How to teach what it means to be Australian

How to teach what it means to be Australian
September 24, 2014
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Kevin Donnelly

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Celebrating diversity is only feasible when there is a willingness to commit to the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance.
Celebrating diversity is only feasible when there is a willingness to commit to the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance. Photo: Andrew Quilty
Now that Islamic State terrorism has arrived on our soil it’s time to ask the question: what does it mean to be Australian? Continue reading

Australia is a team worth being on

Australia is a team worth being on

Team Australia isn’t a bad side to be on.
Team Australia isn’t a bad side to be on.
LAST month, Prime Minster Tony Abbott declared that migrants needed to sign up to “Team Australia”.

“My position is everyone has got to be on Team Australia — everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first,” he said.

His critics pounced and his comments were derided as jingoistic or, worse, interpreted as a threat. You’re with us, or against us. Our way, or the highway. Continue reading

The great Australian Speech Impediment

The great Australian speech impediment
August 4, 2014 – 12:15AM
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Dean Frenkel
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Australia has a national speech problem that nobody is talking about. Despite a healthy rise in literacy and numeracy rates over the past century, most people, including the Prime Minister, still have poor speech skills. Yet this is not widely acknowledged as a problem.

Though verbal expression training is an essential skill for everyone, it is largely absent from our school system and, on the whole, standards of communication are unacceptably low. While Australians are usually more charmed than bothered by this, it should be considered as a national speech impediment. Continue reading

Is Aussie slang dying out?

Is Aussie slang dying out?
After flourishing in the 20th century, slang is going through a quiet phase. Is it merely dormant – or are Australians taking themselves more seriously?

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Gary Nunn, Monday 26 May 2014 14.02 AEST
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Thongs with Australian flags sit on the field
Australia is progressing from a colloquial lexicon to one reflecting the gravitas of a country viewed with greater global credibility. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters
From “fair dinkum” to advancing fair, Australia is on an interesting linguistic journey. Once known on a global scale for skulling a tinny in the arvo and having no dramas because she’ll be right, Australia’s lexicon, it appears, is changing. Continue reading

Liberals pick a fight over history wars again

Liberals pick a fight over history wars again
November 8, 2013 – 7:55AM
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Tony Taylor
Political meddling with the history curriculum is vandalism that undermines democracy.

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Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Federal politics: full coverage
I see a headline like this, “Report backs Rudd’s bias claim” (The Age, November 7) about News Corp’s political tendencies, it reminds me that Donald Rumsfeld was not so daft after all with his mantra about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

Derided at the time, Rumsfeld knew a thing or two since the known known part clearly comes into play when we think of News Corp and Kevin Rudd, never mind News Corp and Julia Gillard.

We also know something else about one particular News Corp organ.

In recent years The Australian, together with a small number of fellow conservative players, has been pushing an inaccurate and ill-informed campaign on how we understand our past.

This campaign has come in the form of a culture war against the history curriculum, a war blamed on the left but perpetrated by the right. Continue reading

Hugh Mackay, social commentator, ‘The Good Life’; how our values are reflected in our language

What this has done is produce a culture that promotes “personal identify and individuality at the expense of connectedness and cooperativeness and communality and even at the expense of egalitarianism,” says Mackay. “We are now caught up in the marketing of brand ‘me’”, much to our detriment. Signs of this include the proliferation of the prefix ‘my’ in front of everything and the huge popularity of social networking sites like Facebook which Mackay refers to as “a bragging medium. One of the signs of the damage that’s being done by the ‘utopian complex’ is this obsession with me and how I’m feeling.”

He notes that author Lily Brett has hit on a couple of words that are symptomatic of our predicament, one being ‘excellence.’ “Everything now is a ‘centre of excellence’: a primary school, a car show room, excellence in mental health care. We hope that everyone is doing their best but excellence is an exception,” says Mackay. As is ‘awesome’, another word that’s way overused. For example, when I called Telstra the other day, the operator replied, “that’s awesome” when I told her my name. “So the language has been ramped up to match this idea,” Mackay says.

gday or not gday. It’s a question of hanging on to our linguistic identity

G’day, or not g’day. It’s a question of hanging on to our linguistic identity

July 7,2013

Listen here mate, you’re not my bud

Crikey! Iconic Australian language is under threat.

