Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.

Stan Grant’s account in The Guardian of his relationship with the Wiradjuri language jolted me back forty years to the language work I did as a Masters student at the Australian National University. For my major assignment, I was handed a box full of field notes and audio tapes collected by the American linguist Ken Hale. The box was marked ‘Wambaya, Barkly Tablelands’. My job was to write a grammar of the Wambaya language, which I was told was on the verge of extinction.

‘Jolt’ is an apt word: Stan Grant’s article left me feeling unsettled about my own relationship with Indigenous languages in general, and about the nature of the work I did four decades ago. I’ll come back to this later.

More generally, it made me reflect on how non-Indigenous Australians might respond to Grant’s argument. The comments following the article give us at least a preliminary answer.

I counted 121 actual comments, with 53 ‘removed by a moderator because’ they ‘didn’t abide by our community standards’ By way of comparison, an article on housing affordability with 123 comments had only two removed.

I roughly categorised the 121 unremoved comments as follows: About half were facetious, trivial, or off the point; some of these presented good arguments about the link between language and culture but didn’t address Stan’s argument.

On the positive side, about a quarter supported the thrust of the article or praised the quality of the writing, while the nay vote was represented by thirteen percent who rejected Stan’s argument without being rude about it.

Finally, there were half a dozen people who scolded Stan for ignoring his British heritage, two who argued that although they weren’t Indigenous their pain was equally valid, and seven who were personally insulting to the writer.

The verdict? My suspicion, based on the wording of the comments, is that opinion on Stan Grant’s article falls into two distinct camps, with attitudes pretty well entrenched on both sides. Let’s guess that half of the 53 removed responses opposed the article (and the other half were irrelevant insults or ravings): My tally is that only a minority of an admittedly small and imperfect sample are sympathetic to Stan’s views.

This is hardly surprising given the vast gulf of understanding about Australian language issues among non-Indigenous Australians. I count myself among the ignorant despite the fact that I know a little more than the man on the Toorak tram or the 440 bus to Leichhardt.

My acquaintance with these languages began at seminars at The University of London given by the celebrated linguist Bob Dixon. I had been trained to analyse the grammar, sound systems and vocabulary of exotic languages and, boy, these Australian languages were fine specimens: Weird ‘genders’, sets of consonants I’d never seen elsewhere, and sentence grammar that was ‘ergative’, i.e. not observing the ‘normal’ subject-object distinction. A year later in Canberra I’d had further training and I was let loose on Wambaya.

I am still tremendously grateful for that chance that I was given to boost my knowledge and skills as a linguist. What bothers me in hindsight is that the only human connection I had with the speakers of Wambaya was the scrapy voice of an old man saying words and sentences onto a reel to reel tape in some spot in the Barkly Tablelands that I could not begin to imagine. I did no fieldwork. I was a young white linguist in a hurry.

As I moved up the academic career ladder, I advocated for the teaching of – or about – Australian languages in my university, but all attempts failed. The lack of support from the Indigenous side was especially puzzling; language just didn’t seem to be a priority. It was around this time that I began to use the metaphor of the sliding door to characterise my experience with Indigenous life on campus: The door opened enough to give me a glimpse, but closed too quickly for me to see what was really going on.

Years later, I found myself with an entire Indigenous education centre in my management portfolio as a Pro-Vice Chancellor. The sliding door began to stay open longer, especially during the very long meetings that I spent with Indigenous colleagues thrashing out submissions for funding. I was warmly welcomed when I decided to work in the centre for a day a week rather than in the stress-filled senior management area where I belonged.

My best memory is being taken by a Wiradjuri senior colleague to a huge annual picnic on the outskirts of Sydney, where I witnessed the amazing depth and diversity of the Indigenous community of the region. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast with listening to that recorded voice decades earlier.

I’m happy to report that Wambaya had 89 speakers according to the 2006 Census – not exactly a big crowd, but at least the language is not extinct. Stan Grant would no doubt be very pleased.

