October 01, 2015

Don't give them any money

In Katherine, it's common to get 'humbugged' at Woolies (the local supermarket). Humbugging is basically an unsolicited request for something - usually money. It's different to begging. It's typically done between people who already have some sort of relationship. Anthropologists call it demand-sharing, and it's actually a way of maintaining healthy family relationships. In remote communities, it's typically reciprocal and a leveller. But in town where there's alcohol and wealth disparities, it's more complicated. Humbugging pisses off a lot of white people - especially people who don't know and/or like Aboriginal people. For me, it is what it is. It's a cross-cultural challenge and the prevalence of it in Katherine town itself is a symptom of social inequality. Sometimes it's a pain. Sometimes it's just a means to start a conversation. Sometimes it's a way for me to help a friend in need.

So, as it often goes, I dropped into Woolies Katherine and on my way out was stopped by someone I know and he asked me for money. He's a young man I've known for over 10 years, since he was about 12 - I don't know him well, but enough to say hi to. He was with his wife and they were drunk, a bit noisy and extra friendly. I didn't want to give them money which was okay with them (if not a bit disappointing). That didn't matter much - we still were having a brief friendly chat despite them being pretty all over the place.

At which point, a "concerned citizen" walking past made a point of detouring towards us and gives me some completely unsolicitied advice:
Don't give them any money. 
He said it to me without any evidence of self-consciousness despite him speaking loud enough so that all three of us could hear. I looked at him blankly and said quite coldly: "It's fine. I know these people". And he slunk off, and the drunk guy I was talking to also raised his voice and said something cranky in his direction as he walked away.

I was stunned at this person's boldness. It was so insulting to me, my friend and his partner. I did not need to be "saved" by a random stranger. I found the stranger's behaviour wildly more inappropriate or "anti-social" than that of the young drunk couple. I did not look distressed and my "advisor" did not first check to see if there actually was a problem. I know the couple were drunk in the afternoon and not in a good way, but to assume that it's ok to tell me "don't give them any money" right in front of them? I'm sure it would make them feel utterly worthless. But it's part of this small-minded uncaring ethos among some (many?) in Katherine that "anti-social behaviour" must be stamped out. And at the same time, reflecting a lack of understanding that anti-social behaviours are also the stuff of rude, open hostility and racial profiling like what this random stranger exhibited.

FYI, the guy who humbugged me originally? He has a problem with alcohol and he's been involved in the revolving door of a justice system that we have in the NT for several years now. Both those things are quite likely due to his cognition and judgement being affected by foetal alcohol syndrome and/or petrol sniffing. Despite this, he has still managed to make valuable contributions to a cultural organisation I've had some involvement with over the years. He's a nice guy who makes bad life decisions for reasons that aren't entirely in his control. It is not okay for a stranger to treat or speak to him like he's a piece of trash, nor assume I need "saving" from having an interaction with him.

My only hope is that my unsolicited advisor realised pretty much straight-away that he'd overstepped the mark and next time won't be so quick to judge.

August 11, 2015

en God bin gibit wi langgus: the challenge of reconciling language policy at the Roper River Mission

For some reason, a little utterance comes to my mind every now and then, which one of the dear elders I work with in Ngukurr said on a recording back in 2011:
... en God bin gibit wi langgus. 
It means 'and God gave us (Aboriginal) language(s)'. It's such a simple, emphatic statement. I'm not religious, but I really like the sentiment. I like that, according to her, Aboriginal languages have an unshakeable, undeniable value because they were given to Aboriginal people/placed on Aboriginal land by God. 

My Country - Gertie Huddleston (2002)*

The elder who said this, did so as a quiet afterthought at the tail end of a group discussion. It was almost drowned out by others, easily dismissible, but I picked it up and it has stuck with me. The main discussion involved a bunch of elders sitting around talking about language policy at the old Roper River Mission which I'd asked them about as part of my PhD research. Another of the women contributed the most, describing in some detail the punishment and denigration that she and her peers experienced at the hands of missionaries relating to the use of traditional Aboriginal languages. She became quite passionate in describing the situation and the hurt it has caused. 

