July 10, 2022

Iron Ore mine turning Roper country red in less than two months

If you've spent any time on the Stuart Highway north of Mataranka in the last couple of months, you've probably passed some distinctive looking road trains carting iron ore towards Darwin. For the past six weeks, they have been steadily coming out of Northern Territory Iron Ore's mine which is part of something called the Roper Valley Iron Ore Project. What travellers on the Stuart Highway won't see is what those trucks are starting to do to country 150km east of the main highway.

I travel along this road - the Roper Highway - usually twice a week. The reddening of the area near the mine is noticeable. A week ago, I stopped to look at just how much dust was coating the roadside vegetation and the pics I tweeted caught the attention of ABC's Country Hour and the Environment Centre NT. 

You can hear me interviewed on NT Country Hour here (my bit starts at 06:00) and also see the resultant online article here

With this activity, I ended up in touch with the EPA's pollution hotline. They recommended getting more evidence of dust pollution so that they may have cause to investigate themselves. So the bulk of this post is my first attempt at providing them with more evidence. (Note: anyone passing through this area, please collect your own evidence. Especially if you find red dust getting into waterways. Notify the NT EPA here - https://nt.gov.au/environment/environment-protection-recycling-waste/report-pollution)

"Control" Sample

The first thing I did was some quick documentation at a site about 15km east of the mine turn-off (about 1km east of the Badawarrka turn-off). These images should show what dust impacts look like without the effects of iron-ore trucks going past: a "control" sample. Same road, same traffic minus the iron ore road trains. I also made sure I chose a section of country where the soil is quite red so that the dust would be noticeable on vegetation, like it is further down the highway. 

Lat: 14° 42’ 7.398” S, Long: 134° 26’ 58.89” E

Here's the dust on vegetation right on the verge of the road. You can see there is a light covering of dust on it:

I also made sure to check on impacts further in from the road, so I also walked a few metres (10m?) and checked for dust there. There, I couldn't really detect any dust:

"Proximal" Sample

The next evidence I got was very close to where iron ore road trains turn onto the Roper Highway.  This is where any impacts of dust pollution caused by road trains should be most apparent.

To the naked eye, you can see how red the roadside vegetation looks:

Lat: 14° 43’ 35.862” S, Long: 134° 16’ 18.33” E

A closer look and the dust covering plants on the verge is thick:

It wasn't particularly easy to reveal the green of the leaf underneath the dust:

An image showing the contrast after I (tried to) dust off a leaf:

I then repeated what I'd done at the 'control' site and walked several metres in from the verge. At the control site, I couldn't really detect dust on the leaves. Here, however, there was still obvious dust on vegetation though not the thick coating found on the verge:

The visible contrast after cleaning dust off a leaf (about 10m in from the road):

As a final sample from this site, I walked further off the road, perhaps a good 30-40m in. 

There, leaves barely showed visible dust but you can notice traces:

"Distal" Sample

The third thing I did was to stop again another 5mins (about 8km?) down the road to see what the dust impacts look like at some distance from the mine site, where we can assume the road trains have less dust to disperse. (The GPS location for this site is: Latitude: 14° 44’ 56.358” S, Longitude: 134° 13’ 44.85” E).

Again, vegetation on the verge, had quick a thick covering of dust - certainly more than at the control site:

As with the other site, I also checked dust levels about 10m in from the verge:

Again, unlike the first (control) site where there really was no detectable dust, here, there was a light but definitely visible coating. You can see a contrast between the leaf I cleaned with my finger and the leaf below it that is as-I-found-it:

Just the beginning

A reminder: this is just the beginning of this story. Firstly, the iron ore trucks have only been running for around six weeks. Secondly, the mine isn't even operational. The ore being transported is apparently only the stockpile left over from the failed previous operators of the mine, Sherwin Iron. Yet the dust pollution is already obvious.

If/when the mine does start operation, the volume of ore being transported will increase and over time the dust pollution will increase and its effects compound. The evidence I'm sharing here is really just a red flag of what is likely to come. 

