Archive for the 'Language' Category

Ngunawal in the Australian Parliament

The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in the House of Representatives in February 2016 in which he  began with some words in the language formerly used in the Canberra region, Ngunawal.  It was apparently the first time an Australian Prime Minister had spoken in an Aboriginal language (at least in Parliament), and probably the first time that Ngunawal had been spoken in any Parliament.  The language has been almost extinct for some time. The speech is here.

The SMH carried a nice article by Michael Gordon on the preparation for this speech, of which the following is an excerpt:

The idea was simple enough. Executing it proved the hard part, involving subterfuge, lateral thinking and a collaboration that just might shape how Malcolm Turnbull confronts the twin tasks of tackling disadvantage and advancing the cause of reconciliation.

It was Alan Tudge, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, who suggested Turnbull, in his first major speech on Indigenous affairs since toppling Tony Abbott, should begin in the language of the Ngunawal, the people on whose land Parliament House is built.

Turnbull liked the idea, so a staff member contacted the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies which, in turn, referred the request to the institute’s senior linguist, Doug Marmion, for advice on how to do it.

It wasn’t as simple as forwarding a set of words and arranging for some coaching on how to deliver them. The language of the Ngunawal people was almost non-existent just two years ago, having not been widely spoken for more than a century because of the impact of dispossession.

Dr Marmion discussed one form of words with Turnbull via Skype, but the Prime Minister was very particular, wanting to “acknowledge” and “pay respects” to the elders. So the linguist sought the help of Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman, two members of the Ngaiyuriidja Ngunawal Language Group.

Problem was, he couldn’t tell them he was ringing on Turnbull’s behalf, just in case something went wrong and Turnbull took the safe option of giving the acknowledgment in English.

Soon enough, though, they were in Turnbull’s office coaching the most powerful man in the land on how to honour their people. Freeman recalls almost having to pinch himself.

“How amazing is our country that ordinary people such as us get to meet the leader in his personal space and for him to embrace what we put to him!” he says. “He picked it up so fast it surprised me. It was lovely.”

For Turnbull, the experience changed his motivation for opening his speech in Aboriginal language. “As we looked into it, we realised this whole issue of language, and language preservation and culture was so important it could be more than a mark of respect – more a statement about the importance of language and the continuity of language,” the Prime Minister told me.

Turnbull also recast the body of the speech, highlighting a commitment to spend an extra $20 million over two years on the collection of “critical cultural knowledge” and the promotion of Indigenous cultures and traditions.

That is good news for Bell, the “knowledge-holder of the Ngunawal”, and Freeman, who for the past two years, without financial assistance, have been collecting material that will bring their language back to life.

When they began, they had around 30 words. Now they have more 300 and are confident there will soon be a strong enough understanding of the language for it to be taught in Canberra schools and to adults and widely used.

Their mission, they say, is to rediscover their collective soul and reason for being. “Language is the pathway to all things involving culture and the link to our ancestors,” says Freeman. “It’s the seed to sustenance for those who follow.”

If many non-Indigenous Australians struggle to appreciate this, Dr Marmion says it is because they have a “monolingual mindset” that makes it hard for them to appreciate the value of other languages, and particularly the value of heritage languages.

“Imagine the sense of loss if you were never able to read a letter written by your grandfather, or understand a recording of your grandmother singing,” he explains.

This is why, in January 2012, the expert panel appointed by Julia Gillard recommended that any constitutional change include recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues.

Since then, the recognition debate has struggled to achieve a consensus on what form recognition should take and when the question should be put. Part of the reason for this is that Indigenous leaders believe their voices were not being heard or respected.

Turnbull’s speech was crafted to change this perception. It included a promise to be guided by the “great wisdom” of Indigenous educator Chris Sarra, who advised the new Prime Minister to “do things with us, not to us”.

To this end, Turnbull has responded to the blueprint to empower communities produced by Cape York leader Noel Pearson and several others including Sean Gordon, who represents Indigenous communities on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

The PM has embraced the idea of partnership and agreed to fund the empowerment model in eight sites and potentially others, but held back on embracing the institutional reforms proposed in the blueprint until progress is assessed in three years. This has disappointed Pearson and Gordon, but it is a start.

