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. []

I read today that Macquarie Dictionary have named their Word of the Year for 2010: Googleganger.

The word is immediately understandable; a googleganger is someone that has the same name as you, whom you find when egosearching on Google. Quite obviously it is a blend of Google and doppelganger.

However I have a few apprehensions about calling it the word of the year.

  1. It’s been around a lot longer than a year, as this timeline will attest1. The earliest instance appears to be from August 2004, in an article written by Geoff Boucher for the Lifestyle section of the South Florida Sun.
  2. It’s use since Geoff Boucher first used it appears to have waned by the end of 2008 and has only been used a couple of times per year or so since then.
  3. It was never in natural use anyway. If you look closely at all the instances of the word, they’re all much like the following in that the writers felt they had to define the word when using it.

    But for some people there’s a problem When they Google their names someone else comes up That person is a Googleganger It’s someone with your very name but often a totally different life.

    That to me indicates that people were trying hard for the word to become accepted, but still it could never quite find its own legs.

  4. I’d never heard of it before today, and neither had anyone else I asked.
  1. Ignore the single instance from 2000; that’s due to Google’s method of attributing dates to web pages. This particular page, from Stephen Fry’s QI, is actually from December 2009. It’s only listed as 2000 because Google have apparently opted to pay attention to a date mentioned on the page rather than the page header itself. []

This week, an argument has been being waged in the Opinion section of the Sydney Morning Herald about the effect of the internet on language. It started with an article on Tuesday about Australian author Cate Kennedy, who fears literature is being threatened by the internet. She’s referring specifically to writers who become addicted to being online and therefore cannot put as much effort into their art.

Fair conclusion.

On the Wednesday, the following letter appeared.

English mangled

I agree with Cate Kennedy’s criticism of the effect of the internet on literature, but it spreads further than that, with technology affecting the entire English language (“A click too far: the internet’s toxic effect on literature”, April 13). The internet and its ease of communication has shaped English into a pseudo-speech characterised by grammatical errors and inaccuracies in syntax, punctuation and commonsense. Where is the line drawn between beneficial advancement and irreversible side effects? Will our desire for progress come at the sake of our language?

Anna Pavlakis Greenwich

I read this and thought ‘enough is enough’, and replied with this letter which appeared the following day:

Loose language is not the end of civilisation1

Every so often a letter appears decrying the demise of English due either to some generation younger than that of the letter writer, or to technology such as mobile phones and the internet.

When these letters appear, I read them aloud to my colleagues, always to their amusement. But on reading Anna Pavlakis’s letter (April 14), I decided it was about time we put an end to this nonsense.

English is not becoming a “pseudo-speech”. Technology is not causing its demise. Young people who cannot accurately place an apostrophe, or who think “should’ve” is a contraction of “should of”, will not bring about the inevitable destruction of Anglophone civilisation.

The easy way to respond to these ludicrous claims is to cite the continual evolution of living languages. Such change is neither good nor bad; it just is.

Second, most people have always had difficulty with English – ask any high school English teacher. Such difficulties were not created by technology, they are merely more visible.

For most English speakers this doesn’t matter. Advanced skills in such a horrible language as English are necessary only for a small percentage of people, and only then because we arbitrarily attach prestige to a standard form of the English language that retains a plethora of irregularities and archaic forms and is therefore very difficult to master.

With this in mind, the internet is actually the great democratiser, allowing many more people than ever before to gain access to privilege by removing the arbitrary barrier of English linguistic mastery.

Aidan Wilson Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney

And this morning, I opened up to the letters page to find no less than three responses to my letter.

Nothing can come of nothing2

I can just see my year 9 English class when I tell them Aidan Wilson thinks most of us don’t need advanced English skills (Letters, April 15). Even better when I mention hopefully that the internet makes for a more democratic society. “Fantastic,” they will say and toss away their quaintly “archaic” novels that I make them read, to feast instead on the dross online.

Yes, language is not static and can accommodate the influence of technology, but “lol” and (: will not cut it when my students need solutions to problems requiring complex and precise language skills. By having no standards we are reduced to the lowest common denominator. How depressing. What’s wrong with trying to master complex things? Are we becoming dumber? Maybe it is the end of civilisation as we know it.

Cathy Hooke Ashfield

As a former English teacher I take umbrage at Aidan Wilson’s diatribe. Has Mr Wilson ever read Chaucer or Shakespeare? The wealth of vocabulary, beauty and “infinite variety” of the English language are evident in the magnificence of our literary tradition, which is sadly being lost because of the widespread use and abuse of modern technologies.

