English


This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you’re a prude.

Cross-posted at Fully (sic).

In Melbourne on Saturday, more than 2000 women and men gathered for a protest called slutwalk. The immediate catalyst for the march was the indiscretion of a Toronto police officer who was giving a routine safety talk to ten students, but the walk is in broad reaction to a long history of sexual discrimination against women. See here for a comprehensive report on the Melbourne slutwalk and here for an excellent column by Catherine Deveny (plus hundreds of disparate comments that I can’t be bothered with).

Anyway, the officer at the heart of this told the students:

Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.

 

The effect around the globe has been massive, and slutwalks have sprung up everywhere in Canada and the US, Europe and Australia, ostensibly to reclaim the word slut and remove its perlocutionary force as an offensive word, but also to show support for gender equality and denounce rape and other forms of sexual abuse and harassment.

This interests me linguistically as instances of word reclamation are infrequent, and usually happen at a grassroots level by spreading throughout a community as opposed to by prescription, so it will be interesting to see how the reclamation of slut works out.

Linguist Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic about’, such as scrabble-slut. Slut has therefore already joined a long list of slurs that have non-slur uses as suffixes, including -nazi, -virgin, -whore and -queen. He concludes:

I don’t think “a slut is a slut”. It depends on the morphology and the context, and words can be reclaimed.

But can slut be reclaimed?

There have been only a few successful word reclamations in English globally over the last hundred years or so; the most notable of these is nigger, but other examples are fag (but interestingly, not faggot), queen and although it hasn’t completed the journey yet, cunt. So looking at these examples, can we infer anything about how successful an attempt at word reclamation is going to be?

I mentioned above that word reclamation is usually driven at a grassroots level, whereby the community to whom an offensive term is directed begin using it as an in-group marker of identity. At the same time its use by someone outside the group is still taken to be offensive, but is now rendered powerless as compared with the power that its in-group use has in strengthening group identity. For instance, the power of nigger used as a slur is minuscule compared with its power to strengthen pride in the black community. Being told that a word is no longer offensive just might not work; it has to spread from below. Much like democracy in the Middle-East.

There’s also another element to word reclamation that might not work in slut‘s favour. Successful reclamations like nigger, fag and cunt describe things that are just facts about people and are thus not subject to value-judgment; being black, being gay, or being female. The dictionary of the computer I’m writing this on defines slut as “a slovenly or promiscuous woman”. So slut describes behaviour which is potentially subject to value-judgment, and there’ll always be someone in the world who will judge it harshly.

Slut unfortunately, may therefore never be able to escape slurhood.

A friend pointed me in the direction of this job advertisement the other day. It appears to be for a cleaner in a gym. Apart from the obvious euphemy in the job description, I was intrigued by the subversion of the job ad genre1.

Here is the ad in full:

Changeroom & Poolside Assistant

  • Bit of a neat freak?
  • Sydney CBD
  • Part time opportunity

We’re looking for fun, fit and feisty people with that certain ‘Virgin-ness’.  WAHEY.  We smile a lot and we always put our people first.  So come and work with us at Virgin Active – it’s going to be fun.  You like?

Our shiny club is probably the best thing you’ve ever seen.  Like, ever.  And we want it to stay like this, so we need a Changeroom & Poolside Assistant to keep it looking and feeling delicious for all the amazing people who work and work-out here.  If you’re a serious ‘neat freak’, you’ll love taking responsibility for ensuring the changerooms and pool areas are sparkly clean and looking spectacular.  ‘Cause, duh, we’re Virgin’.  You’ll wipe down treadmills to ensure members don’t slip on their own sweat and pick up any towels lying around (we like to keep them white and fluffy).  And you’ll be uber responsible because you’ll supervise aquatics and ensure safety is properly maintained.

Some stuff that will help you get the job:

  • At least six-months experience
  • Super-friendly, communicatey type of person
  • A bit of a neat-freak (and love to keep things clean and tidy)
  • Pool Lifeguard certificate would be awesome but not essential
  • Current Senior First Aid certificate and CPR/AED certification would be cool
  • Can do a rotating roster with weekends between 5:30am and 10:30pm

If this is you, then we’d love to:

  • Give you a challenge
  • Help you grow
  • Provide you with benefits
  • Listen to your new ideas
  • Work hard and play hard together

Love people?  Love health and fitness?  Love bananas?  Love to hear from you.