It's a common theme among their generation. They all experienced the punishment and denigration, and they've all lived through the decline of their languages until the current situation where they're now barely spoken by anyone, if it all. It has hurt them individually and as a society. It must be acknowledged however that languages disappear for a complex range of interconnected reasons. A small group of missionaries are not capable on their own of sending a bunch of languages to the metaphoric palliative care facility I work with them in. So while the Roper River Mission by and large treated Aboriginal languages very poorly, additional and greater contributing factors led to their decline. But the missionaries' direct and interpersonal disdain for traditional languages makes them the clearest symbol available to community members in Ngukurr who understandably seek something to hook their hurt on regarding the loss of language.

But it's still a challenging topic to many community members. Most are Christian, and value the church. Most have a great deal to be thankful to missionaries for - education, love and genuine care for their welfare. So I think it is difficult for the generation who were punished for speaking traditional languages to reconcile that with all the positive things that they gained from the mission time. And that utterance from the old lady - ... en God bin gibit wi langgus - also encapsulates that tension. She loves God. She's a very Christian lady. She also loves learning and speaking traditional languages and has worked tirelessly to stem their decline. She'd just listened, agreeably, to a clear description of how missionaries 'took away' their languages. But how did that happen when they were otherwise good and godly. And how could missionaries do that to her languages, when those languages were placed there by God himself.

I don't know either olgamen.

*Gertie Huddleston passed away in 2013 and was one of the mission residents subjected to language policies of the mission.

April 25, 2015

Lest we forget: warfare in our own region

No one in my close family has been to war, so I've never felt like international conflicts were that close to my life. So for me, domestic conflicts have more immediate relevance.

The traditional languages of the Katherine and Roper regions aren't endangered just because parents decided their kids didn't need to know their language anymore. There are huge social and historical forces at play. The warfare that occurred when Europeans first came to this area is one of those major factors. The stories are there - in books, newspapers and oral histories. They're not hard to find. It's just that most people aren't ready to know or want to know.

I was surprised and impressed to see Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels' entry to 2014 Katherine Prize called Olden Days, depicting a scene of local warfare. I'd never seen them paint this theme before. It's a wonderful painting about our awful and very close-to-home unofficial wars. Lest we forget.

Olden Days (detail) by Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels. 2014.
Olden Days. By Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels. 2014.

April 17, 2015


This is a bit random, but I had to share. I've been lolling and beating my fist on the table all night at this video (yes, literally). I had no idea a 17 second cutaway on a TV show could be so LOL-worthy. It really tickles my fancy ... the idea of this cruel gameshow called "Homonym":

The cleverness of 30 Rock is only just dawning on me, about 10 years too late. But my appreciation went up a whole nother level when I saw they'd gone all multilingual on the idea and done Homonym in Farsi (Persian)! It's gold:

I love that the presenter is just as cruelly funny in Farsi and the Farsi-speaking contestant is brilliant too. I'm very glad that someone put a translation on YouTube. It's goes like this:
Presenter: The next term: milk/tap/lion (all pronounced شیر  'sheer' in Farsi - a triple homonym)
Contestent: Sure. "شیر". Like a large cat?
Presenter: No, the other one.
Contestant: Go to hell! (Literally "soil on your head" as in entombed, or simple "die")
Presenter: [Maniacal laugh]

February 18, 2015

Ten years of blogging!

Ten years of blogging? How did that happen! Well this is how... revealed in a long, extremely self-indulgent post that hopefully has enough reflection and self-awareness to not make you vomit into your hat.