For shame! Mr Wilson is promulgating superficial and base ideas about the English language.

Michele Linkiewicz Caringbah

One must admire the confidence of the linguisticians3 of Sydney University that they can “put an end to this nonsense” (moral panic about civilisation being destroyed by slovenly English expression) by anything so simple as a letter to the Herald. Nevertheless their reassurance is convincing. I don’t suppose they would accept my observations as scientific evidence, but, over 40 years as a seconary [sic] school teacher, I have noticed that pupils’ written work was always superior to their parents’ writing, as evidenced by the standard of absence notes. Indeed, excellent English in an absence note was a pretty good indication of a forgery.

Raymond McDonald Stanmore

Perhaps Raymond McDonald is right; I am probably jousting with windmills by writing a letter, but you can’t blame me for having a go!

  1. The titles of the letters, by the way, are the creation of the letters page editors, and not the letter writers. []
  2. I’m not even sure what this is meant to mean! []
  3. Linguisticians. Nice. []

In the last few weeks, the topic of bilingual education in Australia has been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream media. Last week, I happened upon an article in the Herald, echoing earlier reports in voicing the widespread opposition from educators and academics towards the Northern Territory government’s policy of English-only education for the first four hours (leaving only a single hour of tuition) each day. The article quotes Patrick McConvell, co-author of the AIATSIS discussion paper1 that effectively brought the debate to the forefront of Australian politics.

The coverage of this issue continues tonight at 8:30 (EST) on ABC1, as Four Corners looks at the history of bilingual education in remote Australia, which they also covered way back in 1986, and dissects the policy decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008, before she quit her portfolio as Minister for Education. Our very own expert in this field, Dr Jane Simpson, was interviewed for the program several weeks ago, so I suggest watching it.

In other news altogether, I have finally had my honours thesis published online in The University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository. It was just under three years since it was marked in October 2006, but better late than never! You can access the pdf version here2.

  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery (2009) Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory Canberra: AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24. []
  2. Wilson, A. (2006) Negative Evidence in Linguistics: The case of Wagiman Complex Predicates. Honours Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney. []

A couple of months ago, I received a phonecall from a journalist from the Herald, who’d seen my appearance on SBS World News, and was interested in writing an article about the mobile phone dictionary project.

A few things have happened between then and now, including conferences, holidays and a didjeridu performance by Nicole Kidman on German TV that seems to have absorbed all local interest in indigenous affairs for a few days1, but on Friday morning, two articles appeared in the front page section of the Herald, based in part on an interview I gave a little while back.

The main article is about Phil Parker, the marketing guru who’s recently delisted his ‘books’ on Australian languages (including dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books) after his dubious publications hit the virtual shelves, and after a small but vociferous group of linguists complained. The other article is about this mobile phone dictionary project that James and I are getting more and more involved in, and (very quickly) how this sort  of project can prevent the theft of data in the first place.

I feel that the article on Philip Parker makes me look like a bit of a whinger. Here’s the operative quote:

Aidan Wilson, a Sydney University linguist who wrote an honours thesis on the Wagiman language spoken north-west of Katherine, said Professor Parker had used the wrong spelling on the cover of his publication Webster’s English To Wageman Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

Yes; it’s true that Parker had the wrong spelling, but it’s clearly not the reason I’m annoyed at the publication of these books. I’m more annoyed that the entirety of information within them is publicly available at locations that properly explain the data, the language, and cite sources, while these dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books omit all of this information. In short, they are lossy2 versions of dictionaries already freely available.

The article also makes it sound like we, speakers of indigenous communities and linguists working with them, have hindered the publication of useful educational resources due to our collective sensitivities. It doesn’t help the situation that Parker probably had his heart in the right place in wanting to further disseminate information relating to critically endangered languages.

A dyslexic, he collects lists of words and publishes dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzles at a loss, he says, in the interests of education. His work has been heralded as a way to create paper resources for resource-starved Third World students.

That’s all well and good, but perfectly good materials already exist – those that the linguists have produced and made freely available in full consultation with the language community. It surely isn’t helpful to convert these into forms in which the information is distilled and compressed such that it no longer conforms to even the minimum standard required for the most basic dictionary. All information apart from the name of the language, the headword and a single gloss has been omitted. That truly is lossy. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an entry from the Online Wagiman Dictionary:



1. grandmother (mother’s mother)

Ga-ngotjje-ji-n ngal-gawu-mang-gu. Ga-ngotjje-ji-n gahan warren yerdeng-nga ya-nggi, ngal-gawu-mang warle-na. ‘He is scared of his grandmother. That kid ran away and hid because his grandmother growled him.’ (LM)

2.grandchild (from a woman to her daughter’s children)

see also gawu, ngal-gawu.