Streuth! Iconic Australian language, such as that used by Paul Hogan’s (pictured) character Crocodile Dundee, is under threat.

With all the carry-on in Canberra in recent weeks you probably missed Oxford Australia’s word-of-the-month for June: it was meat-safe cot. I challenge you to work it into a conversation sometime today; I challenge you to explain it.

Turns out they are cots covered in wire mesh to protect against insects and flies and early last century kids up to the age of five slept in them, particularly in rural areas. They’re now highly collectable pieces of Australiana, apparently. Certainly they’d be conversation starters – for instance, how on earth were parents allowed to put their children in cots Oxford describes as ”designed rather like a large meat safe, completely wired in with drop panels”. These days we reserve that sort of treatment for asylum-seekers.

Frankly, as words-of-the-month go, it’s not a particularly strong one. Put up against 2013’s first five words-of-the-month – Fonzie flat, stubloon, Canberra bashing, bunger and chook lit – it suffered by comparison.

You’d be familiar with each of them, as in: ”I was in the Fonzie flat (a self-contained dwelling usually above a garage) looking for me last stubloon (a brass token with an exchange value of one stubby of beer), when I turned on the telly, lit a bunger (cigarette) and there was Andrew Bolt Canberra-bashing (the act of criticising the Australian federal government and its bureaucracy) again – fair dinkum, even a bit of chook lit (fiction written for older women) would be more fun.”


It’s terrific that our language experts are celebrating such words, some new, some old, but I fear few of them will ever make it into common usage. They’re destined to remain curiosities, particularly as our language becomes more and more Americanised. If you doubt me, consider this: ”G’day” and ”G’day mate”, probably the most Australian of all our sometimes curious expressions, are under threat. If we’re not careful, it will be replaced by the hideously truncated greeting favoured by Americans: ”Hey”. Worse, ”Hey, buddy”. That’s two American words. Crikey.

The Urban Dictionary is already on to this, noting in one of its ”G’day” entries that it is an Australian expression meaning ”Hello friend” which ”most Australians don’t use” because they ”see it as very stereotypical”. Really, I’m a stereotype? (Don’t answer that.)

I decided to test our diminishing ”G’day” quotient on an early morning walk last week. Fresh off the plane from the US, where I’d spent the past month delighting friends and strangers alike with my ”G’days”, I tried it on the locals. Didn’t get one in reply. Got a ”Morning”, a ”Hi” and, worryingly, two ”Heys”. What’s going on here?

The emotionally bankrupt ”hey”, a contraction of ”hey there” usually accompanied by an upwards jerk of the chin, started appearing in American movie and TV scripts in the mid-’90s. It’s rarely said with any real gusto; screenwriters like to use it to signal trouble in a relationship, often the morning after a particularly heated argument or exchange when the oomph has gone out of a relationship. Inevitably it has crept into our language too, particularly among Generation Y. I asked one of them last week whether they ever used G’day to greet friends. ”Only ironically,” was his reply. Meaning, if we wanted to mock older Australians who’ve long regarded it as the building block of pretty much every conversation, big and small.

It’s not entirely generational though. It’s also geographical. G’day is most at risk where hipster culture thrives. I don’t think there’s too much to worry about up in Goondiwindi.

If the expression is falling out of favour in some parts of our country, I suspect it’s a reaction to its overuse in the ’70s and beyond, particularly in tourism advertising. For the past decade, Australian businesses have been showcasing their ”capabilities” to American markets under the banner of G’DAY USA. It’s ironic that American culture is devaluing the very expression that identifies us so readily in that country.

Paul Hogan and Lara Bingle have a lot to answer for. Their Tourism Australia campaigns – his worked, her’s didn’t – helped build and then reinforce our image as beer-swilling, prawn-grilling beach-bums. I understand why many want to distance themselves from that and present a more modern face. I worry when it starts to cost us much-loved Australian idioms though. Particularly when they’re supplanted by lazy American expressions. ”Hey” is bad enough, but if ”buddy” gets any more traction, we might have to march on our various parliaments. It’s unthinkable that it would ever replace ”mate”.

It might fall to the PM to protect these crucial building blocks of our language. Kevin Rudd is partial to a G’day; in fact, he rarely begins a conversation without it, recognising perhaps that it’s the quickest way to establish an emotional bond with the listener.

