Authenticity and the correction of errors in the context of language reclamation

Rob Amery
University of Adelaide


Most languages spoken in the world today have an unbroken tradition. Languages like English, Japanese, Navajo and Pitjantjatjara have been passed on from generation to generation without intervention. Children in Ernabella, for instance, are born into a Pitjantjatjara-speaking society. They grow up immersed in the language and acquire the ability to speak Pitjantjatjara in much the same way that children born into an English-speaking family acquire English as a first language. From the viewpoint of a linguist, there is no question as to what is ‘correct’ Pitjantjatjara or ‘correct’ English. ‘Correct’ Pitjantjatjara are those varieties of Pitjantjatjara spoken by native speakers. ‘Correct’ English is that spoken by native speakers. Whilst the majority of English speakers in the world today are second language speakers, we would not hold up their English as an example of ‘correct’ English.

Reclaimed languages, by definition, are quite different. Reclaimed languages, such as Kaurna, have been constructed in the absence of native speakers. In this paper, I am most interested in pursuing ideas behind the notions of authenticity and ‘correctness’ as they apply to a reclaimed language, such as Kaurna, which is being revived and re-introduced on the basis of 19th century written documentation, primarily that of two missionaries of the Dresden Mission Society, Christian GottlobTeichelmann and Clamor Willhelm Schürmann. Their publications and manuscripts — principally Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840), henceforth T&S; Teichelmann (1857), henceforth TMs; and Teichelmann (1858) — are the foundation for ‘reclaimed Kaurna’ as we shall refer to the language that is learned and spoken today in Adelaide, South Australia.

I have had thoughts about authenticity and correctness ever since we wrote the very first Ngarrindjeri, Narungga and Kaurna songs in 1990. I since came to realise that we did make a few obvious mistakes in our translations back then. I had used the nominative pronoun ngai ‘I’ with the verb mutandi ‘to eat’ when I should have used the ergative pronoun ngatto (RS ngathu), as mutandi is a transitive verb (Ngarrindjeri, Narrunga and Kaurna Languages Project, 1990: #11). At the time I knew almost nothing about these languages and had to trawl through vocabularies that were compiled a century and a half earlier in search of each and every word. I read the scant grammatical descriptions, looked at the few example sentences provided and then set about translating our songs which were first written in English, because English was the first language of everyone involved in that initial songwriter’s workshop.

When mistakes are identified in our earlier work, these are corrected in subsequent editions and publications. For instance, in the song ‘Kammammi’s Lullaby’ (Ngarrindjeri, Narrunga and Kaurna Languages Project, 1990: #13) I used ninko ngangkitta ‘your mother’, unaware at the time that ‘your mother’ is encoded as a fused form in Kaurna: ninkaii as opposed to ngaityaii ‘my mother’. When this song was republished in Schultz et al (1999: 16) a footnote was added:

NB ninkaii ‘your mother’ is preferable to ninko ngangkitta. The last line would’ve been better as Ninkaii, ngaityo ngarto which is a direct translation of the English [your mother, my child]. However, it was recorded on the tape as Ninko ngangkitta.

Kaurna man Lester Irabinna Rigney and I addressed the topic of authenticity in language revival at the annual conference of the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA) in 2004 and some of what I have to say here was addressed in that paper (Amery & Rigney 2004). What has spurred me now to write this contribution has been the appearance in the last few years of some rather strange looking pseudo-Kaurna words in a series of Sorry Day posters, calendars and webpages produced by the Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, South Australia (ANTaR SA) and the Journery of Healing Association SA (JoH SA). I can identify some morphemes and make partial sense of some of these forms, whilst others are very opaque. Only one of the nine terms seems to conform to what we know of the documented morphological processes of the Kaurna language.

Sorry Day Poster 2012

Sorry Day Poster 2012

Recognition and respect are sought by a people who were not recognised as citizens or even counted in the national census until after the 1967 referendum. It is recognition and respect that is driving the giving of speeches of welcome to country and acknowledgement of land, people and culture. These speeches are one of the main emergent functions of reclaimed Kaurna. And Kaurna people want their language to be recognised and respected. The Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP) home page states, “Users of this site are urged to use the language with respect. This means making every effort to get the pronunciation, spelling and grammar right”.