Other issues with the mine

While this post is specifically to document the start of dust pollution created by the NTIO operation, it is not the only issue I am aware of with this mine.

What does NTIO have approval for?

As you can hear in the interview I did with ABC, there was a point of confusion: the mine where this ore and trucks are coming from is (I learned after tweeting pics of the dust-coated plants) not yet through its environmental approval process. A staff member at the EPA told me "they shouldn't be doing anything", but then it seems the iron being transported at the moment is from a stockpile from the previous failed operators, Sherwin, and so approvals to move it relates to Sherwin's pre-existing approvals.

But those approvals are apparently with Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade (not with the EPA) and I'm not sure how to access them. Note that neither Sherwin's old operations or the present NTIO operations have a publicly available Mining Management Plan on the NT Government site: https://industry.nt.gov.au/publications/mining-and-energy/public-environmental-reports/mining/public-mining-environmental-reports/mines 

No approval to recommence operations

NTIO doesn't have approval to restart operations. The advice I received from the EPA seems to say that not only does NTIO need to go through its own Environment Impact approval process, it sounds like they've been too slow and need to start again. That's my take anyway. This is what I was emailed:

The NT EPA required a new EIS to cover the new activities. The assessment process was started in 2017 but only limited steps were taken. The NT EPA is in consultation with the new owners of the mine about terminating the assessment process due to the amount of time that has lapsed since the process started. A new referral to the NT EPA would be required if the activities are proposed in future.

No communication in or benefit to Ngukurr

I work in Ngukurr which is the largest community in the vicinity of the mine, just 60km to the east. With 1,000 residents and low employment and a small economy, Ngukurr is exactly the sort of place that should reap the benefits of having mining activity so close. 

As far as I know, no one has been told a thing about this mine in Ngukurr and no moves by the mine's owners have been made to set up anything in Ngukurr - employment, training, community benefit scheme, nothing. Ngukurr residents are required to share the highway with these trucks and watch as nearby country gets destroyed for nil benefit.

This is why I become cynical when I hear governments and politicians tell us how mines bring jobs and benefit the economy, because I don't see any evidence of benefits now or in the near future coming to Ngukurr.

Traffic issues

The road trains do more than create dust pollution. They are a hazard to other users of the Roper Highway, which includes many residents of the remote communities of Ngukurr, Numbulwar, Urapunga, Minyerri and Jilkminggan. The Roper Highway is largely a single-lane highway with a number of narrow bridges. 

"The single-lane Territory highway has been put under intense pressure by three mining projects" (NT News, 11/9/13)

The area recently had unseasonal wet weather in June and along the highway you can still see numerous spots where smaller vehicles were forced on to soggy dirt to make way for road trains, leaving deep tyre tracks in the road shoulders.

Who even owns the mine? (And how does anyone contact them?)

Another thing that isn't quite clear to me is who is in charge. The sign near the mine says it's NTIO (Northern Territory Iron Ore) and they still have a website that says it's their mine. When you contact NTIO via their website, the reply comes from Hoa Phat - a Vietnamese steel company. The recent ABC story says Hoa Phat bought the mine last year. Assuming they are now the owners, it still seems unclear and no-one at ABC was able to speak to anyone from the company for their story. (If ABC can't get a hold of anyone from the company, it doesn't give me confidence that anyone from Ngukurr would be able to either).

Still trying to suss out if the mine operated by NTIO or Hoa Phat

It's not the only mine in the area

There is another iron ore mine in the vicinity, currently operated by Nathan River Resources (formerly run by Western Desert Resources). Its activities are far more out of sight to Ngukurr residents so it's hard to see any impacts, although iron ore dust pollution has historically been a problem with that mine too, as reported in this 2014 ABC article. More recently, Nathan River Resources were taken to court by the NT Government, for allegedly illegally discharging toxic waste water into the Towns River

Then to the immediate west of the NTIO/Hoa Phat mine is an ilmenite mining operation, run by Australian Ilmenite Resources (AIR). They were in the news in late 2021/early 2022 after strong community concerns were voiced about an application for a licence to take 3.3 billion litres of water out of the Roper River. That license application is still with the water controller. 