Here's where it all began: http://munanga.blogspot.com.au/2005/02/oh-my-ive-got-blog.html

I started this blog in 2005 in pre-Facebook days when the main ways of keeping in touch with friends and family was phone, email or snail mail. The beginnings of this blog were very innocuous - a way for friends/family to read about what I was up to (I'm a crap emailer and letter writer). At the time I was a few months into my only major stint of living remotely, spending around three years in Ngukurr as a community-based linguist. It was a tough job and I was on a steep learning curve very much out of my cultural comfort zone. I soon found that blogging was a good way for me document and process the interesting and challenging experiences I was having. There were also a group of friends and colleagues doing the same thing and we formed a nice little blogroll together. That was when my blogging was most prolific and if you read over those old posts you'll see lots about the day-to-day life of being a remote linguist. For example, here's a short post on a nice exchange I had with a young neighbour (maidi sta bin buldan) and here's me getting a bit worn out and discussing some of the work issues I would face daily (reluctant).

A few years into my blogging, I unexpectedly found out that it had the potential to be a bit of a voice for advocacy. I had thought that it was only my friends and a few language nerds reading my musings, but then during my last year in Ngukurr we had the Intervention. I was already burning out and in hindsight, the extra trauma of the Intervention put the nail into the coffin and I moved back to town not long after. After attending the first major community meeting about the Intervention, I had a burning desire to get the story off my chest. I had no choice - my head and heart was racing and I needed to express it. That post was later picked up by a former Queensland senator (for the Democrats... yep... that's how long I've been blogging.. the Democrats were still a thing!) who used it as a source of info and anti-Intervention sentiment and suddenly I'd reached a whole new audience.

Then my blog got quiet. I was living back in Katherine, life was less tumultuous, and the Facebook era was in full swing. With Facebook, I had a much more immediate and interactive way to keep in touch with friends and family, so the blog was not quite as functional anymore. But it floated along with occasional posts and then kinda got a boost again in 2010 when I started my PhD and started spending a lot more time in Ngukurr again. I had exciting things to share again and things that required a bit more detail than a Facebook status update could give. For example. this was me after finding out that young people in Ngukurr say 'gijal' instead of 'gija' (crazy katz) and here's one of the cool things I learned about Marra while I was working with the old people.

Around the same time another significant thing was happening. A bunch of postgrad students started up a language blog, Fully (sic), on the Crikey news website and I jumped on board. This really helped get my blogging mojo back. Despite being a regular contributor to that blog, I kept up the blogging here too, to talk about things that were more personal or localised, like my traumatic wet season trip from Ngukurr to Katherine or about translating Facebook into Kriol. Meanwhile, on Fully (sic), my writing skills were developing and I started to gain confidence in my writing. I'd never thought of myself as a decent writer. I don't enjoy writing. I don't do a lot of it really. But now I was writing on this blog, on Crikey, and getting stuck back into academic writing and I was doing okay at it. What a revelation! The Crikey stuff was awesome and I wrote some things I'm very proud of, one of the first being my list of Top Ten Moments In The Sun for Indigenous languages. So many people read it and enjoyed it! Another piece I like was when I mansplained why the Australian Financial Review got it wrong by using the word 'blacks' in their headline and was totally chuffed when none other than First Dog On The Moon tweeted about what a good headline "Why Muriel Heslop is not as dumb as the Australian Financial Review" was. I was also very proud to actually be the first person to break the story that the NT Government had finally dropped the awful policy of teaching in English for the First Four Hours of each school day. That story was later reported on by quite a few other media outlets.

So it was about here that I started getting bolder with my blogging. I criticised a journalist from the Australian for adhering to a deficit discourse when it came to reporting on Indigenous education. As if that wasn't a big enough target, I later bagged out McDonald's and suggested that an advertising campaign they ran was kinda racist. I don't think I overstepped the mark with those pieces, but I really am not sure about whether the piece I wrote about Marion Scrymgour for New Matilda was a good idea. It was strongly worded, venting years of frustration I'd felt in the face of unsuccessful lobbying to get the First Four Hours of policy removed and the stubbornness of Scrymgour and others to stand by it. My article resulted an instant rebuttal that named me numerous times as being out of line. I still have no perspective on this - was I being bullied? Was I just naive in thinking that little old me could write whatever I like and no one would pay any attention but actually was way out of line? I still don't know. But as a minor compensation, I still enjoy the line that I was "a member of a sophisticated, well-organised, and influential lobby group". That really does make it clear as day how perceptions differ. At my end, all I do is send a few emails, chat to others and blather on about stuff on blogs. I had no idea that that could be construed as being sophisticated, organised and influential!