Yet recognition and respect are amongst the nine concepts that ANTaR SA and JoH SA have chosen to encode in Kaurna or pseudo-Kaurna forms. Tampillampilla ‘Recognition’ [of the stolen generations] served as the theme for their 2009 National Sorry Day poster, whilst Warrirkkuttinya ‘Respecting’ was the theme of their 2010 National Sorry Day poster.

Tampillampilla is a legitimate Kaurna word, created using a known and recognised morphological process (suffixation of –la combined with reduplication of the verb root), formed by analogy with words like kamballamballa ‘cook; baker’. But tampillampilla would mean something like ‘recogniser’, i.e a person rather than the abstract noun ‘recognition’.

Warrirkkuttinya ‘Respecting’ is more opaque. The origins of this term are unclear (there is no instance of the ‘rkk’ sequence in T&S or TMs). Could this word be a combination of warrendi ‘to look for, to seek’+ wirkuttaiendi ‘to be active, industrious, to hasten, to stick to the work. etc.’ + –nya, used here incorrectly without reduplication to form the gerund –ing? Still, it is hard to see how the meaning ‘respecting’ is gained from compounding this two verbs. I am at a loss to explain it otherwise.

ANTaR SA and JoH SA are otherwise reputable and well-meaning organisations and play a major role in fighting for recognition of the rights of Aboriginal people. It is sad to see such disrespect paid to the integrity of the Kaurna language by these organisations. I will return to a discussion of these resources later.

What is an authentic reclaimed language?

Esteemed sociolinguist Ronald Wardhaugh, writing of the Cornish language spoken today, says, “The revived Cornish is a somewhat piecemeal and quite artificial creation of antiquaries, and some Celtic scholars have been quite critical of it” (Wardhaugh, 1987: 78). Sasse (1992: 21) also sees language reclamation as an artificial process:

[A]ny total interruption of language transmission results in language death; any revitalization after total interruption of language transmission results in the creation of a new language. From Phase III [following language death] on, only artificial revitalization on the basis of thesaurus-like codified material is possible.

World-renowned linguist David Crystal (2000: 162) takes a more sympathetic stance when he comments on reclaimed Kaurna:

The revived language is not the same as the original language, of course; most obviously, it lacks the breadth of functions which it originally had, and large amounts of old vocabulary are missing. But, as it continues in present-day use, it will develop new functions and new vocabulary, just as any other living language would, and as long as people value it as a true marker of their identity, and are prepared to keep using it, there is no reason to think of it as anything other than a valid system of communication.

Sasse (1992), Dixon (1989) and others stress the discontinuities from the ancestral language, which is at odds with the views of Aboriginal people seeking to affirm their identities and connections with their ancestors.

So what is the nature of an ‘authentic’ Kaurna? What is ‘correct’? How do we know if something is incorrect? Does it matter? I will maintain that in the cases of Kaurna, and other reclaimed languages undergoing revival in the absence of native speakers, it is the historical record of the language which must be the final arbiter, and that it is important to construct a language that serves as good correct input for learners. If, and when, first language speakers of the reclaimed language emerge, such that the language is once again transmitted by natural means from one generation to the next, then those native speakers will be the standard of correctness for the language. We can be sure that their Kaurna will be different in significant ways from the original language. No doubt it will be characterised by regularisation, generalisation, simplification, elaboration and English influence – all part of normal language change. Until such time that native speakers emerge, any utterance must be held up against the historical record as a measure of its veracity and correctness.