Stuart Campbell is a former Professor of Linguistics and Pro-Vice Chancellor. Nowadays, he writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

Climate change and language change?

stu angled trim

Climate change and language change: That’s the issue I’m pondering as I embark on my fourth novel. Having written two books with contemporary settings and one set in 1973, I’m launching myself into the future with a dystopian story.  Without revealing too much, my new book (working title The Twilight Principality) is set in Australia and England, and has a climate change theme.

One of the challenges is dealing with the language spoken in my dystopian world in 2065. Well, it’s only fifty years from now – my grandchildren are more than sixty years younger than me and they understand me perfectly. So why is there a language issue?

The reason is that part of my story is set in an isolated enclave around a town in Australia inhabited by descendants of local townsfolk and climate refugees from Vietnam and the South Pacific. I have engineered this micro-world so that a generation of children have grown up speaking a creole language based on English, Fijian, Fijian Hindi, and Vietnamese.

There is a long tradition of constructed languages in literature and film: The Game of Thrones’ Valyrian and Dothraki are widely known contemporary examples. Tolkien’s Elvish languages were created over a century ago.

I chose to create a creole language to suit the special circumstances of my imagined micro-world. I’ll resist the urge to give a lecture on creoles, other than to say that linguists find them especially fascinating because they seem to develop similar grammar systems even when they develop in different parts of the world. Readers who want to follow this up should have a look at Derek Bickerton’s bioprogram hypothesis.

My micro-world has a growing vocabulary, including zazzy (stomach), doublegranny (two-roomed house), and larka (boy). And I’ve written the basic grammar rules so that I can make sentences in past, present and future time.

But the other challenge is not to bore my readers stiff! You’ll only get glimpses of my creole language in the novel, but you can be assured that like Elvish, Klingon and Valyrian, there’s a linguistics expert toiling in the background to make sure that it is plausible. The real point of the exercise is to add authenticity to an imagined world in which global warming has passed the tipping point.

As I write this, I note that every mention of Australia has been deleted from a recent UNESCO report on climate change: Another reason to write this book.


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Author Ann Massey – deft touch, deep concerns

Ann Massey

I came across Australian indie author Ann Massey last year when I picked up her novel The White Amah. Looking at her diverse output, I’m tempted to ask ‘what’s her angle?’ And where does her latest novel The Little Dog Laughed fit into her body of work? In fact, Ann Massey is a conviction novelist, producing work that barracks for the powerless. If this sounds like the work of a humourless ideologue, it isn’t.

Her latest work The Little Dog Cover of The Little Dog LaughedLaughed is a sparkling time-travel fantasy that showcases her wit, her deep knowledge of Britain in Roman times, and for good measure her love of dogs. And woven into the whole nutty tale is a deeper theme about the travails of people caring for sick or disabled relatives. I never realised what hilarity could be found in a  mobility scooter!

Here’s Ann Massey answering a few searching questions I put to her:

Q – The Little Dog Laughed is impossible to place in a genre. Is this a help or a hindrance in finding readers?
A – I’ve been a square-peg all my life and this is reflected in my writing. I know smart marketeers stick to one genre and write series, but I can’t change who I am. I like hopping all over the place, and writing in many very different genres. The reader I’d like to attract is someone like me who reads everything by authors on my shortlist of favourites, and impatiently wishes they would increase their productivity.

Q – Like me, you’re a Pom who has spent the larger part of your life in Australia. Do you think that having a foot in each culture has influenced your writing?

