Writing


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 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.

I’ve had a busy and eventful week, and right now appears to be about the only spare time I’ve had.

I attended the Australian Languages Workshop last weekend at Kioloa on the NSW south coast, an outpost of ANU. I didn’t present anything, but I managed to discuss the mobile phone dictionary with a number of interested people and got a fair amount of positive feedback.

I then spent the week writing a chapter for a forthcoming volume on language revitalisation. It’s been sent off to the editors now, after a very tightly packed Friday of drafting and proofreading and editing1. The chapter doesn’t go into many details with respect to specific dictionary projects, but instead discusses the future possibilities of integrated teaching resources for endangered languages, that is, using electronic dictionaries in the classroom, which will usually be equipped with a computer or two,  and installing mobile phone dictionaries on the students’ phones so they can access a smaller version of the dictionary whenever they like. Here’s the abstract:

Owing to the disproportionately high level of illiteracy in remote indigenous communities, especially in indigenous languages, printed books are perhaps not the most appropriate form of delivery of language learning materials such as dictionaries. Electronic versions based on computers may be more useful. However, the availability of computers, and consequently computer literacy, in remote Australian communities is still very low. By contrast, mobile phones are almost ubiquitous. Unfortunately, mobile phones generally only allow small applications, meaning that most content expected in a reasonable language learner’s dictionary must be jettisoned. We propose, and document, a method of dictionary delivery that takes advantage of the flexibility and usability of computer-based dictionaries, as well as the portability of mobile phones. This process entails maintaining a single dictionary file that can be exported to dictionary visualisation programs, to applications that can be installed on a mobile phone, as well as a number of other formats in various media. Computer based resources may contain as much information as is necessary, in a format that can be navigated easily, while a mobile phone based version will contain only a reduced version of the original content, although it will be available to the user without the need of a computer.

It was also an exciting week on the teaching front; I gave my first lecture on Wednesday, it was on phonemics for an introductory linguistics course, so I got to do all those problems like Fijian prenasalised stops, Tojolabal aspirants and Spanish lenition. By all reports, I did fairly well.


  1. Thanks, by the way, to Mic, my brilliant editor.

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:

ngal-gawu-mang

nominal

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:

ngal-gawu-mang
grandmother
grandchild

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 Amazon.com 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.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, Will Owen tagged me for an Aboriginal internet meme, whereby I have to list 8 answers to each of 8 questions. I started writing a lengthy post, but while I was trying to smooth out the formatting I had a hard drive failure on my near-new laptop and lost all my data, not to mention my entire Windows installation and all my programs. The draft post was among the casualties.

Yesterday though, Lauredhel of Hoyden About Town, among other blogs, tagged me for A roar for powerful words (original here), a considerably less time-consuming meme, where I just have to expose my three tips for good blog writing. I suppose then that this is certainly not the time to get stuck with writer’s block.

Before I begin though, I want to point out that I don’t really have any techniques as such. I just go for it, but I’ll only hit ‘publish’ (generally speaking) when I’m satisfied that it reads well. So I’ve had to reverse-engineer my method, and I’ve come up with the following.

1. Ignore what your English teacher told you

‘But’ at the beginning of a sentence, long sentences that lack a matrix verb, overusing the passive voice and so on. These aren’t necessarily bad, in fact they are so much a part of natural spoken English, that written language without them would simply be deficient. The point should be good writing, not correct writing, and even that takes for granted the entire debate over what correct means.

2. Revise, revise, revise

Read what you’ve written back to yourself every time you do a batch of editing. You don’t want to be left with stylistic or grammatical errors (in the linguistic sense) that result from, say, moving bits of sentences around. Read each sentence, each paragraph, and the entire thing together. If any single word or phrase causes you to do a double-take, fix it, and read it again. It might also help to let it sit and ferment for a while, so that when you come back you have fresh eyes.

Yeah, that’s terribly time-consuming and unfortunately I sometimes run out of time to do so much editing. Most of the time though, instead of posting something sub-standard, I leave it on the backburner¹, occasionally indefinitely.

3. Blog On!

Just go for it. Blogging should be fun, and never a chore. If it feels like a chore, you should perhaps reevaluate the reasons you decided to blog in the first place. Being unmotivated is naturally not very conducive to good writing. I know that’s obvious and sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but it’s true; there ain’t no point blogging if you don’t enjoy it. Clearly if you have an advertising blog it’s a different story, but then again, they’re an entirely different kettle of fish.

~

Time now then, to burden five other unsuspecting bloggers whom I regard as good writers to participate in this meme.

First up is Will, of Aboriginal Art & Culture, who tagged me for that 8 answers meme that suffered at the hands of a hard drive failure. Then, Alejna of Collecting Tokens, who loves a good meme. MrsChili of A Teacher’s Education, who’ll likely disagree with my sentiments about ignoring one’s English teacher. I would like to tag my mali, Joe Blythe who occasionally writes for Transient Languages & Cultures, but as he should be writing a PhD dissertation instead, and since TLAC isn’t a very memetic sort of blog, I’ll certainly expect him to ignore it. Lastly, I’ll tag Claire from Anggarrgoon, who is probably the best Australianist linguist blogger around.

And, as I’m usually the sort of person to ignore these on sight, I won’t be at all offended if any of these five do so too.

~

¹Backburner: a barbecue metaphor²?

²Just though of another tip for good writing: creative use of stylistic techniques, like footnotes.

³Unless the footnote lacks an antecedent.

4Or contains infinitely recursive footnoting4.