Zuckermann & Walsh (2011: 119) caution against purism and urge us to embrace hybridity. But Zuckermann is far too hasty to embrace hybridity and the influence of English and to prejudge the outcome. In the examples cited of English influence on reclaimed Kaurna, Zuckermann & Walsh (2011: 120) fail to draw a distinction between the language of input (the language provided in Kaurna language resources, learning materials and used by teachers) compared with learner’s attempts to produce Kaurna utterances. Yes, there are a range of calques on English words and expressions and there is a strong influence of English at the level of discourse in Kaurna language resources, but pervasive SVO word order is not a feature of the input language, nor are the spelling pronunciations [jɜloʋ] and [pɜlɩ] of words like yerlo [RS yarlu] ‘sea’ or purle [RS purli] ‘star’.1 Of course the pronunciation of learners of Kaurna is influenced by their English mother tongue, just as the pronunciation of English by adult ESL learners is influenced by their mother tongues. But that does not necessarily mean that the pronunciation of future L1 speakers of Kaurna will be unduly influenced by English spelling conventions. Their pronunciation will depend in large part on the quality of the oral input they receive. The written word will not be a direct factor in the first few years of their acquisition of Kaurna.

An obvious difference between the Kaurna spoken today and that spoken in the mid-nineteenth century is the existence of many neologisms, such as mukarntu ‘computer’, warraityati ‘telephone’, padnipadniti ‘car’ etc. for technologies that simply did not exist in the nineteenth century. Such words, so long as they are formed in accordance with known word-forming processes, as we believe these are, ought to be unproblematic. But even here, one hears criticism levelled at the Kaurna language spoken today along the lines of “What are all these words for ‘computer’ and ‘television’? We never had those things.” This criticism is indicative of a ‘relic’ view of languages such as Kaurna.

In 1996, I introduced a base-10 number system, based on the roots of Kaurna birth-order names and other Kaurna words meaning ‘heap’, ‘multitude’ etc. I was aware at the time that the introduction of such a system was more than introducing a few new words. It represents a very different way of thinking about and categorising the world. But this new Kaurna system was readily embraced by Kaurna Elders at the time.

More problematic, I believe, are certain grammatical differences which we have consciously introduced. For instance, whilst there are ergative pronouns, distinct from the nominative forms in the singular, there appears to have been no distinction between ergative, nominative and accusative case roles in non-singular pronouns. So, in the traditional Kaurna language, there seems to have been no formal way to distinguish between ‘we’ and ‘us’ or between ‘they’ and ‘them’. Because basic word order is free, a sentence like ngadli naki parna is presumably ambiguous and might mean ‘we(2) saw them’ and ‘they saw us(2)’. Being a strictly oral culture, this presumably was not such a difficulty as the context is usually well-known and understood by all interlocutors. In ‘reclaimed’ Kaurna, we decided to extend the use of the ergative suffix –rlu ~ –dlu to non-singular pronouns to disambiguate in these circumstances. Thus ‘we(2) saw them’ would be some permutation of ngadlidlu parna naki, whilst ‘they saw us(2)’would be a permutation of parnarlu ngadli naki. This issue was discussed in depth with key Kaurna people at the forefront of its revival in the Kaurna TAFE (adult education) course. The approach taken by the Kaurna contrasts with that taken by the neighbouring Narungga revivalists, who have dismissed the ergative case altogether. Reclaimed Narungga is now a nominative-accusative language like English.

For more detail on the Kaurna language, interpretation of historical sources, corpus planning decisions and its revival see Amery (2000; 2001; 2013) and Amery & Simpson (in press).

Identifying errors

As observed above, reclaimed Kaurna spoken today is not the same as the Kaurna spoken in the nineteenth century. There are some obvious differences and some of these differences are quite acceptable and should be regarded as part of normal language change.

I hope it is apparent by now that, when it comes to a language like Kaurna, there are certain pronunciations and structures that we can say with some confidence are correct, there are others that are within the bounds of possibility or plausibility, whilst there are some where we can say with some confidence that they are simply wrong. We are able to make these judgements based on our understanding of the language as it was documented in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

We can make the judgement, for instance, that Koeler’s (1842) claim is demonstrably false when he says that the language is incapable of making a distinction between ‘going to Adelaide’ and ‘coming from Adelaide’.2 He and others, including Wyatt (1879) and Williams (1840), were describing a Pidgin Kaurna used as a language of intercommunication with the colonists, not the true language as spoken between Kaurna people at the time.

