Tag Archives: Linguistics

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.

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Cast naked before the reader

© Sara Campbell 2015
© Sara Campbell 2015

This brief extract from my essay Where Language Darts and Swoops might resonate with other writers …

When I began my first novel  the emotional weight of the content that I dumped onto the page in truckloads overcame my rational knowledge that someone had to actually read this stuff. I was, in fact, writing to myself into a state of cognitive masturbation. After three months of secret writing (I told my wife that I was doing ‘research’), it was time to lose my virginity.  I joined a writing group and gabbled my first chapter out loud to five strangers. The invisible homunculus on my shoulder groaned at the ponderous, overblown, self indulgent tosh. At last I finished, dry-mouthed and red. Nobody winced. Nobody sniggered. Somebody said it was quite good. They made some suggestions: More dialogue here perhaps; too much detail in the second paragraph; how did that bit move the story on? I’d had my first lesson in the discipline of fiction writing.

And I’d understood the awful truth of the novelist’s vocation: That you cast yourself naked before the reader; that the lifetime accumulation of your beliefs and emotions and madnesses is the trove that you plunder when you invent a new reality. I’d spent thousands of hours of my professional life talking in front of audiences – lectures, committees, conferences. But none of it came close to the anxiety that I endured on that morning with five strangers when I read my own gaudy, private words.

You can buy Stuart’s novels in e-book and paperback by clicking on these links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Farts in their drawers: Using and abusing foreign proverbs in fiction

fartsOne of my most treasured books is Arabic Proverbs by  J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist famous for travelling to Mecca disguised as a Muslim in 1814-15. I’ve always found the book fascinating, and I couldn’t resist drawing on it in writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour.

A difficult technical challenge in writing this book was finding a narrative voice for my Egyptian characters. I used proverbs here and there to give some oriental spice without stereotyping; I get tired of the Bad Arab Syndrome, a condition that seems to afflict many thriller writers. I’ve vowed that no character of mine will say, “By Allah, the infidel dog will taste bitter dates this night”.

One of my favourite characters is Zouzou Paris. She’s a film actress with a notorious reputation, the mistress of a shady senior military figure. She can barely act, and admits to her friend Pierre that ‘the owl became an actress’. Here she’s explaining to her friend Pierre how she got her start:

” … I couldn’t act, but I could – let’s say – give him the kind of companionship he needed. So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes,” [Zouzou said].

“You’re known as a fine actress, hardly an owl.”

“You obviously haven’t seen any of my films…”

In fact, Burckhardt’s original proverb is ‘the owl has become a poetess’, intended to describe a person who is operating above their level of competence. I adapted it to the context and added a bit of support for the reader with ‘as the old saying goes’.

Later, Pierre describes Zouzou as ‘tough as a sheep’s ear’, but this isn’t one of Burkhardt’s: I made it up. My Arabic is reasonably good, but I have no idea whether the Egyptians say this. Does is matter? I think not.

My favourite appropriation is when I have two policemen complaining about their unappreciative superiors. Here’s a snippet:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?” one officer said bitterly.

“And we’re the ones sniffing their farts …”

The original (see illustration) is somewhat different, and Burkhardt’s translation treats the fart word delicately: ‘a slight wind’ in the translation, and then the Latin flatus in the commentary. My version is as bawdy as the original, but I’ve modified the first part so that I give farts more emphasis by placing it later in the proverb. And I couldn’t resist adding the sniffing comeback.

I wonder if other writers have used this strategy?

Stuart Campbell

You can find out about my novels here.

Foreign words in a novel: When is it time to hold the condiments?

KPSU card 001How many foreign words can an author pepper their work with, and when does the reader get indigestion? This question came up at one of my writers groups recently when I introduced a new character who opens the second part of my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour.

I had sprinkled the text with Russian words in order to flavour the narrative voice of the third person narrator, Ivan Maksimovich Zlotnik, a Soviet spy posted to Cairo. By the way, half of my bachelor degree was in Russian, and although I last spoke the language in Hanoi twenty years ago, I have enough residual knowledge not to make gross errors.

Here’s an example that didn’t seem to bother my writing pals:

‘ … the one who sat out the Great Patriotic War in capitalist luxury while they froze their yaytsa off and lived on barely enough calories to sustain a bird’.

Transparent I think: If you guesses nuts or bollocks, you’d be right, and if you went for dick, then no harm done. Incidentally, how many readers will divine the meaning of Great Patriotic War? Did my technique of using the Soviet counterpart for WWII backfire?

This example of my ‘fake proverb’ also didn’t offend:

‘No spare words with this one, cold as yesterday’s borshch.’

I haven’t a clue whether Russians say this, but since I’m faking it I can control the comprehensibility of the foreign words; I’d expect any reader of my books to know what borshch is.

But there was a problem with this example: My character is the son of one of the nomenklatura, but some of the group were lukewarm about the word. I’d hoped that the context would suggest that nomenklatura means something like the ‘A list’ of the Communist Party. Maybe rethink that one.

And things got really tricky with:

‘”You always had it made, Ivan,” his fellow MGIMO graduates would say.”