Moreover, Turnbull told me recognition is “achievable” next year, and has vowed to work closely with the referendum council that will report in June on how Indigenous conventions should be structured to refine the question. “The first thing is that we’ve got to come up with some words, an amendment that is meaningful for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait islanders. It’s got to speak to, it’s got to sing to them, otherwise they’ll wash their hands of it,” he said. “


UPDATE (2016-09-03):  And here, delivered on 31 August 2016, is the maiden speech of MHR, Ms Linda Burney, member for Barton, the first woman of Aboriginal descent to be a member of Federal Parliament.   Ms Burney speaks in part in Wiradjuri language, and the speech includes a traditional singing invocation from three be-cloaked Wiradjuri women in the public gallery.    Ms Burney is a former NSW Minister and member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, aka the “Bear Pit”, Australia’s roughest parliament.

And, now Senator Patrick Dodson, in his maiden speech, delivered on 1 September 2016, has addressed the Senate in his native Yawuru, and obtained the agreement of the President of the Senate, Senator Stephen Parry, to respond to him in Yawuru. Some background here.

Russell’s Spelling Test

Bertrand Russell once proposed the following sentence as a test of spelling:

“I prophesy the unparalleled embarrassment of a battalion of harassed postillions gauging the symmetry of a potato peeled by a lovable but grisly sibyl.”

This was on 21 December 1955, so well before Dan Quayle.

Source: Rupert Crawshay-Williams [1970]: Russell Remembered. OUP: London, UK, page 114.

A number of people

Despite some ridiculous practices at the BBC, the grammar of English allows for apparent subject-verb disagreement on occasion: A number of people are unhappy, for example, is grammatically correct. This is because the statement refers to a situation where it is the people who are unhappy, not the number that is unhappy. The correct grammar is derived from the meaning (ie, the semantics), not merely the syntax. Geoffrey Pullum has an explanation here.

Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.

In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.

London life

Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, London.


Public speaking

While talking just now about excellent public speakers, I remembered that I had heard a superb speech last year at a University of London graduation ceremony.   In the USA, these ceremonies are often the occasion for great speeches from invited public figures.  My experience is that this is far less often the case elsewhere in the anglophone world – the speeches tend to the routine or mundane, and outsiders are not always invited to give addresses.   Perhaps this relates to the fact the American universities, alone among those in the anglophone world, still have Departments of Speech, with serious study of argumentation, rhetoric, and oratory.   Since the switch from oral to written mathematics examinations at Cambridge in the 18th century our universities mostly no longer train or exercise people in public speaking skills, despite their evident value for so many careers.  Moreover, writing speeches is often a form of policy formulation, as experienced speech-writers attest.

At a graduation ceremony last October in the Barbican I was fortunate to hear a superb speech by Thomas Clayton, President of the Student’s Union of King’s College London, speaking in his official capacity.   The speech was original, clear, inspiring, and amusing, and was pitched just right for the audience and the occasion.   Clayton himself was enthusiastic and engaged, and his speech did not sound, as many at these events do, as if he was merely going through the motions.      He is evidently someone to listen out for in future.

Time, gentlemen, please

Harper Charley SerengetiSpaghetti

Much discussion again over at Language Log over a claim of the form “Language L has no word for concept C”.  This time, it was the claim by Wade Davis (whose strange use of past tense indicates he has forgotten or is unaware that many Australian Aboriginal languages are still in use) that:

In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.”

The rebuttal of this claim by Mark Liberman was incisive and decisive.   Davis was using this claim to support a more general argument:  that traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures had different notions of and metaphors for time to those we mostly have in the modern Western world.

We in the contemporary educated West typically use a spatial metaphor for time, where the past is in one abstract place, the present in another non-overlapping abstract place, and the future in yet a third non-overlapping abstract place.    In this construal of time, causal influence travels in one direction only:  from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.   Nothing in either the present  or the future may influence the past, which is fixed and unchangeable.   Events in the future may perhaps be considered to influence the present, depending on how much fluidity we allow the present to have.  However, most of us would argue that it is not events in the future that influence events in the present, but our present perceptions of possible future events that influence events and actions in the present.

Modern Western Europeans typically think of the place that represents the past as being behind them, and the future ahead.   People raised in Asian cultures often think of the abstract place that is the past as being below them (or above them), and the future above (or below).   But all consider these abstract places to be non-overlapping, and even non-contiguous.

Traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures, as Davis argues, construe time very differently, and influences may flow in all directions.   A better spatial metaphor for Aboriginal notions of time would be to consider a modern city, where there are many different types of transport and communications, each viewable as a network:  rivers, canals, roads, bus-only road corridors, railways, underground rail tunnels, underground sewage or water drains, cycleways, footpaths, air-transport corridors, electricity networks, fixed-link telecommunications networks, wireless telecommunications networks, etc.    A map of each of these networks could be created (and usually are) for specific audiences.  A map of the city itself could then be formed from combining these separate maps, overlaid upon one another as layers in a stack.   Each layer describes a separate aspect of reality, but the reality of the actual entire city is complex and more than merely the sum of these parts.  Events or perceptions in one layer may influence events or perceptions in other layers, without any limitations on the directions of causality between layers.

Traditional Aboriginal notions of time are similar, with pasts, the present and futures all being construed as separate layers stacked over the same geographic space – in this case actual geographic country, not an abstract spatial representation of time.  Each generation of people who have lived, or who will live, in the specific region (“country” in modern Aboriginal English) will have created a layer in the stack.   Influence travels between the different layers in any and all directions, so events in the distant past or the distant future may influence events in the present, and events in the present may influence events in the past and the future.

Many religions – for example, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and African cosmologies – allow for such multi-directional causal influences via a non-material realm of saints or spirits, usually the souls of the dead, who may have power to guide the actions of the living in the light of the spirits’ better knowledge of the future.   Causal influence can thus travel, via such spirit influences, from future to present.  Similarly, the view of Quantum Mechanics of space-time as a single 4-dimensional manifold allows for influences across the dimension of time as well as those of space.

I am reminded of an experience I once witnessed where the only sensible explanation of a colleague’s passionate enthusiasm for a particular future course of action was his foreknowledge of the specific details of the outcome of that course of action.  But these details he did not know and could not have known at the time of his enthusiasm,  prior to the course of action being executed.  In other words, only a causal influence from future to present provided a sensible explanation for this enthusiasm, and this explanation only became evident as the future turned into the present, and the details of the outcome emerged.  Until that point, he could not justify or explain his passionate enthusiasm, which seemed to be a form of madness, even to him.    Contemporary Western cosmology does not provide such time-reversing explanations, but many other cultures do; and current theories of quantum entanglement also seem to.

Contemporary westerners, particularly those trained in western science, have a hard time understanding such alternative cosmologies, in my experience.  I have posted before about the difficulties most westerners have, for instance,  in understanding Taoist/Zen notions of synchronicity of events, which westerners typically mis-construe as random chance.

Snow jobs

Advice from Geoffrey Pullum, when faced with people who tell you that Eskimos have multiple words for “snow”:

Stand up and tell the speaker this:  C.W. Schultz-Lorentzen’s Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (1927) gives just two possibly relevant roots: qanik, meaning ‘snow in the air’ or ‘snowflake’, and aput, meaning ‘snow on the ground’. Then add that you would be interested to know if the speaker can cite any more.


G. K. Pullum [1989]: The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax.  Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 7: 275-281.  Available from here.

C. W. Schultz-Lorentzen [1927]:  Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language. Meddelelser om Grønland, 69, Reitzels, Copenhagen, Denmark.


The epistemics of London Underground announcements

What the announcer at the London underground station said this morning:

  • We have no reports of unplanned station closures.

What he did not say:

  • There are no reports of unplanned station closures.   Perhaps he did not say this because there could be such reports, which he or his station have yet to receive.  In either case – whether he had received such reports or not – he would not be able to state truthfully that there were no such reports.
  • There are no unplanned station closures.  Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be closed without this fact having yet been reported, and so without his knowing this about them.
  • No stations are closed.  Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be closed intentionally and with forethought, for instance, for scheduled maintenance.   Indeed, such a statement would in fact be false as there several London underground stations which are permanently closed, eg Aldwych Station.
  • All stations are open.   Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be neither open nor closed, for example when they are in transition from one state to the other, or else due to quantum uncertainty.

One has to be so careful in what one says, as I have remarked before.

Tibetan and Franco-Tibetan words in English

From a current advertisement for a senior position in the public service of the Australian Commonwealth Government, preparing for Australia’s hosting of a meeting of the G20 in 2014:

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

Head of Policy

G20 Taskforce

The Head of Policy will lead and manage complex and cross-cutting policy development across government, including international engagement and providing support to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s sherpa for G20 meetings in 2012 and 2013 and Australia’s hosting in 2014.  . . . “


Note the absence of quotation marks or italics.    A list of G20 sherpas and sous-sherpas can be found here.