August 22, 2018

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 4: Mojo Juju and the effects of language loss

The high rate of language loss and endangerment across the world is becoming more widely known. In the sociolinguistics course I am teaching, we discuss this as a follow on from topics such as multilingualism and looking at what happens when languages come into contact with each other. Sometimes you get stable multilingual societies. Sometimes pidgins and creoles arise. Sometimes you see code-switching phenomena. And sometimes, languages become weaker, become threatened, endangered and may cease to be spoken and known at all. (None of these are mutually exclusive, by the way).

When we consider language loss, we talk about why we should care (and whether we should care it all). When I asked students to think of reasons to care, the more immediate responses seem to relate to knowledge systems: that each language represents something valuable to humanity in terms of knowledge systems encoded in that language, and that that knowledge is of great value to the speech community too. 

This comes through in the lovely quote I shared in class from Nick Evans' awesome book Dying Words:
“No-one’s mind will again travel the thought-paths that its ancestral speakers once blazed. No-one will hear its sounds again except from a recording, and no-one can go back to check a translation, or ask a new question about how the language works.

Each language has a different story to tell us. … for certain riddles of humanity, just one language holds the key.” (Evans 2010; xviii)
For lingusitics students, I think it's also important to share Krauss' well-known quote, that is directed internally at linguists and the field we belong to. It's not something that I think has occurred to students before:
“We [linguistics] must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated” (Krauss 1992: 10)
But another aspect to why we should care about language loss is a little harder to convey: the personal feelings of loss and even grief that individuals can feel when they do not speak the language of their own heritage. It's really not very typical for us to talk about feelings in a linguistics class, despite their centrality.

Enter Australian singer and musician Mojo Juju. Only a few months ago, she released a song (and great video) called "Native Tongue".

Through her music and lyrics, you get a powerful sense of the personal impacts that not knowing the languages of your heritage (in her case, Wiradjuri and Filipino) can have: difficulties in finding a sense of belonging that others take for granted; anger at that not being understood ("It's easy enough for you to say, it ain't no thing. But I'm the one, you ain't the one, living in this skin"); and the resilience required to stake your place in society. The anger and hurt related to those feelings are also conveyed by her tone and music, not just the lyrics.

It's the first time I've seen issues of language loss represented in popular music. And Mojo Juju has captured it stunningly with a powerful track and video.

Photograph by Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore, reproduced
from The Guardian without permission

Also on this blog in "Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture"


Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Dying words : endangered languages and what they have to tell us. The language library. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Krauss, Michael. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis. Language, 68(1), 4–10.

August 01, 2018

Fet footish: a spoonerism caught in the wild (thanks Gogglebox!)

Spoonerisms are awesome linguistic anomalies. It's a speech error you make when you accidentally swap two sounds around in words that are next to or near each other and end up saying words that make zero sense (or maybe the sound-swap results in words that actually still make sense but far from the intended meaning).

Some examples? When I searched online for examples of spoonerisms, they were mostly examples where the sound-swap resulted in a sentence that still made sense but resulted in an unintended meaning or examples that were curated artificially. Not much looked like spoonerisms that were genuine speech errors.

We'd all be familiar with spoonerisms and can probably remember hearing them or recall one slipping out of our own mouths. But, in my experience at least, they're rare. Maybe once I year I'd remember hearing one... maybe every couple of years I'd remember doing one accidentally? Would it be about the same for you?

The apparent rarity of genuine spoonerisms is why I love this short Gogglebox clip featuring Angie and Yvie so much. I've publicly espoused my love of Gogglebox as linguistic data quite a few times, and this clip adds a new element to that. A spoonerism caught in the wild! Check it out:

It is just so great to see the sequence of events unfold in the clip:
  • The spoonerism coming out of Angie's mouth ("fet footish" instead of "foot fetish") without any hint of realisation
  • Yvie's subtle reaction when noticing the speech error and her ability to instantly give Angie rope to hang herself with by 'innocently' repeating it back to her
  • Angie still not realising the error even after hearing it said back to her and continuing on in ignorant bliss
  • Yvie's absolutely glorious wheeze-laugh (if someone can tell me how that would be transcribed in a careful linguistic transcription, I'd love to know!)
  • Yvie's more clearly signalled repetition of the spoonerism which finally alerts Angie that a speech error has been made
  • Angie still not really realising what the error was and trying to self-correct but failing ("oh, a feet footish... wait...") 
  • Then Angie finally getting corrected by Yvie and them both having a good laugh, culminating in Angie's full cackle (at 0:31) when it all finally dawns on her what has just unfolded.