As with NTIO/Hoa Phat, none of these mines have publicly available Mining Management Plans listed on the NT Government website, nor do they have any meaningful communication with the Ngukurr community (if any at all). Collectively, these three mines paint a picture of activity that threatens the local environment and does nothing for local Indigenous communities. 

And that's my story (for now), about what I'm seeing with the old-Sherwin-then-NTIO-now-Hoa-Phat iron ore mine near Ngukurr. The main reason I put this post together is to document the emerging dust pollution issue to forward on to the EPA Pollution Hotline, but I hope it's been of interest of others. Please add further comments if you have more info and if you have any other documentation of pollution please share!

April 03, 2022

The Oscar-winning Coda and its (mis)representation of interpreting (or, why I almost walked out of the cinema)

Ok so I'm a linguist not a movie critic but I am an avid movie-goer - part of the generation of Australians raised by Margaret and David to appreciate cinema and think critically about it. (I've even reviewed a few things on this blog: Short-doco Queen of the Desert, short film Lärr and some discussion of the brilliant Croker Island Exodus here). 

At this years Oscars, the film Coda surprised many by taking out Best Picture. It seems like few people have even had a chance to see it. Here in little ol' Katherine, we have a brilliant film society at our local Katherine 3 cinema, where each fortnight we get to watch something a bit different. In late 2021, I had the chance to see Coda there, long before it was thought of as an Oscar contender. Now that Coda is being talked about more than ever before, I wanted to share my experience of watching the film - especially because in one scene in particular, I was so angry that I genuinely considered walking out of the cinema - which would have been a first for me!

Overall, Coda (an acronym for Child/ren of Deaf Adults) has a lot going for it: excellent performances including by some inexperienced actors who bring authenticity to their roles as deaf users of American Sign Language. The film gives hearing non-signers a window into the lives of deaf people that most of us won't otherwise experience. And as a linguist, it's pretty cool to see linguistic minorities represented on the big screen and have issues like language discrimination touched upon in cinema.

I actually liked the film overall. So what happened to make me nearly walk out?

Well, something in the film hit me hard as a Kriol-English interpreter who has spent years in and around courts, providing linguistic assistance to Kriol speakers as they attempt to negotiate the bizarre, foreign world of the Australian justice system. Note also that in discussing this, I'm not trying to act appalled on behalf of the deaf community. I don't need to. I am within my rights to be aggrieved as an experienced court interpreter. 

So what happened? Early on in Coda, one scene shows the deaf parents at the doctors, and their daughter acts as their interpreter. This is often labelled 'ad-hoc interpreting', where no qualified or professional interpreter is used, but instead a family member or someone nearby fills the language gap as best they can. It happens a lot and differs from the use of a trained interpreter (the academic literature often calls us 'professional interpreters' and I will use this term here too but with a big asterisk pointing out that for Indigenous Australian language interpreters, it is generally impossible to get officially accredited to a "professional" level - there just isn't the testing available). 

The issues with ad-hoc interpreting are that the doctor and patients risk experiencing bias and personal involvement on behalf of the interpreter and the clear, accurate flow of information is typically jeopardised. It can also be traumatic and stressful for children to be obligated to perform such roles (and you'd think especially when you have to interpret stuff about your parents sex life like in Coda!). The advantages of ad-hoc interpreting are obviously convenience, so there does seem to be debate on how and where both types of interpreting (ad-hoc and professional) can be utilised in health settings. (Here's an example of further research on this topic). 

Back to Coda though - this doctor-patient-adhoc-interpreter scene is early on in the film and, while it irked me a little, it's not the scene that really bothered me. The function of this scene seems more to contextualise the characters - the internal dynamics of the family and the external dynamics of how they interface with hearing-dominant society. And it's used for comedic value too which you can see in this partial clip here: 

But again, this scene didn't worry me too much because despite its problems I could see its function as a scene-setting device.