Not long after that episode came another very difficult piece that I wrote after watching a controversial AFL grand final. The match had ended abruptly when the all-Indigenous team from Ngukurr were called off the field by their coaches before the final siren in protest of the umpiring and conduct of the mostly or all non-Indigenous Katherine-based team. It was a traumatic event to witness and the aftermath was also shocking, where so few of my Katherine-based friends were sympathetic to the Ngukurr team's behaviour (the Ngukurr coaches were also sent to the AFL tribunal over it). I composed a lengthy piece to provide a viewpoint that differed from the majority but got caned for it. The negative comments came think and fast (as well as plenty of positive ones) and a random angry phone call from a player on the Katherine-based team made it all become too real. I took the post down.

Since then I've had a lot more anxiety about blogging and tried to return to nicer and safer posts and topics. I wrote lighter stuff on Fully (sic) that I'm proud of like advocating that 'totes' should be spelled 'toats' and a look at the multilingual AFL commentary gimmick of a few years back. But the compulsion to raise issues and criticise seems to be ingrained. I've always been this way I think. In Year 12, I got a letter to the editor published in the Courier Mail complaining that Channel 10 had edited the lesbian kiss out of a rerun of a Roseanne episode. Ha! My sister reminded me of a late drunken night in the Valley in my early 20s when I was annoyed that the ATM was out of action due to scheduled servicing right when I needed cash to get my drunken arse home. I marched right over to a payphone and rang the bank to complain. What a brat. And don't worry, if you find it annoying that I'm constantly getting worked up about issues (which always inevitably pass... I know I don't always need to bother), I find myself annoying most of the time too. I apologise. I do try to keep it light sometimes.

But I just can't help myself. This time last year I was on a mini rampage when Indigenous education was reviewed in the NT by a clueless numbskull. I vented directly to him at a public meeting and then vented on my blog. The piece, Northern Territory's Draft Indigenous Education review (Part 1) is now my 2nd most read article on here. (Still working on that part two though!). Days later I blogged again about how appalled I was with the very kind appraisal of a notorious NT historical figure in an exhibition at the NT Library (Whitewashed: The Northern Territory Library's disturbing commemoration of the life of Paul Foelsche). This issue was actually picked up by local ABC so I must have been on to something.

Last week, I had an interview for a fancy job at a very nice university and they asked what publications I'm most proud of. As I bumbled through my answer ("I don't actually like this piece... Well, I mean I like it, but it was just difficult to write and it was a full on experience to go through..."), I talked about the time I took on the multi-million dollar marketing campaign of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (first on the present blog, then on Fully (sic)). I complained that they were using a false statistic in their marketing and pandering to a negative portrayal of remote Aboriginal kids. The boss of this influential charity took issue with what I'd written and I took issue back. It was a very stressful week. My bark is a lot bigger than my bite. I'm typically a pushover and not very assertive in real life, so episodes like this make me very anxious. It's probably my lack of interpersonal assertiveness that makes me a good candidate for being quite vehement (at times) on the internet. I know at least one fellow PhD student who knew my blogging before they knew me remarked that the real life me was not what they'd expected at all. Ha!

And that's the story of my ten years of blogging. Again, apologies for the long self-indulgent post. But it has actually been quite a significant part of my life, so why not reflect on it properly? My blogging has helped to clarify my thoughts about many issues and events. It's made what I do and what I care about more widely known and understood. I like to think I've helped to promote Aboriginal languages and made them better understood, as well as those who speak them (or have been denied that opportunity via history). And for me personally, it's really helped me develop as a writer. I've gone from an incredibly reluctant writer who thought nothing of my writing abilities, to now being a confident writer who believes that writing can do pretty cool things when you do it well or get it right. This blog has documented many parts of my professional and personal life over the past ten years and I've really enjoyed sharing it with whoever happens across it. Thanks for reading.