I can live without ”stone the crows”, ”banana benders”, ”budgie smugglers” and the like, but I reckon ”G’day” and ”mate” are two words worth fighting for. If we lose those we might as well crawl into the meat-safe cot and stay there for good.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age and The Sunday Age.

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Language dies when tongues are silenced

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Identity dies when tongues are silence



Geoff Maslen

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, photographed by <a href="">Helen Page</a>Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, photographed by Helen  Page

Warwuyu ngarranha


ngarraku bäpawu

ngurunguna guni-pun


harayu . . .

SO SINGS blind Aboriginal artist Geoffrey Gurrumul  Yunupingu, who was born on Elcho Island, off Arnhem Land, in one of his haunting  songs, Bäpa.   His words in the Yolngu language translate as:

Grief has taken hold of me

for my father

when the sun sets. . .

Grief has no doubt taken hold of many Aborigines  in the 220 years  since the  British colonised the continent. The First Australians lost more than their  fathers: they lost their lands, their culture and, in most cases, even the  languages of their parents.

Dr Rachel Nordlinger, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of  Melbourne, says an estimated 250 distinct languages and 600  dialects are  believed to have been spoken by Aborigines before  white occupation of Australia  began in 1788.

Yet, Dr Nordlinger says,  only 120 survive  and perhaps 100 of these are  spoken by elderly people and their future is uncertain. Massacres, disease,  dislocation from  lands and the refusal by church missionaries and white school  teachers to allow Aborigines to speak in their own tongues extinguished the  rest.

“The languages that are being spoken are still important for their  communities and we still need to do lots of work on them,” she says. “Language  is crucial to people’s identity and their sense of who they are and their  position in the world.   For the people of a traditional territory, the language  is intimately associated with the landscape and that’s a very important part of  cultural belief.”

Dr Nordlinger says language loss is devastating for the communities affected  but it also matters at a higher level because each language  tells us something  different about the way humans think, about the way they conceptualise their  world.

When a language is lost so is the knowledge about the land where the people  lived: the plants, animals and insects, along with their histories, stories and  mythologies.

For 20 years, Dr Nordlinger has been studying Aboriginal languages, visiting  communities in northern Australia for weeks at a time and  occasionally  recording the voices of the last speakers to try to ensure elements of the  language are retained. Because Aborigines had no written records, linguists must  set out the words phonetically to show how they are pronounced, using English  letters and symbols that approximate to the sounds.

“The work might involve just sitting down with the person and beginning by  asking what’s the word for tree?  What’s the word for child?  What’s the word  for person, hand, nose?

We start with the words for the objects around us and then build this up into  sentences and start to break down the basic grammar. When you develop some  understanding of how the language works, you can move on to stories and  texts.”

Part of this often intensive labour involves developing dictionaries and  grammatical descriptions while also working with the community to decide what  words and expressions would be useful for them.

As well, Dr Nordlinger produces materials for the local school — collecting  stories for the children to listen to in the traditional language and in  English, and developing little picture dictionaries that can be used by  teachers.

“It’s really important that we develop writing systems for these languages to  record the stories and write the dictionaries and other texts so that  information is kept, even if we end up in a situation where there are no longer  any speakers.”

During her arts degree at Melbourne, Dr Nordlinger did a course in  linguistics and became interested in Aboriginal languages because of the way  they differ so markedly in their structure from English and other European  languages.

In her honours year, she spent some time with an Aboriginal community in the  Northern Territory’s Victoria River region and later went on to complete a PhD  in linguistics at Stanford University in California.

Much of Dr Nordlinger’s research has been conducted with an isolated but  large Aboriginal community at Wadeye, 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin. She  says the people there speak Murrinh-Patha, a strong language still  learnt by  children from their parents and one of the few Aboriginal tongues to have added  more speakers since British colonisation.

“Murrinh-Patha now has 2500 to 3000 speakers which, on a global scale, does  not sound many but often Australian languages originally may only have had 50 to  200 speakers, so up to 3000 is a very large number. One of the reasons is that  Murrinh-Patha has actually taken over the domains of other languages around the  Wadeye region that now only have  small  numbers of elderly speakers. These are  highly endangered languages and the people in those communities, instead of  speaking their traditional languages, are using Murrinh-Patha.”