Skip through to the film's dramatic climax though and we arrive at a scene that really made me bristle. I've never walked out of a cinema before but boy did I have a visceral urge to storm out in disgust. Instead, I think I just sighed really loudly and annoyingly and waited til my blood stopped boiling and could settle down enough to somewhat enjoy the film's conclusion. 

This scene was during the dramatic peak of the film, when the family's fishing business is threatened over losing their licence for not meeting maritime regulations. The father appears in a local court over the matter. But again, we see the daughter acting as her father's ad-hoc interpreter but this time, in court, interpreting for the judge. If I was able to somewhat accept the doctor scene... this one? Absolutely no way.

Courts and judges know that people appearing before them have the absolute right to understand their court matter. Lawyers know this too. I would also suggest that most if not all deaf people know this too. It is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) which forms part of the International Bill of Human Rights. Without an interpreter, a defendant who doesn't speak the language of the court is not receiving the fair trial they are entitled to. 

But in the scene in Coda, there was an interpreter there: the daughter. And yes she is clearly bilingual in English and American Sign Language and does interpret. What's the issue? The issue is there is NO WAY a court should be allowing an ad-hoc interpreter to act as the court's interpreter and interpret for a family member. The daughter character is untrained and has a clear conflict of interest. The judge has no quality assurance that justice is being served and no assurance that the rights of the defendant to a fair trial are being met. I can't believe the makers of this movie decided this scene - offered with no critical discourse around it - was in any way acceptable.

But what does it matter? Well, it's incredibly frustrating because as a court interpreter, I've witnessed many many instances of a judge or a lawyer or a police prosecutor not working with or providing an interpreter appropriately. The number of times I've seen a Kriol speaker clearly struggle to understand and no-one has thought to get them an interpreter. The number of times I've seen a judge or a prosecutor do things like speak too fast for the interpreter to interpret, dismiss the need for the interpreter to interpret certain parts of the court matter or a thousand other tiny little practices that attest to how poorly courts and the justice system often deal with people who need linguistic support to appropriately engage. (Dima Rusho's 2021 thesis is an exceptional read covering this topic (among others) in relation to Kriol speakers specifically. And don't get me wrong - I've seen plenty of judges and legal professionals do the right thing too). 

For years, I've watched cheap-shot reality TV shows like Border Security show Australians that it's acceptable practice to leave people with language needs high and dry when they deserve and are entitled to interpreters. For Coda - a film carefully composed and designed to offer real insights and empathy to lives of deaf signers - to also show audiences how *not* to use interpreters appropriately I found appalling and lowkey negligent. I've spent too much energy over the years justifying my own existence as an interpreter to legal professionals to consider Coda's portrayal of court interpreting acceptable. 

Lastly, I'd like to point out that I'm certainly not the only person to have noticed some of these issues. Several media articles and individuals have pointed out that in America, the deaf characters in Coda would be required to have qualified interpreters under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This article from The Atlantic spoke to a deaf writer, Sarah Katz, who said that she "found the Rossi family’s reliance on Ruby unrealistic at times, specifically during a legal hearing" and that "in such a setting, the family would have had access to a professional interpreter". According to that article, Katz said she wasn’t sure whether she’d endorse the movie for a fellow deaf person. This post-Oscars article from the New York Times is another piece doing a good job of exploring the interpreting issue and other problems some people are having with Coda. (Hat tip to Ludmila Stern and the Law Linguistics Network for that link).

So yeah. Give Coda a watch. I think there's lots of interesting stuff in there. But please view with the interpreting scenes through a critical lens. The court interpreting scene in particular is one that should never have made its way on to cinema screens.