You can see that there are no less than 6 tiers of information here; a headword, part of speech, glosses divided into multiple senses, illustrative sentences, their glosses and importantly, the speaker responsible for that illustrative sentence, as well as related words. Parkers dictionary merely has this:


I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the latter is more useful than the former, or even that it is good for it to be around in addition to the original. I would even go as far to say that its existence in this form is potentially harmful and outweighs any possible benefits of it as an educational resource.

There is another issue that stems from this that deserves attention. Suppose you found one of these dictionaries for a language you’ve never heard of. Let’s say it has some pretty extraordinary stuff in it and you’d like to know more, or even go to the sources and do some fact checking. How do you go about doing it? There’s no citations given anywhere,  no examples have made it through the distillation process and no speakers are referenced. We’re in a different situation as we know the original is a good quality publication due to Stephen Wilson’s work, and can pretty much trust that the ‘distilled’ version will more or less be correct. But if Parker gave the same treatment to a highly dubious dictionary, Urban dictionary, let’s say, then the output looks just as authoritative as something that derived from a reputable source in the first place. This clearly makes it very difficult for readers of dictionaries to make informed decisions about the quality of what they’ve got.

I should reiterate that I think Parker had the best of intentions; to further disseminate information about as many languages as possible, something I naturally admire as a linguist. Yet he fails to recognise that lexicography is not easy work; it can’t be done just with a data-harvester, a spreadsheet and a bunch of automatically generated comments and reviews. It takes linguists and lexicographers years to compile the information and resources necessary to create dictionaries. Producing very low-quality dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books of some 600 worldwide languages does nothing but undermine their efforts.

  1. And that’s a whole nother post in its own right. []
  2. To borrow an audio term. []

Apparently as of today, National Indigenous TV (NITV) will be broadcast in the Sydney Metropolitan area on digital free-to-air TV on channel 40.

I haven’t had a chance to see NITV yet, as last time I was in the Territory was prior to its launch. This was back when the only indigenous content on Australian TV was restricted to Imparja, and even then it was only when they had spare air-time between Who Wants to be a Millionaire and other such gems of modern entertainment.

I look forward to being able to see indigenous Australian content more often. Who knows, maybe in a few years, remote communities will be making short films and documentaries that will screen across the country. Perhaps then the public’s opinion of indigenous Australia will be based on reality.

If you’re in Australia, tune in to SBS World News tonight either tomorrow or Sunday night [I just got a call from them; they’ve bumped it back to the weekend] at 6:30pm. I have a feeling that there’ll be an interesting report on indigenous languages in Australia, and the use of modern technology (such as electronic dictionaries and mobile phones) in their revitalisation.

Or such was the impression I got when I gave them the interview.

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. []

In checking out some of the news this morning, I noticed the following as one of the ABC’s main headlines:

Petrol rise to limit emissions unsustainable: economist

Before I go on, I think it’s worth explaining how I interpret this headline, and why. The noun phrase petrol rise need not refer to a policy decision to raise petrol; it may simply be a matter-of-fact observation that the price of petrol is increasing. But the embedded verb phrase to limit emissions makes the volitional interpretation clear; the price of petrol is being raised for a purpose; to limit emissions.

Moreover, the predicate unsustainable confirms this, as sustainability is a characteristic usually attributed to something over which someone, at least somewhere, has some control. You can talk about (un)sustainable economic growth, (un)sustainable agriculture, but you can’t really talk about (un)sustainable reptilian skin shedding. The reason for this, I’d contend, is that sustain is an ergative1 verb; it requires a volitional agent as much as murder does.

Okay, that said, I can talk about the more interesting pragmatic aspects of this headline. As far as I’m aware, there is no policy to raise the price of petrol in order to limit carbon emissions. In fact both government and opposition plan to lower the price of petrol instead of doing anything proactive to mitigate justifiably high fuel costs.

So why the headline? It seems to me to imply that there is currently a policy, to raise petrol prices, that would be unsustainable.

I think the ABC are violating one of the key Gricean maxims of conversational implicature. The ABC has not been as informative with this headline as required by the context. Further on in the article however, we find more information:

[The economist advising the Federal Government, Ross Garnaut] has rejected any notion that petrol should be exempt from a future carbon emissions trading scheme and suggested higher petrol prices could help mitigate carbon emissions.