So yeah, a spoonerism caught in the wild. I absolutely love it, and I'm pretty sure it's quite rare: a fantastic beast but where to find it... Gogglebox, that's where!

December 24, 2017

English-only health alert for Ngukurr, now with draft Kriol translation (cos there really should be one)

If a government body wants to tell a community of 1000 people to boil water before drinking it because of health concerns, and pretty much everyone in the community speaks the same Language Other Than English (LOTE), why would you issue the alert only in bureaucratic/dense/formal English?

The community being alerted here is chock full of Kriol speakers. If you want to communicate with them, doing it only in formal English is only going to get you so far. While NT Health and Power and Water are serving the community well in terms of their warning, the language it is communicated in is lacking. It's kinda like a cinema screening a movie onto the curtains, instead of projecting it onto a flat screen.

To be fair, translation services for Indigenous languages are really lacking in the NT. There is no government agency to go to. Getting a quick turn around on translations is probably near-impossible. (See also last year's Kriol signage debacle I discussed here). But government could have long-term strategies and lead by example. With better acknowledgement that delivering information in constituents first languages is important, they could work to create a better Indigenous language translation industry in the NT.

In lieu of zero Kriol translation being provided for the current, rather important, 'alert', I thought I'd have a go at translating it myself, in case it's of use to someone... but I certainly wouldn't want to promote the idea further that translations should be handed out free-of-charge. Caution: the following translation is unchecked and unofficial. I am not a qualified Kriol-English translator (although I do have qualifications and experience in interpreting i.e. oral translations).


Guyu! Stori bla boilim wada la Ropa!

21 Disemba 2017

Didei, NT Gabmen (det Helth Depatment en Pawa en Wada) dalimbat Ropamob bla maindim det wada weya im gamat burrum tep. Pawa en Wada mob bin switjimoba det wada. Im nomo gamat from bo na. Im gaman burru riba na, dumaji Ropamob bin yusumbat tu matj wada. Bat det riba wada im maidi nomo brabili klin wada.

Pawa en Wada trai sotimatbat na so im gin gubek la bo wada, maitbi afta Krismis. Bat bifo im gubek la bo wada Ropamob garra maindim det wada weya im gamat burru tep, dumaji im riba wada.

Det Helth Dipatment wandi Ropamob bla boilim det tep wada bifo yu:
  • dringgim
  • yusum wada ba kukum enijing
  • brashim tuth
O najawei, yu gin baiyim wada burrum shop.

Dijan woning im oni antil Pawa en Wada tjeinjimbek yumob wada la bo wada. Mela garra jandim natha stori wen yumob wada gubek la bo wada.

Bunjum yu wari ba enijing ba dis problem, yu gin kol la Helth Dipatment wen im oupin.  Det namba im 1800 095 646.

December 15, 2017

How not to report on Indigenous education (again)

While it's always nice to see Ngukurr in the news, I'm noting quite a few problems with this puff piece from SBS's Laura Morelli about Ngukurr School. (And it's not the first time I've been concerned about how Indigenous education is reported on).

I'm all for a positive story about remote education, but it shouldn't be at the expense of accuracy and probably not one where the only side you hear is from non-Indigenous education department staff.

The article's premise is that innovative programs at Ngukurr School are contributing to better student outcomes. A quick look at the Myschools website shows that attendance at Ngukurr School has unfortunately dropped in recent years (a trend across many remote schools, as reported here). Looking at NAPLAN, results appear mixed - some areas improved in 2016, while others dropped. (Have a look for yourself by sifting through results provided on the MySchools website). So maybe Ngukurr School has innovative programs, sure. But can they be linked to better outcomes? There doesn't seem to be the evidence for that.

Data source:
The article mentions the language profile of students (see below) and there are more errors there. It is not correct to say of students that "English is usually their ninth language". While students as a cohort have seven or more heritage languages, few speak them due to language loss and endangerment that has occurred since colonisation. Kriol is the main language they speak and English is usually the second language they start to learn when they start school. As for heritage languages, an individual student is highly unlikely to have seven traditional languages as part of their direct heritage. They'll have one or two main ones and maybe two or more that are also form part of their heritage. But not seven. An accurate understanding of the language profile of students should be quite crucial for teachers to have. It is disappointing that this isn't apparent in the quotes or content of the article.