March 11, 2022

"It's all good. He had scissors": a brief linguistic analysis of the moment Kumanjayi Walker was shot

In late 2019, Zachary Rolfe entered a Yuendumu home and not long after, a teenager now known as Kumanjayi Walker had been shot three times and died soon after. 

The body-worn footage captured the moments of the shooting and what the two police officers, Rolfe and Eberl, said at the time. 

Pragmatics is a part of linguistics that lets you analyse the intentions of what people say. This definition works well:

Pragmatics is a field of linguistics concerned with what a speaker implies and a listener infers based on contributing factors like the situational context, the individuals’ mental states, the preceding dialogue, and other elements. (source)

However, it doesn't really require a linguistics degree to get insights into what was happening when Walker was shot, based on what the two officers said (as reported here).

Immediately after shooting Walker three times, Eberl, who was the officer in physical contact with Walker (rather than Rolfe who had shot Walker), said:

“Did you-? Fuck”.

It's apparent to anyone that for someone to say this, they need to be surprised. They are taking time to comprehend. The swear word used as an exclamation also indicates it’s a serious matter. 

Would Eberl have said this if he instead felt his safety or life was threatened by Walker? No. There would be relief or acknowledgement, perhaps regret. But not surprise and lack of comprehension.

Rolfe's words that come next are also telling:

“It’s all good, he had scissors in his hand, he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you”

 Firstly, "it's all good" is an utterance of reassurance. In direct response to Eberl's "fuck", it shows that Eberl had felt something bad had happened and Rolfe's immediate response was to reassure. However, it's worth noting the subject of the reassurance: it was Eberl and probably Rolfe himself. But not Walker. Walker had been (ultimately) fatally shot but Rolfe's reaction and concern was directed to Eberl, evidenced by the "it's all good". 

The other noteworthy part of what Rolfe said was: "he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you". The reality was (I believe) that Walker had attempted to stab Rolfe in the shoulder once. Firstly, Rolfe re-interprets this event as an iterative one (stabbing more than once, rather than a single event). Rolfe then projects an event onto Eberl's own experience ("he was stabbing you") which is an odd thing to do because Eberl had every reason to be as, if not more, aware of what he himself was experiencing than what Rolfe might believe Eberl was experiencing. 

So then the utterance "he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you" becomes a kind of verbal floundering, a seeking out of an interpretation of events that might add support to the "it's all good" reassurance. But the statement was inaccurate and included projections onto Eberl's own experience. So ultimately, it's not convincing as an interpretation of facts. It can really only be understood as representing a desire to explain and reassure. 

So basically what happened was shock/surprise/disbelief from Eberl, concern/reassurance from Rolfe towards only Eberl (and not the deceased) and then Rolfe's inaccurate verbal scan/search for justifications of his own actions.

To me, all of this indicates that in the moment of the shooting, then and there, Eberl and Rolfe knew it shouldn't have happened.

Rolfe was cleared of all charges related to his killing of Kumanjayi Walker on March 11, 2022.

September 26, 2020

Lärr: a gentle film revealing a gently evaporating world [short-film review]

Shorts films about endangered languages and culture form a small niche genre but there are quite a few out there. I've never seen one as gentle and beautiful as Lärr.

Films in this micro-genre tend to do a few familiar things. They may be pedagogical videos, focusing on cultural practices that aren't being maintained well enough, and explicitly ask audiences to watch, learn and remember. There might be expressions of serious concern for the language and cultural shifts taking place and we see rhetoric from elders and cultural champions urging for action. Then there are ethnographic films - more 'fly on the wall' views of everyday life where constructing narrative or organising scenes to shoot are not primary concerns.

Lärr is a 16-minute look at life with some of the last few speakers of Wägilak in the world, on their country, doing very Wägilak things. But the beauty of Lärr is its softness. The four men in the film let you gently into their world, on the remote outstation of Ŋilipidji. Gorgeously narrated by Natilma (Roy) Wilfred, he quietly ushers viewers in and slows us down, so we can walk and sit with him and the other men as they fish, make things (spears, lettersticks, bush string and more) and talk and sing. The pace of Lärr is a wonderful reflection of the pace of outstation life where, somewhat paradoxically, not much happens but there is always something happening. 