But Professor Garnaut says in the long term, hiking petrol prices to control emissions is unsustainable.

So the fact that Garnaut warned about prolonged petrol price rises is in fact meant to be taken in the context of his suggestion to raise them in the first place. This, I believe, is a violation of the maxim of quantity; the reader is not given enough information in the headline to know the context in which Garnaut is warning us about prolonged petrol price rises. Also, since we’re told about the warning without the context behind it, this is also arguably an example of the converse of this maxim; we’re told too much information than is required by the circumstances.

A much more conversationally optimal headline, in my humble opinion, would have been something along the lines of Raise petrol prices to limit emissions: economist.

  1. For want of a better term. I don’t want to use traditional terms like ‘active verb’, but I think you get the idea. []

Last weekend, a group of 16 Warlpiri women, including one three-month-old infant, travelled the 300 kilometres from Yuendumu to Alice Springs, to receive training in swimming skills and first aid, as they are about to become Yuendumu’s first life guards, ready for when the community’s new pool arrives in July.

However, the manager of the establishment that they had booked, the Haven Backpackers’ Resort, asked them to leave. The reason she gave, when challenged, was that since they were aboriginal, other guests had complained of being frightened by them.

Naturally, this is pretty disturbing and has been in the news for much of the last week. You can read more about it, and voice your opposition to the Haven Backpackers’ Resort at Hoyden About Town, where Tigtog has possibly found a way to encourage tourists not to stay there.

Last night, it emerged that turning away aborigines is in fact one of the resort’s policies, as a former employee has just revealed. I could have a lot more to say about this fact, but I think it speaks pretty much for itself. I find it odd though, that the company that owns this resort, among others, prides itself as a tour company that gives tourists a real insight into indigenous Australian culture. The following comes from the tourism company’s website, via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Don’t blame us if you finish your tour and start telling strangers about all the weird and wonderful facts you’ve learnt about rocks, plants, animals, aboriginal [sic]¹ culture, all the great people you’ve met and how wonderful it is to be alive!

Apparently their tours place an emphasis on “the unique scenery, wildlife and Aboriginal culture of each area”. I suppose with this recent controversy in mind, what they mean is ‘we’ll show you a nice little sanitised and whitefella-approved demonstration of indigenous culture, but apart from that there’ll be no contact with anything remotely indigenous’.

This, to me, really exemplifies the Aborigine-as-Museum-Piece point of view that is often mistakenly attributed to us documentary linguists and other anthropological scientists².

In other news, reports have emerged of truck drivers in north-west New South Wales that have been coaxing aboriginal women into sex with money and drugs. Some of the girls, according to the report, were as young as 8.

I think one thing that must be said about this, especially in the context of the reports of sexual abuse in aboriginal communities and the intervention that it provoked, is that sexual abuse is not an inherently aboriginal thing, nor is it an inherently aboriginal community thing. This is clear since not all sexual abuse happens in aboriginal communities between aboriginal people, nor do all aboriginal communities necessarily have problems of sexual abuse.

What it shows to me is that poverty, lack of prospects or ambitions and boredom are the key risk factors. It just so happens that aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, ergo, aboriginal people are also grossly overrepresented in statistics relating to such things as sexual abuse, neglect and the like.

¹I can’t really empathise with how the SMH have used the [sic] tag here. Their point is obviously that aboriginal should be capitalise, but I’m not convinced. On one hand you can view word like aboriginal and indigenous as operating along the same lines as nationalities, as in pork pies are a very English dish. On the other, they could be seen to operate as a plain old adjective would, like pork pies are a very poxy dish. I doubt you could reasonably capitalise poxy there.

Then again, in another paragraph cited by the Herald, the tour operator used Aboriginal with a capital. So I guess they had to [sic] either one or the other, but certainly not both, since naturally, there’s only ever one correct way.

My preferred, though certainly not absolute, method, is to capitalise the noun Aborigine, but not the adjective aboriginal³. Sometimes though, I think [sic] is used too widely to imply something about the writer’s literacy, as though they wouldn’t have done so had they known it were wrong. My above sentence about pork pies, for instance, might well be cited somewhere with a [sic], since I’ve used non-standard verb-subject agreement. It’s clear from my discussing it here though, that I’m aware of the stylistic ‘error’.

²Yes. I think of anthropologists and linguists as scientists.

³I was once thinking of publishing the official matjjin-nehen guide to style, but it seemed like a mammoth exercise in totally academic effluence⁴.

⁴I’m just remembering how much I enjoy writing across purposes in footnotes. Probably another exercise in totally academic effluence.

Next Page »