There’s lots in here to look at in the context of a job advertisement genre. The non-standard lexical items (communicatey, uber), heavy use of slang and youth-oriented language (duh, ‘like, ever’), attempts at humour (love bananas?) and playing up the whole virgin thing, especially the expletive wahey.

Above all, this job ad smacks of a corporate project to reinvigorate and funkify the company, one platform of which is to attract employees who they think would have a new, youthful, ‘cool’ approach to their jobs. They cleverly realise that the first interaction many people have with their jobs is the ad. And if they were trying to foster a youthful working environment, a traditional job ad — the sort that has phrases like required skills and desirable qualities as opposed to Current Senior First Aid certificate and CPR/AED certification would be cool— might deter the sort of applicants that they want.

However it still reads like an odd mixture of sexed-up, inauthentic youth-speak, and traditional corporate speak. For instance, the juxtaposition of the colloquial Super-friendly, communicatey type of person with the rather mundane, human resources jargon of Can do a rotating roster with weekends between 5:30am and 10:30pm is a bit jarring.

I suggest that Virgin underestimate their audience. Everybody who lives in a speech community is (at least subconsciously) aware of the various genres of language that surround them — from the extremely colloquial such as a chat between friends in a social situation, to the extremely formal, like legal proceedings, as well as the massive continuum between these poles2. I don’t see how anyone could have difficulty understanding a job ad that was more typical of the genre.

But then again, I suppose Virgin’s motivation is not to be understood by more people, but rather to stand out among the plethora of uninteresting job advertisements on the market.


  1. Sorry about the choice of title, but I couldn’t resist the increase in traffic from Google with the two keywords.
  2. I’m aware that these are better described as registers, whereas I refer above to the job ad ‘genre’, but the two concepts are inextricably linked.

This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.


  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so.
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

As Jane announced last week at Elac, a Research Symposium on Bilingual Education was held on Friday at AIATSIS, at which their 24th discussion paper was launched by Mick Dodson.

Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t even enter the consciousness of the population, and would soon slip into the æther. This symposium, however, and the discussion paper, made it onto ABC’s online news, twice.

The paper is Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory1 and is co-written by Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell (and edited, partly, by me).

It addresses the issue of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, describing its history, beginning more than 25 years ago, up until late 2008, when the decision was made to force all Northern Territory schools to teach at least the first four hours of English per day out of five hours of lessons, leaving a single possible hour per day for tuition in a language other than English. This decision, made by prominent Tiwi woman, Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour shortly before being moved from the Education portfolio to the role of Attorney-General, will take effect in time for the commencement of the 2010 school year.

The theory, of course, is that children learn a language most effectively through what’s known as immersion; a child surrounded by language X will pretty quickly become proficient in language X. But placing 30 kids who speak Kriol or Warlpiri as their first language(s) in a classroom with a single teacher who speaks only Standard Australian English and has no training in ESL/EFL can scarcely be considered ‘immersing’ the poor children in a sea of English.

I can personally attest to this paper being a very insightful discussion of the topic and, perhaps along with dozens of other interested people, have sent it on to Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Education, Malarndirri McCarthy, and the Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, asking them to take the hour or so to read it.

If the 2010 school year begins and the 9 remaining bilingual schools in the Northern Territory are forced to teach what is effectively English-only, I believe the consequences will be detrimental not only to the few remaining healthy indigenous languages, but also to the children who will be thrown into the deep-end of an education system that is entirely foreign to them.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24)

My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

A situation came up during the week in which I used a word that I know from high school, and it appears that no one else is even aware of this word’s existence, let alone its meaning.

The word is snusted as you might guess from the title of this post, and it means ‘caught in the act’, ‘sprung’ or ‘busted’. I’d be interested to know if anyone else knows this word or if it was particular to my high school.

I didn’t get a chance to post this yesterday as I was too busy after the conference having dinner and ‘sampling’ New Zealand’s finest Monteith’s beers1, but I think the presentation was mostly a success.

I probably should have refined it a little more on Thursday night instead of heading to the pub and, yes, sampling more of New Zealand’s finest Monteith’s beers, because I think it was a little rushed and felt a bit underbaked, but aside from that I got the feeling that the reception was good. I didn’t leave any time for questions unfortunately, and after my talk were two more in the session, meaning people probably let it slip into their subconscious. Nonetheless, there has been some positive feedback.