Some of my comrades didn’t mind encountering MGIMO without a formal introduction, and then learning later that it was the Russian acronym for Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Others were happy to wait for the meaning of MGIMO to be revealed.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that another issue was at play: Is it that readers belong to one of two camps – those that can wait and those that can’t? Coincidentally I was at my other writers group on the following night when one member read what I thought was a very elegant prologue. It was only in the last sentence that the identity of a mysterious ‘she’ was revealed. A marvelous strategy, I thought. But one or two of the members complained that they’d wanted to know who ‘she’ was up front!

On balance I think I prefer my readers to wait, so MGIMO stays where it is.  As my friend Raymond Saucisson*, editor of Charcuterie Monthly, often says: Putain, je préfère ma saucisse pour le plat principal.

Stuart Campbell

*Monsieur Saucisson kindly wrote the introduction to my anthology of essays On Becoming a Butcher in Paris.

You can buy Stuart’s novels in e-book and paperback by clicking on these links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Sydney author suffers from mild case of aptronymia

Lots of fiction writers suffer from it: The urge to create meaningful names for characters in novels. I was jogged into mental action on the topic by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in an England not so distant from that of Dickens, and written in a style that pays homage to him; take Mrs. Sucksby for example, the stout lady who takes in foundlings and calls for an infant to squeeze when she is perturbed by events.

In fact, charactonyms, or less accurately aptronyms have a long pedigree in literature. (Actually the the best term in my view is semionym, which I invented, and then discovered already exists in a Danish Wikipedia entry.)

Oddly, this literary trope seems to be omitted from school English syllabuses; while students sweat over alliteration, parallelism, metaphor, simile, anthropomorphism and all the other fancy discussion points guaranteed to ruin a kid’s enjoyment of a good book, the meaningful naming of characters is seldom dealt with. And of course if you are reading in translation, you might miss a dash of charactonymming altogether; who knows that Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn’s stubborn bastard protagonist in Cancer Ward means ‘bone swallower’?

The Arabs have a very sensible attitude to this. I once met a man in Egypt called Harb Usfuur, which could be translated as ‘War Finch’, but there is an Arabic saying al’asmaa’ laa tu’allal , which officially translates as ‘names shouldn’t be explained’. Nothing more to say on that, then.

War Finches aside, I got to thinking about charactonyms in books I’ve recently read. William Boyd’s clunking Restless has Romer, an enigmatic European intelligence operative with a peculiar lovemaking style (one of the few highlights of the book): He does seem to pop up everywhere, i.e. roam around, and the name itself seems appropriately stateless but vaguely Central European. At least he didn’t end up with some funny marks above the vowels like those Scandinavian-looking ice cream brands whose names are completely concocted, or things you buy in Ikea. Randomly digging around my Kindle I had a look at Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, and Lucie Whitehouse’s The Bed I Made, but I couldn’t discern strong symptoms of aptronymia.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of help around: There is a whole website[1] devoted to meaningful native American names for dogs. What bounty for the novelist whose has painted herself into a plot corner where the story can only be resolved by the hero discovering that his enigmatic grandfather was a Choctaw breeder of Maltese Terriers. And there’s succour for the Celtic rural romance genre with a site for  legendary Irish and Scottish dog names[2].

In my own writing I’ve found the naming of characters intriguing and often challenging . In The Play’s the Thing I created some very obvious charactonyms, but they didn’t come easily. I have Agnes Flint, the hard-as-nails billionaire matriarch and her dopey sister Pearl; is the dissonance between Flint and Pearl too obvious? But the nasty Flint dynasty started out as the Hardbottles, a name I eventually abandoned because its charactonymic effect wasn’t transparent, and the components of the name risked giving away a plot twist. Naming my Pakistani character Jehangir Arby took weeks of research, but my Arabs were easier because I know much more about the culture; however, I wasn’t game to try charactonymia outside of my own bailiwick – authenticity will do.

I confess that Messrs. Noble and Savage were initially named so that their media firm could be wittily (you may think archly or even cornily) named ‘Noble Savage’. But perhaps the names did to some extent determine character; Alex Noble has his gallant days, and Laurence Savage is a bastard.  Martin Mooney just popped out of my brain one day: He’s vain, a cynic and a manipulator, and while neither Martin nor Mooney individually suggest these qualities (I know perfectly nice Martins and at least one very personable Mooney), the alliteration seems to trigger something more than the sum of the two names. I’ve discussed the grotesque Shacka in another essay in this collection, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how he progresses from Sciacca to Shacka to Shaker. It’s complicated.

In my novel An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity the the Jack in Jack Walsingham was chosen because I wanted the character to have appeal across generations of readers, the name being one that is both old-fashioned and currently popular. Don’t ask me where Walsingham came from. Jack’s wife Thea is half-Greek, and I wanted her to have an element of divine wisdom – like a Greek goddess perhaps? And my detective Fiona Salmon – well, I like the contrast between the poshness of Fiona and the wet slap of fish; does it convey the notion that Fiona is deeply conflicted?

Signing off, your faithful twisty-mouthed pigsty keeper (which is apparently what my name means).

[1] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Cool-Native-American-Names-for-Female-Dogs . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

[2] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Strong-Dog-Names-13-Irish-and-Scottish-Names-for-Male-Dogs-from-Myths-and-Legends . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.

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