The article also says that "over the years the school has worked tirelessly to provide a safe, engaging and welcoming learning environment for the students and their families to want to be a part of". Yet, about 30 years ago, Ngukurr School had 100% Indigenous teaching staff. This has dwindled over the years and now there is possibly only one local Indigenous teacher out of 31 full-time teaching staff. So when it is said that “our students are taught with an Aboriginal Assistant Teacher present in the room at all times to do translations”, it is actually a long way from recent history in which local Aboriginalisation of the school was a real thing - when it was taken for granted that Aboriginal school staff were educators, not "translators".

Ngukurr kids deserve success, but it's preferable to have that success supported by evidence and accurate information as well as local/Indigenous perceptions on what constitutes success.

And in case you think I'm saying all this because of a chip on my shoulder, the lack of journalistic quality is apparent to others - even when they have no attachment to Ngukurr:

December 09, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 3: Bernie Sanders and factors that drive language variation

Part three of my examples linking sociolinguistics to popular culture kinda follows up on Part 1 which showed (via drag queens) how no two speakers are identical. (Part 2 skipped over to communities of practice in Mean Girls).

I have to confess, this episode is less about my own creativity and more about finding a pretty perfect video on YouTube that did the job of linking sociolinguistics to the real world for me. Worth sharing all the same...

Key concept: Variability in language (which exists everywhere) is caused by geographic and social factors.

Concept in more detail: The subfield of sociolinguistics makes no bones about the fact that language varies everywhere, all the time. No two individuals speak exactly the same way and no individual speaks the same way all the time either. Many sociolinguists are concerned with not just describing this ubiquitous variability but figuring out the causes of variation.

For a long time, where someone is from (i.e. geography) was investigated as the main cause of variation. Then sociolinguists got cleverer and saw how variability can be explained by factors like age, gender, ethnicity and class - factors that are social rather than geographical.

Exemplifying the concept: If you can remember back to the wonderful days before Donald Drumpf ruled America, you might recall a nerdy old dude called Bernie Sanders who had quite different ideas about what an American president should do. While Bernie was in the presidential candidacy spotlight, people noticed he talked funny.

As a result, the American news site Vox put together a clever, entertaining and brilliantly edited video explaining key features of Bernie Sanders' speech. It proved to be the perfect explainer of how social and geographic factors can explain linguistic variation:

When we looked at this video in class, students were able to appreciate the ways in which Sanders' speech deviates from what most people consider to be a typical American English accent. The video also gives enough information so that students can easily connect the dots and, based on the excellent explanations in the video, describe the factors causing variation. After a quick in-class Q&A, students can summarise Sanders' variable features (called variants) and the correlating geographic and social factors:
  • 'Thought' vowel: 
    • geography factor - New York English
    • age factor - used less by younger New "Yawkers
    • ethnicity factor - the age-based change is more obvious among white people
  • Lack of 'r's (non-rhotic accent): 
    • geography factor - New York, Boston, Savannah English
    • age + class factors - seen as prestigious in early-mid 1900s, non-prestigious in late 1900s
    • ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
  • Final 't' sounds released:
    •  ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
Thanks Vox for making this great video linking sociolinguistics to popular culture. It made for a very useful learning tool!

November 06, 2017

Roper Gulf Regional Council and the awkwardness of local government investing outside their jurisdiction

"...Council is part of the Katherine community..."

"... we have a social responsibility to contribute to the growth of the town..."

Positive rhetoric like the above is par for the course for any Australian local government. The above quotes come from Roper Gulf Regional Council's CEO Michael Berto. Great messages? Definitely. One major problem though: the town they refer to - Katherine - isn't part of the council's area.

Roper Gulf Regional Council covers a massive, sparsely populated area reaching from east of Katherine right out to the Gulf of Carpentaria coast. It came into being 10 years ago when the NT Government oversaw the establishment of 'Super Shires' - amalgamations that subsumed a stack of community government councils which were often local government areas with only a few hundred constituents.

The creation of 11 'Super Shires' a decade ago was an unpopular move. Poorly consulted and hastily done, some say it caused Labor to lose the next election, which then brought in the resoundingly ridiculous Country Liberals' effort. I was living in Ngukurr when the council amalgamations happened. At the time, the locally-based Yugul Mangi Government Council oversaw the communities of Ngukurr, Urapunga and Minyerri. It seemed like a small, inefficient and challenging local government to run. What Yugul Mangi and other mini-councils did have in their favour was the ability to foster local decision making and create local leaders. The counter-argument was that small government authorities like Yugul Mangi have tiny economies of scale and little bargaining power. Amalgamation will bring muscle. A reasonable point.