The four plenary talks were all brilliant. Sarah Ogilvie took a historical look at the impact of James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and his understated willingness to be as inclusive to borrowed words as he could, despite some later revisionists’ assertions that he was too stubborn with including foreign words. Bruce Moore on the other hand, carpetted the Oxford’s more recent publications for sloppy antipodean citations, showing that many of the multiple citations for such obscure Australian and New Zealand word such as Old Thing for a dish of salted beef and unleaven bread, all derived from a single source, a wordlist of Australian words published in 1941 by Sidney Baker, yet the OED has listed them as separate pieces of evidence.

More relevant to my talk though, were two other talks yesterday on electronic dictionary systems. One was by Dave Moskowitz who developed the Freelex dictionary creation software for the adult monolingual Māori dictionary2, mostly because he didn’t want to do it all himself. Freelex, as its name might suggest, is free (as in both beer and speech) and open source, and it runs on a MySQL backend. The other talk was by Gilles-Maurice de Schryver who developed TshwaneLex, a commercial product that does a similar job, but which runs on a prorietary format at its  backend, based on XML.

Each of those are in hugely more advanced stages of development that our humble XML-based multiple format dictionary project. Even so, the demonstration of the Kirrkirr Kaurna dictionary and the mobile phone dictionary, which I was able to run on the projector screen as an emulator, were absorbed by the audience with a great deal of interest; especially paying attention to the idea that mobile phones were just the obvious choice for housing dictionaries in some parts of the world. Such a system, for instance, would be perfect for Southern Africa, which has a similar internet situation to Northern Australia.

Among our many Monteith’s last night, we had a long discussion about some aspects of theoretical lexicography3 such as what purpose dictionaries are meant to serve. Several of the talks refered to dictionary users being put off by things such as labels, parts of speech, scientific names and so on. These talks mentioned ‘training’ the users how to get the most out of that dictionary. But another point of view, not necessarily my own, that was put forward last night was that it may be better to instead rebuild the dictionary so that it’s what the user wants and needs, rather than to persevere with a non-user-friendly dictionary that try to shoehorn the audience into it.

For instance, Julie Baillie gave a talk directly after mine, in which she presented Oxford’s new beginner’s wordlist, which uses corpus techniques to find the words most used by younger children, who are just beginning to read and write. The inspiration for her research, which culminated in the production of the Oxford Wordlist, was that children in primary school classes were learning to read and write using wordlists created in the 60s and 70s in Europe. They naturally involved concepts foreign to Australian and New Zealand kids abnd were for the most part useless for the kids to learn to read and write with. She compiled the wordlist by the frequency of these words as they appeared in small narratives written by children in target age groups, and therefore better reflect those children’s worldviews. So, she has rebuilt the dictionary to suit the needs of the user, rather than force the user to conform their needs to the functions of the dictionary.

Brilliant.

Anyway, that’s one conference down, one to go. I’m off to Melbourne next week for the Unimelb postgrad conference, and perhaps also to discuss the possibility of doing a PhD there beginning in 2010.


  1. These Monteith’s Brewery beers are fantastic, mostly. Unless you like cider you can give the Summer Ale a miss, and the Raddler Ale is pretty much like a shandy. By far the best is Original Ale, whose closest Australian analogue would have to be Squire’s Amber Ale. Following closely behind is the Pilsener.

    You can tell that I’ve been busy in research this week.

  2. Which reminds me, I really want to find a copy of a good Māori dictionary before I leave
  3. Far out, I am the King of the Nerds

or, On the Grammar Wars1

Over the weekend, and extending into the week thus far, a debate has been steadily growing in the blogosphere, both here and in the US, about a controversial set of guidelines for teaching English published last year by the English Teacher’s Association of Queensland (ETAQ).

Before I go on, I might say that the breadth of this debate is such that I barely know where to begin, so logically, I might try beginning at the start.

The model upon which ETAQ’s guidelines were based is called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a framework of textual analysis devised by M.A.K. Halliday back in the 60s, that focuses on the interpersonal and ideational functions of language; language as its used in a larger social context. The name indicates that it is concerned with ‘systems’, i.e., texts of indefinite size, and entire communicative practices, and with ‘functions’ as opposed to ‘forms’. This is important and I’ll come back to it.

The terminology of SFL is quite specialised, and for a good reason. Since it concerns functions and not forms, overall meanings rather than constituency, SFL had to create a whole new set of terms that differed from formal categories, so as to not have the same terms meaning something different to someone who uses a different framework. SFL is, in my opinion, commendable for this, otherwise things would certainly be confusing.