We can also say that utterances which follow English SVO word order are not wrong, though SOV is the preferred word order. A text that follows a strict SVO word order is influenced by English syntax. So, it is a matter of debate as to whether such texts should be tolerated or corrected. Certainly in Kaurna language teaching materials we use the preferred SOV word order most of the time as the model.

Aboriginal languages typically demonstrate inalienable possession for body parts, names, totems and suchlike. In strong languages, such as Pitjantjatjara, this is one of the first constructions to disappear under English influence. Native speakers are sometimes unaware that they have shifted. “We always said nyuntuku ini ‘your name’” (p.c. Greg Wilson). Teichelmann and Schürmann documented both niina nari ‘you name’ and ninku nari ‘your name’, using the nominative pronoun niina ‘you’ and the possessive pronoun ninku ‘your’. Was this an early shift in the 1840s away from inalienable possession? Or were Teichelmann and Schürmann unduly influenced by German and English?

There are many other constructions about which we can be more confident, and others, such as relative clauses, for which we have little idea as to how they were formed. Fortunately there are many hundreds of documented phrases and sentences from which we can form numerous other sentences by direct analogy. But there are many areas of doubt. We don’t know much about extended meanings, metaphorical or idiomatic use of Kaurna. But other Aboriginal languages can be useful here rather than simply calquing English.

Error correction

This is indeed a vexed and sensitive area, but I believe an area that must be addressed. One can identify numerous errors in the Kaurna utterances produced today. This is not at all surprising because no-one is yet a native speaker of Kaurna, and English is the first language of all Kaurna speakers. Words such as warra ‘language, word; voice, throat’, wirra ‘forest’, karra ‘redgum’, wirri ‘club’, karrku ‘red ochre’, kurraka ‘magpie’, marru ‘six’, purruna ‘alive’ and pirri ‘fingernail; claw; fishhook’ should have a rolled or trilled rr, but are often heard pronounced with a glide r as in English. However, in language learning resources produced by KWP (which include CDs and YouTube clips) we do our best to maintain a clear distinction between the three rhotics (trill, tap and glide).3

In the context of language learning we know that constant correction of errors can be totally counter-productive. It is important that language learners have the freedom to experiment with language. Languages are learned through doing and it is better for a language learner to say something than nothing. In this sense, there is nothing wrong with ‘incorrect’ utterances in the context of learning a language. But we would not use utterances produced in this context in the recording of sound files or the writing of a textbook to teach the language. On the contrary, we would want typical utterances produced by a native speaker to serve as the model for language learners.

Learners of Kaurna language of course make the same kinds of errors as the learner of any language. And like with any language course, the teacher and the learning materials are the model for ‘correct’ use of Kaurna. Often the teacher may be unsure of how to say certain things which students may ask for. It is then time to consult with others who may have worked with the language for longer and to check the corpus of phrases and sentences recorded by the nineteenth and early twentieth century observers, especially T&S and TMs.

Learner errors are one thing, but errors perpetuated in language learning materials or in the emblematic use of language in print or on-line in forms that are made available to the public are quite another matter. The emblematic use of language is critical in a context where there is comparatively little to read. These forms of language should be carefully scrutinised and corrected.

One final example is drawn from the ANTaR/JoH SA posters. Mattanyaitpinya ‘righting’ is clearly based on mattanya (RS mathanya) ‘owner; proprietor; master’ possibly compounded with yitpi ‘seed’, followed by the –nya suffix used to produce the gerund –ing. Elsewhere in the Kaurna language, the suffix –itpina (which I believe derives from yitpi ‘seed’ plus something) derives personal male names. Thus Mattanyaitpinna (RS Mathanyaitpina) would mean ‘father of Mathanya’ if such a name Mathanya were possible. Documented personal names are derived from fauna, flora or natural phenomena. The logic behind Mattanyaitpinya ‘righting’ is unclear to me and no explanation is provided in any of the JoH/ANTaR materials or websites.