What worried me at the planning phase wasn't the likely watering down of local input and authority. I was more surprised to learn that administrative headquarters of the new shire weren't even going to be within the shire. It created a bizarre contradiction: create a new shire because it makes economic (rather than social) sense, but administer it from outside the area therefore sending all related economic activity to a different council.

But again: practicalities. The amalgamations were rushed. Katherine was the only decent sized town in the vicinity that was ready to handle Roper Gulf administration. But it didn't make sense - certainly not in the long term. "What about Mataranka?" I asked when we were briefly 'consulted' at the Language Centre back in 2006 or 07. My question was dismissed.

Mataranka is a much smaller town - about 500 people - and an hour down the road from Katherine. It had its own community government council back in 2006, meaning there was at least some capacity to administer local government. Mataranka is hardly a metropolis, but it has decent accommodation and places to eat, some facilities and infrastructure, Elsey National Park is right there and Katherine not far away. If running Roper Gulf from Mataranka wasn't immediately viable a decade ago, it would have been an entirely appropriate strategy to aim for in the future.

But what happens in real terms when a local government bases itself outside its own area? In day-to-day terms, it is inevitable that you are less aware and less invested in your own service provision. When council workers live and work in their council area, they notice what happens immediately beyond their front door: what are the roads like, waste removal, recreation facilities, what sort of community and local cultures are fostered in your neighbourhood? When there are problems, they are noticed. And hopefully addressed.

However, when the front doors of key Roper Gulf staff open on to Katherine Town Council's area and vote in Katherine Town Council elecdtions, how can you be personally invested in ensuring your council is the best it can be? Instead, Roper Gulf residents - who are mostly Indigenous and non-native English speakers - find themselves reporting to staff in Katherine about the realities of life in the council region. That hardly seems efficient, or fair.

Yet this awkward, unfortunate state of affairs is not something that seems to cause embarrassment. As the quotes at the top show, Roper Gulf Regional Council is proud to be "part of the Katherine Community". That quote was in the Katherine Times in October 2017 following Roper Gulf publicising a $1.14million infrastructure investment and $1.42million in tenders going to Katherine businesses. That is, investments going outside Roper Gulf towns and communities. If the decision ten years ago to base Roper Gulf in Katherine was due to practicalities and time pressure, a $2.5million spend 10 years later is a side-swipe to its own constituents. And far from acknowledging this as regrettable, it is something Roper Gulf are proud of:

But what's the alternative? Could Mataranka be the administrative centre of Roper Gulf? Right now, probably not. Because no-one has tried to make it happen. But if strategies had been implemented 10 years to transition Roper Gulf's administration to within its own area, it could have happened. I used to work at Batchelor Institute: a large tertiary institution an hour south of Darwin, in a town of only a few hundred. The parallels between Batchelor/Darwin and Mataranka/Katherine are obvious. Some Batchelor Institute staff live in quiet Batchelor, nestled next to Litchfield National Park. Others live in Darwin. Darwin-based staff are provided with a daily shuttle bus commuter service and it works effectively enough. The same could absolutely be done for Roper Gulf employees who live in Katherine but had their workplace in Mataranka. And for Roper Gulf residents - especially those in Mataranka - they have a better chance of working at and accessing their administrative centre.

If the commute seems inefficient, there is an efficiency benefit: most places in the council region are an hour closer to Mataranka than Katherine. More than half the region would have two hours cut off round trip travel times between headquarters and community. Imagine being a Robinson River resident with your local government authorities a 20 hour round trip away and not even in your region. Would you feel like your council staff have your best interests in mind?

If Mataranka as Roper Gulf's administrative centre is logistically possible, it requires motivation, vision and long-term strategy. The benefits would be significant. More Roper Gulf staff would know first-hand what their service provision is like. Roper Gulf Council would be considerably building the economy of Roper Gulf itself, rather than investing in someone else's Council area. The inconvenience of Katherine-based staff having to work from Mataranka rather than Katherine? If Roper Gulf demonstrated that developing its own area was a core part of its vision, it could be possible to motivate its staff that a Mataranka base was for the greater good. Such motivation just doesn't seem to exist.