Dr Nordlinger says Wadeye began as a Catholic mission at Port Keats in 1935  and, as a result, other groups moved on to the mission. Murrinh-Patha was the  language of the area and, because  it and landscape were so connected, it was  appropriate for outsiders to speak the language of the land on which they  resided. In contrast to the language  loss occurring around the globe, Wadeye  stands out.

Dr Nordlinger has been awarded a new Australian Research Council grant and,  with three  Melbourne colleagues, will begin investigating the ways children at  Wadeye learn the Murrinh-Patha language. Because of its radically different  structures from English and other European languages, she says, the study is  likely to reveal details about how people acquire language.  This will help in  developing appropriate educational tools to assist in maintaining  the  language.

Linguists estimate that over the next 100 years, thousands of languages may  simply cease to be spoken.

Dr Nordlinger says  95 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 5  per cent of all the people. These speakers tend to live in small groups,  are  often marginalised, disempowered and under threat from the dominant global  languages, including English. “This means there is a high risk to linguistic  diversity around the world and Australia is often considered to be the hot spot  for that kind of language endangerment.”

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Australia has no culture? You’ve go to be joking

Australia has no culture? You’ve got to be joking

June 8, 2013
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Martin Flanagan

Martin Flanagan

Sports Writer for The Age

David Gower: “How can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture?”

In 1978, I was introduced to a middle-class woman in Oxfordshire as an Australian. She replied, ”Welcome to civilisation.” This was in a week when English soccer fans had ransacked another European city; she was blithely unaware of the contradiction.

In more recent times I had dealings with an English journalist who was granted high office in the Australian media. We were discussing the plight of Aboriginal Australia and he said to me, ”This country has the worst history in the world.” He said it without any apparent awareness that Aboriginal Australia’s constant state of crisis began in 1788 with the arrival of 11 ships sailing under the Union Jack – his mob.

This week, asked if England’s cricket relationship with Australia represented a clash of cultures, former England player David Gower said, ”I’m tempted to say, how can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture?” It’s a joke, I know, but it’s a dumb joke.

You only have to be inside a prison for two minutes to know that prisons have cultures. If you leave two people on an island for 12 months, when you return they’ll have a culture of shared beliefs, however fragmentary. You can’t stop culture happening. What you can do is play some role in shaping culture, and an example of this is the Yothu Yindi song Treaty.


The continuing appeal of Treaty is interesting because in one sense the song is dated. It’s a response to Bob Hawke’s 1988 commitment to a treaty with indigenous Australia by 1990. That didn’t happen. The song was an attempt to make it happen. Again, it didn’t happen. But the song was a hit and retains a degree of popularity. Why?

Because, I think, of the djatpangarri, the Aboriginal traditional dance song, embedded with a rock tempo in the middle of the track. How can you not get excited by the pulsating didg, followed by the electric dance footage.

Yothu Yindi always put on a great show (they were more an ensemble than a band). And so what we got was a traditional Aboriginal dance, vibrantly performed and presented. It was intensely exciting and, what’s more, it was ours – every Australian’s. The song said so.

An Englishman who looked the Australian experience in the eye was actor Pete Postlethwaite. The 2007 documentary Liyarn Ngarn begins with Pete and Koori singer Archie Roach being taken by the father of an adopted Aboriginal youth to a roadside in Western Australia where the adopted son was beaten unconscious and then driven over. But this was a case where the usual stereotypes no longer applied – the two white youths responsible for the random attack were not Australian but English.

Pete ended the doco by suggesting that the legal doctrine of terra nullius – the land of nothing – which justified white settlement, is actually our foundation myth, a psychological blindness we inherited from Britain that continues to blight our vision and, it would seem, theirs.

Making Australian culture is hard. There are people who believe it doesn’t exist. If you say, ”Well, there’s indigenous culture”, they backtrack and say, ”I didn’t mean there was no indigenous culture”. Because that would be blatantly racist.

Personally, I don’t know how anyone who tuned in to the beauty of this land or listened to its amazing stories wouldn’t want to make art of some description, even if it means meeting ritual disappointments.

There’s a line in Treaty that speaks to this very point: Nhe djatpayatpa nhima gaya’ nhe marrtjini yakarray (You’re dancing, you improvise, you keep going, wow!).

The wow is for the brave ones who keep going.

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