Sorry Day Poster 2012 detail

Sorry Day Poster 2012 detail

As speakers of English, we are all familiar with the product manual produced in China or Indonesia where the English has obviously not been checked with a native speaker. But we would not accept these Chinglish or Manglish forms as ‘correct’ English. But incorrect English in signage in China or Malaysia or a handful of instruction manuals will not threaten the English language, because there is a wealth of material produced in standard English. Such errors are quickly dismissed or they become the butt of a joke. They are usually not taken seriously. Nor would we unquestioningly accept the results of an on-line translator without first checking with a native speaker.

It seems to me that, in these early days of language revitalisation efforts in Australia, there is something of an ‘anything goes’ attitude, especially if it is something that is said or written by an Aboriginal person or done with the authority or backing of an Aboriginal person. There are contexts in which errors should be tolerated, contexts in which errors might be gently ‘corrected’ though modelling of a correct utterance in response and other contexts in which errors should be categorically identified and corrected.

It is important when new words are introduced into a reclaimed language that their creators are prepared to provide an explanation as to how these new words were formed and be prepared to justify them in terms of historical precedence or otherwise.4 In other words, as language makers, we should all accept and welcome scrutiny because that will make for a stronger and more authentic language.


In this blog I have taken a critical look at authenticity and error correction in the context of language reclamation. Whilst I embrace language change, I reject an ‘anything goes’ approach. Until we see the emergence of first language speakers of reclaimed languages as occurred in the case of Israeli, and reportedly for other languages including Wampanoag, the historical record must remain the arbiter of what is correct.

When it comes to error correction, a clear distinction needs to be drawn between language learner attempts to use the language versus language that appears in language learning materials and resources that serve as a model for language learning. This includes language that appears in the public domain. It is important that errors are identified and corrected in the latter in order to ensure that a maximally authentic reclaimed language emerges.


1 The r in these words is not a true rhotic. Rather rl is a digraph with the r indicating retroflexion of the consonant. However, English spelling conventions associate the r vowel to produce the [з] pronunciation as in tern and turn.

2 Koeler gives the example sentence eítju wianínni Adelaide devoid of case marking and employing the possessive pronoun ngaityu ‘my’ for ‘I’. He claims that this sentence means both ‘ich gehe nach A oder ich komme von Adelaide’ = ‘I go to A[delaide] or I come from Adelaide’. The German/English sentences would properly be translated into Kaurna as Ngai Adelaide-ana wininthi vs Ngai Adelaide-anangku wininthi. Koeler (1842: 49).

3 Six edited Kaurna language learning video clips plus a Kaurna Welcome to Country filmed at Womadelaide in March 2013 have been posted on YouTube under the title Kaurna Language Learning Series.

4 In the case of the ANTaR/ JoH SA materials, no-one seems to want to take responsibility for the pseudo-Kaurna words created. I have rung the contact person who pleads ignorance and those to whom I have been referred refuse to discuss the matter.

KWP Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (formerly Kaurna Warra Pintyandi).
RS Revised Spelling (a phonemically based spelling system adopted by KWP and the Kaurna language movement in 2010).
T&S Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840). See below.
TMs Teichelmann (1857) manuscript. See below.

Thanks to James McElvenny, Jane Simpson and Gerhard Rüdiger for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


Amery, Rob. 2000. Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian Language. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Amery, Rob. 2001. ‘Language planning and language revival’ Current Issues in Language Revival. 2:2&3.141-221.

Amery, Rob. 2013. ‘A Matter of Interpretation: Language Planning for a Sleeping Language, Kaurna, the language of the Adelaide Plains, South Australia’. Language Problems and Language Planning 37 (2):101-124.

Amery, Rob and Lester Irabinna Rigney. 2004. ‘Authenticity in language revival’ Paper presented at the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA) annual conference held at the University of South Australia, 17th July 2004.