If Roper Gulf constituents are worried about the benefits their local government pours into Katherine, their concerns are largely voiceless (unless you consider Labor's 2012 election loss to have been a voicing of such concerns). Geographic, cultural and linguistic boundaries mean that most Roper Gulf residents have difficulties speaking up. However, a recent semi-public Facebook discussion (following the recent news story shown above) shows that for some it is a cause of disappointment or concern:

Apart from a few murmurs, there is not a lot of obvious discontent about the current state of affairs. Katherine residents and council certainly aren't going to speak against the economic boost generated from having Roper Gulf as "part of the Katherine Community". Katherine-based Roper Gulf staff (generally the most powerful players in the entity) aren't going to volunteer to uproot themselves or their workplace. And Roper Gulf constituents have never been told that an alternative to the status quo is possible. But I argue that it is possible. It's just easier for Roper Gulf Regional Council to bizarrely stay as one of the only local government councils in Australia to be administered from outside their bounds. "Defeatist"? "Short-sighted"? Weak? Insulting? Take your pick.

Note: I am focussing on Roper Gulf Regional Council in this blogpost, only because of my ties to the region and my experience of living in Ngukurr when Roper Gulf was established. There are other Regional Councils in the NT that also have the awkward situation of being administered from outside their region: Victoria Daly Regional Council is also administered from Katherine.  Central Desert Regional Council and Macdonnell Regional Council are administered from Alice Springs. East Arnhem Regional Council is administered from Nhulunbuy while Tiwi Islands Shire is administered from Darwin. As far as I'm aware, this does not occur anywhere else in Australia apart from the Northern Territory.

A further note: I know plenty of great people who work for Roper Gulf and it is not my intention to disparage any individuals. I am writing about the overall vision and strategy of the entity which is larger than any individual. 

October 11, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 2: Mean Girls and Social Networks

As mentioned in my last post, in my lecturing this semester I've been trying to exemplify key concepts in sociolinguistics via popular culture. I have a stock of these snippets and hope to find time to share a few more. As I said previously, it's an effort to engage students and adhere to the philosophy that "when all is said and done, we study sociolinguistics because it is fun" (Meyerhoff 2011: 4)

In part two, we jump to this week's lecture where we looked at various of definitions of 'speech community' and then how concepts of social networks and community of practice have built upon notions of speech community.

Key concept: Social networks, unlike macro-social categories such as class, group people according to interactions (and can then tell us more about linguistic variation)

Concept in more detail: Some sociolinguistic studies have shown how important social networks are in explaining language variation and change (or lack of change). According to Meyerhoff (2011), Milroy & Milroy were leaders in this via their study of English in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They argued that social networks are least as important as macro-social categories in understanding language change.

When looking at language variation and considering the effect that social networks might have on variation, we can look at features such as density of the network (loose v dense), degrees of membership (core, peripheral etc.) or quality of ties between members (uniplex ties, multiplex ties). The Milroys argued that dense networks are more resistant to change and innovation than looser networks.

There are also differing ways of analysing social networks. Some approaches are more etic, made via the researcher's observations. Some are more emic, where members themselves define their networks.

Exemplifying the concept: Cult American teen movie Mean Girls (2004) exemplifies social networks very well. (In fact, I argue that one reason the movie is so popular and has longevity is because it is based upon a whole of lot of solid sociology). In the scene below, Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) provides school newcomer Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) with a map and lightning fast summary of the school's social networks:

A further question to be asked is what method of social network analysis has Janis deployed? The answer is obviously an etic one - Janis has defined the groups herself and we do not know whether the members of each labelled group would agree with Janis' characterisation.

This fictional example presents social networks as extremely tidy groupings, with each one centered physically around a cafeteria table. Sociolinguists would have an easier job if real-life networks were that neatly packaged.

An epilogue: when a dense social network breaks down

One of the Milroys' ideas about dense social networks is that they slow down or inhibit change and that this could be because the denseness of the network leads to more policing of members' behaviour by other members. In Mean Girls, we see this among the "Plastics" (the specific social network the movie focuses on). Most notably, we see the leader of the "Plastics", Regina George, famously police Gretchen Weiners attempt at linguistic innovation by refusing to accept 'fetch' as an innovative and trendy adjective. ("Stop trying to make fetch happen!").

By the end of the film, the dense network of the Plastics has disintegrated. With networks loosened, we see linguistic change happen in a big way (as predicted by the Milroys). One of the final scenes shows the previously heavily-policed Gretchen Weiners in a new social network and using a whole new language:

And that is how Mean Girls can teach us about social networks and its effects on language change and innovation. I know, right?


Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2011. Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd edition. Routledge: London