The author of the guidelines, Dr Lenore Ferguson, took a rather confused version of SFL’s already specialised terminology, and went on to write it up as the definitive model for English structure teaching. This has resulted in serious formal errors that have led critics, such as Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, to describe the guidelines and other related publications as Not just a little bit ropey, but absolutely incompetent, full of utter howlers2. Here is The Australian‘s description:

A TEACHERS’ guide to grammar circulated by the English Teachers Association of Queensland is riddled with basic errors, leading an internationally respected linguistics professor [Rodney Huddleston] to describe it as “the worst published material on English grammar” he has seen.

What sort of ‘utter howlers’ are they talking about?

Here are a couple of the now well-publicised errors that Huddleston took as exemplary and vocally objected to:

  • Won’t in The boy won’t eat his lunch is labelled an adverb; it is actually a modal auxiliary verb,
  • Capable of in The boy is capable of eating his lunch is also described as an adverb; it is really an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase headed by of, and
  • A set in A set of bowls is called an adjective; it isn’t even a grammatical unit at all. It’s half a noun phrase – the rest of it is a prepositional phrase of bowls. A set on its own is just a noun phrase, or a determiner followed by a noun.

These are pretty indefensible errors, one might assume, and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone even rudimentarily trained in linguistics making them. But I’ll show later that, although they’re still indefensible, they’re completely explicable based on what Dr Ferguson was trying to do. I’ll also hopefully conclude that SFL has been copping too much flak in the whole debate.

Okay, just a little on the rest of the debate. Language Log caught onto the issue early on when Geoffrey K. Pullum posted this summary of the controversy, and he and other LanguageLoggers have since posted several follow-ups, the last of which is brilliant. Closer to home, Larvatus Prodeo, one of Australia’s most widely read political/social/cultural blogs, had this post, which has solicited a massive reader response; 163 comments and counting.

As you might expect, most of these comments, as well as the various letters to The Australian in response to this issue, and much of the other online coverage this issue has received, comprise people crying fowl of prepositions at the end of sentences, conjunctions at the beginning, blah blah blah. Apart from that, there have been some slightly more informed people arguing the differences between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar, which is totally irrelevant to the ETAQ’s teaching guidelines, Huddleston’s response or anything3.

Despite my continued efforts, I have been unable to force the debate back on track, and before I give up, the rest of this post is how I might characterise the main issue and add my perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

As I mentioned earlier, SFL deals with language as it’s used in society and larger contexts, and it deals with its function in those contexts; not, crucially, its forms. So instead of dwelling too much on nouns, noun phrases, prepositions, clitics, perfect participles, structural categories and so on, SFL talks about participants, processes and circumstances as the basic sentential units.

That is, sentences are analysed in SFL as to who is being talked about, the participants; what is happening, the process(es); and optionally, any other adjunctive information such as location, the circumstances. SFL still has formal units at the heart of this; sentences and the constituent words are all labelled (mostly correctly) as to their parts of speech, but the main priorities are the  discourse functions of language that operate at level different from the parts of speech. It assumes that a structural analysis of the individual sentences using ‘traditional’, or generative grammar in this context, has already taken place.

To emphasis one important point already made, central to SFL, and many models of language, is the independence of form and function; the difference between phonological shape and meaning. This is one thing that Ferguson’s English teaching guidelines, based heavily on SFL, omitted, and it would thereby be regarded by probably every practicing linguist today as an inadequate theory of the structure of language.

Since form and function were collapsed, and since SFL prioritises the function of language, the result is a framework that, when applied as a structural analytical tool for parsing sentences, mislabels parts of speech. To take an example from those cited above, the sentence The boy is capable of eating his lunch would have a well-defined structure that many linguists would easily be able to draw for you. Here’s the bracket notation (simplified) that you can insert into the Syntax Tree Generator to see it4:

[S [NP [DET The] [N boy]] [VP [V is] [AP [A capable] [PP [P of [VP [V eating] [NP [DP his] [N lunch]]]]]]]]

SFL would then go on to analyse the sentence as to its functional aspects. Taking for instance the complex adjective phrase capable of eating his lunch, SFL would see the actual process as ‘eating’, while the beginning of the adjective phrase in which it is embedded, would be seen to contribute an adverbial element, since it arguably modifies the way in which the boy’s eating habits are seen.

Thus, SFL would defensibly analyse the words capable of as having an adverbial function. Dr Ferguson, in collapsing forms and functions, has therefore attributed capable of to the formal category ‘adverb’. In essence, when form and function are collapsed and functions take priority, then functional categories erroneously become formal categories.

