltyem-iltyem sign language dictionary project; comparing the Anmatyerr (Australian, Pama-Nyungan, Arandic) signs with those recorded by Kendon of the neighbouring Warlpiri (Australian, Pama-Nyungan, South-West, Ngarga) sign language. I explore the role iconicity plays in the way many referents are mapped onto their corresponding signs, detailing how salient features of the referent (such as physical appearance, or characteristic behaviour) or traditional preparations of the referent (such as culinary, medicinal, or tool-making uses) may be motivating this non-arbitrary allocation of form.

Key words: Indigenous sign languages; iconicity; Anmatyerr; Warlpiri; Iltyem-iltyem; flora and fauna

ISO 639-3 language codes: amx, wbp.