Linguistics


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.

Melbourne, as many people will be aware, has been in the process of unveiling a new, fancy integrated ticketing system to replace the old magnetic tickets. Just like Sydney’s Tcard, the MyKi has suffered cost blowouts and delays, and since its release has been marred by lack of broad take-up in the community, and problems to do with functionality and billing, for those that have. Sydney’s Tcard on the other hand never made it to full roll-out and was scrapped instead.

Some have pointed to the inherent problems of the system as the cause of the failings; the reinventing of the wheel when it comes to devising the technology, the lack of need for the system given that the Metcard is already an integrated ticketing system, the lack of financial incentive for the user to adopt the system (indeed, the user is discouraged from adopting the system because the card itself requires a deposit), or the lack of support for tourists and infrequent transport users.

But I propose that there’s a deeper seeded reason for the failings of the MyKi, which will also explain the failings of the Tcard.

Some of the Snapper card formats on offer

If we turn our attention to some of the more successful systems, then we see that the Oyster card (London) works well, has a financial incentive in that it’s cheaper, and more complicated fare structures are done away with, and allows the user to have a single card that works for all modes of transport. Wellington’s Snapper (pictured above) similarly works well and successfully integrated the various forms of transport in New Zealand’s capital and has enjoyed a high rate of uptake.

And finally Hong Kong’s Octopus card, which was the first integrated chip-based ticketing system in the world, and arguably the most successful. With the Octopus, the user can choose from different formats – why does it need to be a standard sized card? You can get small keyring based Octopuses with mobile phone straps, and younger users might be more at home with little Rilakkuma designs (pictured below).

Some of the options for the Octopus card

I think it’s quite obvious what’s wrong with MyKi and the Tcard: they haven’t used marine animals in their names. In the interest of helping out the common good, I’m hereby making some suggestions to the Victorian and New South Wales Governments:

  • Mullet Card
  • Grunter Card
  • Red Herring
  • Blobfish
  • White Whale

If any government representatives would like to buy any of these names from me, feel free to leave a comment below and make an offer.

<update date=”April 21, 2011″>
It was suggested to me last night that a nice marine themed name that also captures the incompetence of the roll-out is fail whale.
</update>

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.

Just saw this word on an online forum and was so impressed, I thought I’d share it with the blogosphere:

Tweemo: n. derog. Of or pertaining to Twitter and Emos, i.e., immature and whiny.
Eg: Walking backwards is such a tweemo form of ‘protest’! (source)


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 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.

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.

Cross-posted at pfed.info.

Last week, I undertook a brief fieldtrip to Pine Creek and Kybrook Farm, Northern Territory, to present the completed Wagiman Electronic Dictionary to the Wagiman community.

It has been a long time coming as several of us have been working on this dictionary in our spare time for the last six months, and so it felt especially good to be able to see a finished product, and better yet, to give it back to the community. In that six months, we successfully integrated recent research into Wagiman plants and animal species by Glenn Wightman, as well as very recent work done by the CSIRO on fish species in the Daly River. The electronic dictionary now contains all that up-to-date information. We also managed to produce sound files for the majority of lexical entries in the dictionary. There are around 1250 sound files in the dictionary altogether, totalling some 15 minutes of high-quality audio.

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

The Wagiman community are very pleased with the dictionary, and all enjoyed listening to the marluga¹ who recorded each of the sounds. The Wagiman people were also excited to see the mobile phone version of the dictionary. It’s not quite as complete as the computer based dictionary; it contains far fewer sound files (around 300), and doesn’t contain the sometimes lengthy dictionary comments that accompany many lexical entries. This is an unfortunate constraint of the size of a standard mobile phone screen — too much information can be hard to navigate through.

I also met with representatives of the Northern Territory Department of Education, who were interested in supporting the dictionary and possible collaboration into the future. The Wagiman have given the tick, and the Department are going to go ahead and install the dictionary on all the computers in the schools in Katherine as a first step. We’re hoping that we’ll also be able to get the Northern Territory Library on our side and install the dictionaries on library computers. That way, most computers accessed by children and young adults in the area will have the Wagiman dictionary installed.

In addition to the computer- and mobile phone-based dictionaries, we have also been looking to produce a printed version. Hopefully the Wagiman community will be able to take advantage of the increased interest in Indigenous languages recently, and sell copies of the dictionary to tourists through various shops in Katherine, Pine Creek and Darwin.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this particular project is the demonstration that accessible electronic dictionaries for Indigenous languages can be produced for relatively little extra effort, provided that the language in question has been adequately described. Although for many languages, this remains a significant obstacle.

The Wagiman people have given us permission to allow the public to download a demonstration version of the Kirrkirr dictionary, which we will try to have ready soon. A full version will be available upon request to the Wagiman community.


¹Marluga, (nom.) Old man.

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.

Nothing is official as yet, but I’m fairly confident that I can informally announce to the world that I will be commencing a Ph.D. next year.

My topic will be Classical Tiwi, an Australian language that seems to have escaped the radar for serious documentary research of late. This is especially odd, given that Tiwi1 is one of the country’s most populous languages with somewhere around 2000 native speakers2. Of course this is not quite the case when it comes to Classical Tiwi, which may have only around 250 speakers, many of them elderly.

I’ve been interested in Tiwi for quite some time, as a relative of mine married a Tiwi Islander, right when I started becoming interested in Australian languages. I even remember looking at the list of the authoritative publications for Australian languages, and noting that Tiwi was researched as far back as 1976. I somewhat facetiously told myself that I was going to do my Ph.D. on Tiwi and give Osborne’s 19763 description a surely-needed update.

Then, earlier this year, I was approached by a colleague who suggested for a bunch of reasons that I do Tiwi for a Ph.D., not knowing that I had Tiwi family connections and a previous interest. Quite serendipitous.

I’ll be enrolled at the University of Melbourne, so if all goes well throughout the application process, I should be looking to move to Melbourne sometime in early 2010.


  1. Officially there isn’t a difference between Modern Tiwi and Classical Tiwi, meaning that ‘Tiwi’ is considered one language still.
  2. The census numbers vary considerably. In 2006, 1724 people said they used Tiwi at home, while in 2001, the number was 2050, and I suppose people tend to overreport more than they underreport.
  3. Osborne, C. R. (1974). The Tiwi language : grammar, myths and dictionary of the Tiwi language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands, northern Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

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