And what I really like about Lärr is that its messages are not overt. The men simply show us what they know and do and the beauty and value of it comes through intrinsically. Their skill and confidence and love for their own culture and language shines. We value it not because we are told it's important but because we see, through them, the beauty and treasures of the land they walk and interact with. 

Credit must then also go to the producers: the Ngukurr Language Centre, Nicola Bell - who filmed, directed and edited Lärr - and Salome Harris who worked on the narration and translations. The film reflects a deft touch and gentle nature and an eye for craft and detail. On the linguistic side, the Wägilak content and English translations reveal a mindfulness and depth of understanding and are quite beautiful in some places. 

Translating from Indigenous languages to English is really rather hard. Well, it's hard to do well. It can be fairly easy to arrive at clunky sounding sentences, sentences that omit nuance and sentences that, well, just aren't pleasant to read. Salome and the team's knowledge and translation gifts come through here, again elevating Lärr above similar films. 

When Natilma shows us how bush string is made, he says "mel-guḻiny muka wiripuwatjtja yolŋuwatjtja ŋalapaḻwatjtja" and the subtitling is just lovely: "the old people were fastidious, you know, about how it was done". We see Lukuman trying to light fire the old way and calling on help from afar:

Brrrrrr! Gatjpu! Wäŋaŋara dhawalŋara nhe dhul'yurru!
(Come on, give it to us! Help us ancestors! On this country you'll light!)

But the bit that really made my eyes water and jaw drop was in the final scenes. I don't want to spoil it here, but there's an expression I'd never heard before that I found just so profound that it made me emotional. It's where Natilma tells us: 

Yurru ḻuku napu ŋayathama yaŋanh'thu gathaṉdja napu, Djalkiridhu, ḻukudhu.
And, well, if you don't know Wägilak you'll just have to watch. I don't think you'll be disappointed by Lärr, and it's freely available on ICTV: https://ictv.com.au/video/item/7980 (That it hasn't yet reached film festivals or NITV/ABC/SBS is a shame).

Lärr is so gently and beautifully created that it's easy to forget that we're actually listening to a critically endangered language. Keeping that in mind, it makes the film even more beautiful and the men we see and hear walking us through Wägilak worlds even more special. 

Postcript for some trivia and acknowledgement of the living legend that is Natilma (Roy) Wilfred: if you're a linguist you may be familiar with the American linguist Jeffrey Heath who, in the 1970s, spent time in Southern Arnhem Land and did quite amazing descriptions of five different languages, including Wägilak. Natilma, as a young man, actually appears in Heath's archived recordings from the 1970s and, to my knowledge, he is the very last person still with us who Jeffrey Heath recorded. Natilma is a legend. 

This year, he has helped deliver Wägilak lessons for all the kids at Ngukurr School, spending two days a week there, fully committed and only absent when required elsewhere for other cultural obligations. I walk past the Ngukurr Language Centre on my way to work at 8am and nearly every morning, I wave hello to Natilma who is waiting there, with his dog, for the Language Centre to open. The other day, I heard that on (at least) one occasion, he had been sitting there waiting for Language Centre to open from before dawn. 

Lärr is available now on ICTV; https://ictv.com.au/video/item/7980

Lärr. 16 minutes. Wägilak with English subtitles. Filmed on location at Ŋilipidji Outstation. Featuring Roy Natilma, Andy Lukuman Peters, Peter Djudja Wilfred, Bruce Liyamunyan Wilfred. Produced by Ngukurr Language Centre. Directed, filmed and edited by Nicola Bell.

Big thank you the Ngukurr Language Centre and Salome Harris for help with the Wägilak text used in this article.