If anyone has actually read this far, I'd love to hear your open thoughts if you have any to share: on my blogging in general, or any specific posts, on the issue of balancing the sharing of online opinions/views with maintaining real-life relationships, or on being a 'keyboard warrior' and advocating and raising issues online in media like blogs - is it worthwhile? how hard do you push? The past ten years of blogging have been quite a rollercoaster and I'm still figuring it out.

October 19, 2014

What's in a word: dinggal

Fun fact: In Kriol, dinggal is a verb meaning 'limp' or 'walk unevenly'. In Marra and Warndarrang, dinggarl-dinggarl refers to a weed that produces fruit like this:

Notice a connection?

I only just noticed it yesterday when I was trying to suss out where the verb dinggal comes from (obviously not English). You can see the verb dinggal described (at 1:10) in this video (courtesy of the ever helpful and brilliant Kamahl and Dwayne):

As for those spiky little spurs? They're found across a lot of Australia, not only on on the ground, but embedded in thongs, feet and tyres, all over remote Australia. According to Heath's Warndarrang and Marra dictionaries, the species name is Tribulus cistoides. I'm not sure but it might be the nasty weed known as caltrop (can anyone confirm this?). Obviously, treading on those awful bindi-eyes will make you limp and walk strangely. The link between the plant name in Marra and Wandarrang and the verb shown on the video above is pretty obvious.

But there's more the story of the etymology of dinggal. See, it seems quite unlikely for a noun to switch over and become a verb when it transfers into a new language. Most other Kriol verbs that come from a traditional languages were verbs in the original language. It seems to be the norm that word classes stay the same. And when I scouted around, I did find examples of dinggal as a verb in other languages:

Margaret Sharpe's Alawa dictionary lists dinggal as a coverb with the meaning 'be lame' - not quite the same as limp, but definitely shares the meaning of being somehow incapacitated. And when Ruth Singer re-jigged Heath's Marra dictionary in 2002, the old ladies she worked with must have told her dinggal was a Marra coverb too, because it ended up in Ruth's dictionary with the meaning 'to go with a stick, to walk with a limp’. (It wasn't in Heath's original Marra dictionary).

But the clues don't end there. Up in Central Arnhem Land where Ngandi country is, they say gu-dheng for foot (gu- is just a noun class marker - the bit that really means foot is dheng). When Ngandi people make verbs, they can do something that Marra, Alawa and Warndarrang people can't in their languages which is to insert a noun in the middle of the verb (this is known as "noun incorporation" to smarty-bum linguists).

Ngandi has a verb root -galiyn- meaning 'to hang up, suspend'. And when the word for foot gets incorporated into that verb, a new verb is created: -dhingh-galiyn- which Heath defined as 'to have or put one's foot on top'. This verb is now reminiscent of the Kriol meaning of dinggal too. And when we get rid of the Ngandi sounds that you don't get in Kriol (like the 'dh' and the glottal stop 'h') then -dhingh-galiyn- ends up as '-dinggaliny-'. Drop the -iny and you have a match with Kriol verb.

And that's what I've learned (so far) about the possible origins of the Kriol verb dinggal. (And... bragging rights: it's not even in the Kriol Dikshenri so I might be the first person to document dinggal as a Kriol verb at all!)

But was it a verb or a plant name first? And in which language? Maybe the Ngandi verb was first and it became the Marra and Warndarrang name for the weed. Or did the plant name come first? Or was it just a coincidence that the Ngandi word for foot created a verb that was reminiscent of words in Marra, Alawa and Warndarrang and then they all reinforced each other and then when Kriol developed, hey presto, let's keep using the word dinggal?

Who knows? I don't. Happy to hear your theories and speculations though!

By the way, this is stuff I've been writing in my thesis which is neeeeaaaaarrrrrrllllly done - still a few months away but getting close now. If you found this interesting, you can read about a stack of other examples when my thesis is finally completed.