That is how I would explain the ‘utter howlers’ that Huddleston identified; the logical result of using a functional analysis to identify forms, and I believe it also may explain all the other aspects of these guidelines – or at least those that I’ve come across, I haven’t been able to see a copy yet.

I should add that these differences are not mere differences of terminology; the approach suggested by ETAQ gives ‘grammatical unit’ status to strings of words that cross boundaries between phrases, such as, again, capable of, which is not a single unit at all, but a fragment of an adjective phrase.

The issue then, instead of how these guidelines managed to come up with these monstrosities of formal analysis, should be what purpose SFL, or even this corrupted version of it, can serve as a structural analytical tool. My response to that question would be something along the lines of ‘not much’, though I do think it has a reasonable place in education as a textual criticism tool. That is, the focus on interpersonal interpretations, ideational content and context would help students to critically evaluate actual and intended meaning in prose, performances, plays, speeches and the like. However, before such contextual criticism takes place, students must be able to analyse a sentence into its constituent phrases, their interactions with each other, and the individual grammatical and lexical units, words, that form the syntactic basis of a language like English – all using terminology that is at least internally consistent, but consistent with the standard set of terms used by just about everyone else.

I don’t intend any of this to be a defence of, or an apoogy for Systemic Functional Linguistics, that’s another debate altogether, but I do think that as a framework for literary criticism, it is being grossly misused in this educational context, and the students who will not learn to correctly identify parts of speech and structurally analyse sentences because of it, will potentially be at a disadvantage later in their schooling.

SFL cops enough flak already; it shouldn’t have to defend itself here, when the real culprit is Ferguson’s awful corruption of it.


  1. Thanks to Jane Simpson and Mark Harvey for the translation.
  2. Pullum at Language Log, Queensland grammar brouhaha
  3. As an aside, it appears that as linguists, we haven’t yet achieved our tacit aim of convincing the masses that our profession is not about telling them how to write. I fear we have many more years of putting up with misplaced Grammar Nazi over-sensitivity.
  4. I’ve heavily simplified this. Especially when it comes to the analysis of ‘his’, which I’ve just left unanalysed as a determiner phrase (DP). Merely calling it a determiner would be too simplistic.

Does anyone know how something that literally translates as ‘dislike of hand’ could be paraphrasable as ‘liberal’?

In the data massaging for the Kaurna electronic dictionary that I spoke of back here, I’ve come across a term whose internal parts indeed come from the words for ‘dislike’ and ‘hand’. I’m certain it’s not a typo, but the definition given is:

Dislike of hand, i.e. liberal

Come on, folks. Put your historical lexicography hats on.

In case it helps, it was written in 1857.


<update>

Something else I just noticed. Murta is the Kaurna word for animal faeces, which has a sub-entry murtaannaitya, which is glossed as ‘European hen’.

Could this word translate literally as ‘shitter’?

</update>

An noteworthy discussion has been brewing in the letters section of my favourite broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald, over the past few days. It’s about that same old question of whether or not adolescents with their “technology” (that’s supposed to be uttered with vertical fist firmly shaken) are murdering – or better – bastardising the English language.

It all began with a report last week than Australia’s literacy rates – as measured by standardised testing on 15 year olds – have been steadily falling since we were ranked second in the world back in 2001.

Six years ago, Australia was ranked second behind Finland for reading. But in the latest study it has also been outstripped by South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand.

Of course, the current government blames the former government, who would doubtlessly have blamed those evil union-stacked state governments, who blame everyone else. But that aside, the report seems to have sparked a resurgence of the debate over how destructive texting and emails are to our impeccable tongue.

This letter appeared in the Herald the next day (for all these letters page links, you’ll have to scroll through, as individual letters aren’t permalinked, or you can just trust my ability to faithfully copy-paste from the original):

I was not surprised to read that our teenagers are reading less (“Australia slides down the reading list”, December 5). Rarely do I see one of them reading a book on a bus or train. Mostly they pass the time talking or texting on mobile phones. This unfamiliarity with the written word is reflected in their conversations, which seem to be bereft of grammar and comprised almost entirely of code. Mobile phones are not entirely to blame; peer pressure must share some of the guilt. Our youngsters converse, I suspect, out of a desire to be accepted rather than any need to communicate.

Garth Clarke North Sydney

Bereft of grammar? Comprised entirely of code? The fact that Mr Clarke has trouble understanding the sub-cultural lect of Sydney youths does not render their speech ungrammatical.

The following day saw a more considered argument about what literacy entails.