Amery, Rob and Jane Simpson with Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi. In press. Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya! Sounds Good to Me! A Kaurna Learner’s Guide. Kent Town, Adelaide: Wakefield Press.

Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1989. ‘The original languages of Australia’ VOX 3.26-33.

Koeler, Hermann. 1842.’Einige Notizen über die Eingeborenen an der Ostküste des St Vincent’s Golfs in Süd-Australien. 1837 und 1838’ (Some notes about the Aboriginals on the East Coast of St Vincent’s Gulf in South Australia, 1837 and 1838). Monatsberichte über die Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, Dritter Jahrgang (184101842[Mail]). 33-75.

Ngarrindjeri, Narrunga and Kaurna Languages Project. 1990. Narrunga, Kaurna & Ngarrindjeri Songs. Elizabeth SA: Kaurna Plains School.

Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 1992. ‘Theory of language death’. Language Death: Factual and Theoretical Explorations with Special Reference to East Africa. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 64. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schultz, Chester, Nelson Varcoe & Rob Amery, eds. 1999. Kaurna Paltinna: a Kaurna song book. Elizabeth SA: Kaurna Plains School.

Teichelmann, C.G. 1857. ‘Dictionary of the Adelaide dialect’ MS 4vo. pp.99 (with double columns). No. 59, Bleek’s Catalogue of Sir George Grey’s Library dealing with Australian languages. Cape Town: South African Public Library.

Teichelmann, C.G. 1858. ‘Of the Verb’ MS 8vo. pp.3 No.57 Bleek’s Catalogue of Sir George Grey’s Library dealing with Australian languages. Cape Town: South African Public Library.

Teichelmann, C. G. and C. W. Schürmann. 1840. Outlines of a Grammar, Vocabulary, and Phraseology, of the Aboriginal Language of South Australia, Spoken by the Natives in and for some Distance Around Adelaide. Adelaide. Published by the authors at the Native Location.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1987. Languages in Competition. Oxford: Blackwell/Deutsch.

Williams, William. 1840. ‘The language of the natives of South Australia’. South Australian Colonist 1:19.295-296.

Wyatt, William. 1879. ‘Some account of the manners and superstitions of the Adelaide and Encounter Bay tribes’ The Native Tribes of South Australia, ed. J.D. Woods. Adelaide: Government Printer. 157-181.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad and Michael Walsh, 2011. ‘Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew revival applicable to the reclamation, maintenance and empowerment of Aboriginal languages and cultures’, Australian Journal of Linguistics 31:1.111-127.

How to cite this post

Amery, Rob. 2013. ‘Authenticity and correction of errors in the context of language reclamation’ . History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Article, Australia, Linguistics, Revival linguistics, Revivalistics
2 comments on “Authenticity and the correction of errors in the context of language reclamation
  1. To date, there has never been a language reclamation eviscerated of hybridization between the language being revived and the revivalists’ mother tongue(s).

    There is nothing wrong with hybridity. Hybridity results in new diversity, and — if you want — hybrid vigour.

    In the future we might have talknological tools that would allow us to ‘inject’ a ‘pure’, ‘authentic’ language (if such thing exists in the first place) into our brain. Until then, there is no way to avoid hybridity and we ought to accept it.

    But this is NOT to say that a specific revival community should not be allowed to strive to be ‘authentic’ or at least more ‘original’. It is obviously for the Indigenous people to decide.

    Moreover: The new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry called Revivalistics (including Revival Linguistics) demonstrates which components of language are more revivable than others. A community can take such perspicacious generalizations into account and decide, for example, to focus its revival efforts on specific, emblematic, components.

    In fact, emblematicity is more common than authenticity, and we ought to embrace it too.

    Would you please see my blog on this topic.

    On my research into revivability versus hybridity, see my paper ‘Hybridity versus Revivability’.

  2. Jabnaki says:

    If one only intends to revive a language in a small group of people, the form could be more authentic. I think that this way even more languages could be revived in much shorter time.

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