A – I was born in Bolton and grew up in the tough environment of a council estate in post-war Britain. Both my parents left school at fourteen but I was I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to a Grammar school. The majority of my contemporaries were first generation grammar school pupils, most of them with parents who by economic circumstance had been deprived of an academic education. I believe the justice for all themes that run through my books sprang from the opportunity to receive an education that had previously been restricted to a privileged minority. The plots and their backgrounds, however, are the offspring of a lifetime spent in Australia
None of my books are autobiographical, but in each I have used my personal knowledge of its unique world to give the story a genuine authenticity. For instance, I was marketing manager of the Daily News when Perth’s afternoon newspaper went the way of afternoon newspapers worldwide. Uncertain what I wanted to do, I applied for the position of governess on Minilya, a sheep and cattle station in the Australian outback. The station was located close to the Carnarvon Tracking Station built for the Gemini Space Program. To entertain my pupils, I invented a story about the International Space Station crash landing on a station very like Minilya. Mo, tbedhe jackeroo who found the wreckage in my debut novel, The Biocide Conspiracy, slept on a bed very like the one that was provided for me, pictured here


Q – A Little Dog Laughed and Salvation Jane have strong social justice themes but you manage this with a light touch. What’s the trick?

A – Several readers categorised Salvation Jane as chick lit albeit with a message. This was exactly the reaction I was after.  I  confess that when I began the tone was darker and more serious. But as the story progressed I thought about my readers. I wanted my book to be read by the masses and if they’re anything like me they don’t want to be preached at. So how do you get readers to read a serious commentary on homelessness in Australia? Take it from me it’s very tricky. In the end, I wrote a plot driven story— funny, a bit sad, a little deep and (I hope) inspiring. The ‘up in the air’ ending I considered—the type that always disappoints me— was dropped in favour of a much more satisfying one.

When it comes to the light touch, I might have succeeded too well  in The Little Dog Laughed because all its reviews mention that its unique, refreshing, funny, and wildly creative, none mention its dark theme of carer abuse.


“Sydney authors conned me” – editor’s final words

by Lesley Latte*

cover frontIn his final interview, the late Raymond Saucisson, editor of Charcuterie Monthly, made the shock allegation that a group of Sydney authors tricked him into writing an introduction to the book With Gusto!.

“I was informed that the book was about the joy of food,” said the former cold cut supremo. “Most of the stories depict revolting meals, some with no meat at all.”

Asked why he had provided an introduction to the book, Saucisson said, “I am a man of honour, a knight among meat lovers. I would not renege on a promise”.

It is understood that Saucisson made a similar complaint about an introduction that he agreed to write for Stuart Campbell’s On Becoming a Butcher in Paris. Campbell was not available for comment

With Gusto! is an anthology of food stories by members of the Write On! writers group in Sydney. It is available in paperback here.

The cover design is by TribeCreative.


*Lesley Latte reserves the right not to disclose h** gender.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing



Whatever it takes – a short story

raymondMy friend Professor Stuart Campbell asked me to comment on this short story he has written. I regret to say that I think the story is in dubious taste, but as I often say, chacun à sa saucisse. Raymond Saucisson*, editor, Charcuterie Monthly

Whatever it takes by Stuart Campbell

When he angled one shoulder forward and narrowed his eyes, the figure in the mirror looked almost feminine. Dr Kim Pope experimented with several poses until he had the optimum configuration: Head turned slightly to the right and tilted a little downward; knees together and turned to the left; one arm resting on his lap, the other supporting the chin with the index finger placed against the side of the face. He repeated Peter’s mantra: I am relaxed but resolute. He fine tuned the facial expression: Less macho, Peter had said, widen the eyelids a fraction, sweeten the smile.

“The big moment’s almost here, Kim. Are you ready?” It was Peter. He hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside of the dressing room door and then pulled it shut.

“What about Millie?” Kim asked. He’d suggested – no, insisted – that she be with him today to take him through some of the tricky questions.

“She’ll give us a special knock on the door,” Peter said. “Let’s start with the unmentionables. Just pop behind the screen.”

“No need Pete. We’ve known each other long enough,” Kim said. He kicked off his shoes and socks, unknotted the tie, peeled off the business shirt and dropped his suit pants. He stepped out of his jocks.

“They’re on the dressing table Kim. Help yourself.”

Kim had kept his body depilated for the last few week, and the sheer material of the panties glided over his calves and thighs. The garment barely contained his wedding tackle, but the full skirt that Peter had chosen would mask the bulge. He hooked the padded bra at the front, then twisted it around his trunk so that the two little mounds perked up from his chest. He was lightly built, fair complexioned, a youthful fifty year old.