Australian teenagers are not necessarily reading less, Garth Clarke (Letters, December 6), it is the kind of reading they are doing that has precipitated drops in literacy.

The hours teenagers spend reading and writing SMS messages and keeping their blogs and MySpace pages updated indicates a form of literacy. These activities reflect the mutating face of language at the point at which it moves quickest; in the shared patois of the young.

An older generation schooled in the previous incarnation of proper grammar may not like it, but that construct of English is drifting into history. Should we castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English they are no longer using?

Pierre Mol Pymble

I tend to agree; like it or not, language changes. The observed drop in literacy levels (of roughly 7000 15 year olds as compared with an analogous number 6 years ago, with respect to the literacy levels of similar numbers of teenagers in 56 other surveyed countries – sorry, but we should qualify these broad statements) is possibly an artifact of the form of literacy being surveyed.

I don’t want to say that literacy – in the traditional sense – is not important, I think it’s absolutely important to adequately survive in a world that judges people superficially on how they hyphenate their noun compounds noun-compounds. What I’m saying is that as language changes, so does the written representation of it, and the form that literacy takes will inevitably change as well.

Moving on, things got no less heated the next day (I think we’re up to Saturday by now):

Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7) questions whether we have the right to “castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English”. Yes we should¹.

The idea that words mean whatever you want them to robs English of its power of accurate description and explanation.

Losing our language means losing its most basic function: communication.

Peter Lloyd Trevallyn (Tas)

The idea that questioning the benefit of encouraging archaic forms of education is synonymous with such an extreme postmodern position, that words are meaningless and reality is constructed by the individual, is nonsense. No one is saying that ‘words mean whatever you want them to’, rather that there isn’t some objective semantic reality that is accurately encoded in lexical representation, in words. Instead, there are regions of rough semantic space peculiar to the individual, of which their own words are a mere attempt at approximation. In the act of communicating, the goal is to have both interlocutors find the same semantic idea inside their own mental conceptual space.

Anyway, this debate has moved considerably further away from the original drop in literacy levels and threatens to border on some serious cognitive semantics. But before that happens, today’s Herald has two more additions, one of which was very interesting:

Despite the rosy views of Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7), the “form of literacy” evident in SMS and blog messages is a restricted literacy in comparison with that associated with the “archaic form” he despises.

There have always been linguistic forms associated with different age groups, cultures and occupations, but it was generally accepted that a standard, more complex version of the language existed, available to and understood by all, which, because of its structural and lexical nuances, was capable of expressing more complicated ideas.

Its relative constancy also allows access to the thoughts and feelings of millions of people from different times and cultures. The deficits in thought associated with the stripped-down English of informal electronic communication are all too evident to me in my interactions with undergraduate students.

There will always be a place for an alternative “patois”, but genuine literacy is ultimately the key to the world.

Dr Paul Foley Randwick

Dr Foley’s letter sums up the position that I belittled earlier, that the English-speaking world judges people’s worth on the basis of their largely irrelevant ability to, say, punctuate appropriately. Before I read this I’d have scoffed at it, but on reflection it’s a very good point. We shouldn’t disregard the value of a standardised register of English and the benefit of being fluent in speaking it and literate in reading it. However, it’s not the case in my view, that not being literate or fluent in a particular dialect of English renders you any less intelligent. I would also contend his point of view that sub-cultural registers and lects of any language are less complex in any meaningful way, than a standard.

If I were any more enthusiastic an epistolographer, I’d have chimed in. Instead I’ll keenly read on, until such time as the letters editor decides it’s no longer an issue.

On the original point of literacy rates, I mean really, we’re ranked sixth in the world, behind countries like Finland (where common sense was invented, just look at that nominal case system), Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Should we really be mortally worried that out kids are getting stupider when it’s really a matter of other countries’ kids improving faster?

Also, we’ve just ousted the most conservative, Thatcherite government this country has ever seen, who pulled more federal money than ever before, out of public education to fund wars, offshore prisons for foreigners and comfy ministerial chairs. What do we expect – a nation full of genii?!

Another lengthy post – I thank you for persevering, and congratulate you for making it through unscathed.

~

¹Ironically, a bit of a stylistic error there; ‘yes we should’ should have had an antecedent clause headed by a ‘should’ modal, but instead the previous sentence was framed in a ‘do we have the right to…’. So it should have been either Do we have the right to castigate… Yes, we do or otherwise should we castigate… Yes, we should.

I’m picking nits, I know.