Heath, Jeffrey. 1978. Ngandi grammar, texts, and dictionary. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Heath, Jeffrey. 1980. Basic materials in Warndarang: grammar, texts and dictionary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Heath, Jeffrey. 1981. Basic Materials in Mara: Grammar, Texts and Dictionary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Lee, Jason (ed.). 2004. Kriol-Ingglish Dikshenrihttp://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/ASEDA/docs/0739-Kriol/index.1.html.

Sharpe, Margaret. 2001. Alawa Nanggaya Nindanya Yalanu rugalarra: Alawa-Kriol-English Dictionary longer edition. Adelaide: Caitlin Press.

Singer, Ruth and Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation. 2002. Marra Picture Dictionary. Katherine, NT: Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation.

September 01, 2014

Bunjee. We gotta go now.

Wide-eyed and well-educated. That was me, supposedly.

That was me when I first camped in an Aboriginal community. I was there to learn about “the other”. Except now, I was “the other”. If the community was a billabong that never dried up, I was a fisherman. Transient. Sitting on the bank, optimistically dangling a line, seeking a gift, a prize, some sustenance.

But on this day – the day I got my simplest and most effective Kriol lesson ever, I wasn’t a lone fisherman. Me, and - “them” - were an awkward “us”. A handful of people lining a creek, at 100 foot intervals, semi-hidden from each other, each in our own quiet space and solitude. Optimistically dangling that line.

Except my line was tangled and taut with my own anxiety. I was the outsider, observing “the other” yet being “the other”. How do I act here? How do I speak to these people? How are they gonna accept me? How do we interact? Can I keep my feet on the ground, outta my mouth?

I kept fishing, kept that line in the water, kept my fears tightly wound round the cheap plastic handreel inside my own self-consciousness. I waited for a bite.

The sun sank. There we were. A handful of people and a watercourse, whose relationships were bound by a history older anything I’d ever encountered before.

My fears, I discovered, were unfounded. I found them willing to fold me into their world, ever so slowly. Fold me in like an origami artist making deliberate creases on expensive paper. The sun sank and it was time for a Kriol lesson.

The instruction. ‘Yu jingat yu banji jeya’ – call out to your newly-adopted brother-in-law over there.

And no further meta-discussion, just a demonstration: ‘BANJI! WI GARRA GU NA!’
‘Bunjee. We gotta go now.
‘Nomo lagijat’. – not like that. ‘BANJI!’, yu la…
And that was my lesson. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t grammar or vocab. It was intonation. Prosody. And what us linguists call pragmatics. It was an essential lesson. A basic lesson: how to speak to someone who is far away.

In my culture, I was shouting. A sign of anger, distress. In their culture, it was purely pragmatic. Greater distance = greater volume.

This was a lesson absorbed very easily, and very permanently. Catch of the day on my day of fishing.

But that lesson was 10 years ago. And that riverbank is far away in space and time. Traded in for town. K-Town. Woolies. Commerce, business, retail. Small talk, pleasantries, acquaintances. Dinner parties and the detritus of Facebook gossip. And what they like to call ‘antisocial behaviour’. The us and them that fosters and festers when shared experiences aren’t experienced.

Why can’t they behave? Why are they so noisy? Why can’t they be more like us? Why can’t they keep their voices down? Keep their voice down. They They They. Why Why Why.

The ‘they’ of ‘our’ rhetoric, of our pronominal problem… ‘they’ are just fishermen and fisherwomen. Disrupted by the sinking sun. Needing to move to escape the impending darkness, but no longer sure where to go.

[The above is something I wrote for a little Open Mic Night we had in Katherine last weekend. The occasion was a visit by the brilliant Omar Musa who was travelling around launching his first novel 'Here Comes The Dogs' (spectacular website, btw). 

I decided to try my hand at some writing that's more creative than my usual blogging and thesis writing. Oh, and then stand up in front of 40 or so people and say/perform it. Definitely a first for me, but I enjoyed the exercise.]