“Give us a twirl Kim.”

“Don’t take the piss Pete. We’re professionals. Let me get the pantihose on.”

Peter Donaldson, Oscar nominee for Best Makeup, waited while his friend smoothed the stockings, then handed him a silk wrap. They’d been pals at school, and later Kim had married Peter’s sister Chrissie. Kim sat in the salon chair and Peter started to apply foundation. Chrissie had tried making him up but despite his sandy hair she hadn’t worked out how to hide his shave. But she’d figured out the trick with the hair: They’d let it grow out gradually and swept it into a thicker version of his normal masculine quiff, reducing the bulk with wax. Chrissie had shaped and sculpted it so that once the wax was washed out, the hair could be whipped into a gamine bob with a feathery fringe dipping over the forehead.

But she’d taken some convincing when he’d put the whole idea to her six months before. “You want to become a woman?” she asked. “I’ve heard some mad ideas from you over the years, but a sex change? Can we be serious now?”

“I have to become a woman. I’ve always thought that I was a woman inside.” They sat up till the early hours while he told his story. At last she nodded and said, “Yes, yes. I’m with you Kim.” She was always with him. They’d told their teenaged children the next evening. Zachary listened and muttered, “Whatever,” while Pixie stared at them, from one to the other, and said, “I can’t say I’m surprised.” Well, Pixie was right; the family had had to cope with a good many U-turns during Kim’s career.

There was a coded knock and Peter let in Millie Ransom, biographer to billionaire grocers, divas, and celebrity criminals. They’d had six or seven meetings, Millie gently probing Kim’s memories, taking notes, nodding impassively. It was during the third meeting that he’d broached the issue of his transgender ‘journey’. He liked that word ‘journey’; it chimed with the dynamism and advancement that defined his career. Millie hadn’t blinked – just made notes. She never lost her cool demeanour, even that time when he’d contrived to squeeze her bottom as he ushered her out through the office door.

“How long till the press conference, Dr Pope?”

“We’ve got five minutes Millie. You’re going to witness history today.”

“I’ve got your questions,” Millie said as Kim rose from the chair, face meticulously made up. Peter unwound the wrap from his brother in law’s shoulders and unclipped a blouse and skirt from a clothes rack.

“Dr Pope, of all the factors that have brought you to this point, what stands out in your mind – at this very moment – as the one driving motivation for your decision to become a woman?” Millie looked down at her notebook as Kim stepped into the black skirt.

“Well Millie, my father taught me a vital lesson in life. He told me, ‘Be yourself, be authentic. If you’re a phoney, people will catch you out.’ And that lesson has served me well. I am being myself. I am projecting myself as the woman I’ve always known I am”.

“Cynics might say that your journey, as you call it, has more to do with expediency, even survival.”

“Millie, I’ve heard this opinion in the media. I think it’s a tragic indictment on the values of this country when a person – especially a person in public life – is exposed to ridicule or insult because of his or her sexuality.”

“Dr Pope, is your wife Chrissie apprehensive about the journey ahead?”

“Well, this is a very personal matter, but let me just say that my wife will face the challenges ahead with the courage she has shown throughout my career.”

“And is surgery on the near horizon?”

“That’s a hypothetical at this stage Millie, but it’s a matter that I will consider in full consultation with my wife.”

“Dr Pope, since the redrawing of your electoral boundary you are sitting on the slimmest of margins, and your constituents now include the highest proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters of any electorate in the country. Some people might ask to what extent your change of gender will increase your chances of retaining your seat?”

There was a knock on the door. A voice said, “One minute Prime Minister.” Kim put on the blouse and Peter buttoned it up. He squeezed his feet into the size 11 high heeled shoes that Chrissie had found at a special online store and strode out to meet the press.

©Stuart Campbell 2015

* Raymond Saucisson was kind enough to write the introduction to my anthology of essays On Becoming a Butcher in Paris.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s novels in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links: An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity The Play’s the Thing