September 20, 2020

A new domain for Kriol? Kriol as a language of economics and business

Bible translators translated the bible into Kriol because they thought it would be the best way for Kriol speakers to learn about Christianity. When Barunga School started a Kriol literacy program, it was because people thought Kriol speakers would learn to read and write faster if they learned literacy in their first language. When Kriol interpreters interpret in court, it's so Kriol speakers can get (marginally more) equal access to the justice system. I could go on...

All the reasons I could cite for choosing Kriol over English tend to have foundations of social justice, communicative efficiency, or other social/cultural reasons related to education, spirituality and more. One domain that is absent is economy and business. English remains the language of wealth and business; Kriol is for 'not-for-profit' purposes.

Well so I thought until I saw these work vehicles around Ngukurr recently. A plumbing and gas fitting company in Ngukurr helping with the new housing developments (I'm guessing):


I was pretty surprised to see that the company name was clearly a Kriol name - and a well-spelled Kriol name at that! Ai sabi means 'I know'. And not because it's a business coming out of a Kriol-dominant community. Trade and works companies like this are all based in towns like Katherine and service remote communities on an as-needs basis.

What I find very interesting about this is that the use of Kriol in a business name is not to do with symbolism, communication or social justice. It's surely primarly and economic decision. This company has decided that using Kriol for their name is a good business decision. And that's pretty huge really - Kriol stepping into a new domain. 

Ma... kipgon! 😎

June 06, 2020

Aboriginal Lives Matter (a GIFset) - Kwementyate Briscoe (d. 2012, Alice Springs Police Station)

Kwementyaye Briscoe, 27, died in police custody in Alice Springs in 2012. The Coroner found that some police were immature and utterly derelict in their duties. He said the death was preventable and should not have occurred. Briscoe had committed no crime. He was taken into custody for being intoxicated and was dead 5 hours later. No police officer was sacked and no criminal charges were laid. More info on the case: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/aboriginal-death-custody-inquest-begins-kwementyaye-briscoe

432 Indigenous people have died in custody since the 1991 Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

“This should never happen” - Trisha Morton-Thomas, Australian Actor (Radiance, Redfern Now, 8MMM) and Kwementyate Briscoe’s aunty. 


Source video: ABC - https://youtu.be/mVAzY5Bqn_o

April 28, 2020

Bless me and my amazing etymological discovery (well, not quite)

Like many I have spent much of the Coronavirus situation working from home, with all of its highs and lows. One highlight of my Covid experience is being stuck at home with a housemate who grew up in Côte d'Ivoire and speaks French. Not only that, but he's been quite open and willing to teach me some French and use it patiently with me as I struggle to move beyond beginner's level. (in case you're wondering: my French is still not great, but I am amazed how much I have learned in a few weeks and how much I can actually use it with my housemate now. So cool!).

I am often asking questions of him to improve my knowledge. The other day when he sneezed and I asked (as any good linguist would) 'what do you say in French when someone sneezes?'. À tes souhaits he said, pronouncing it as something like /ˈatɛˌswɛ/.

Immediately a lightbulb went off! That's the word 'atishoo' from that song we did in Kindy! I started raving:
And my housemate humoured me kindheartedly and went back to playing a game on his phone while I excitedly started to Tweet something along the lines of:

I was today years old when I found out that the word 'atishoo' we used to sing in Ring-a-ring-a-rosie actually comes from the French way of saying 'bless you' after you sneeze
But before sharing my *amazing revelation* to the Twittersphere, I decided to check on my discovery. I Googled 'Atishoo'.

Here's the Collins Dictionary entry:
Meaning: a representation of the sound of a sneeze
me: what?! no, it's an Anglicisation of a French phrase meaning bless you
Origin: C19. Of imitative origin  
me: what?! no! it's not imitative!
And Merriam-Webster and Cambridge online dictionaries were basically the same! Maybe Wiktionary is a bit more dynamic and has more to say?
Alternative form of 'achoo'. 
Ok, nope.

At this point, I was falling off my chair. Two bombshells in the space of 10 minutes! And me thinking that I had made the most amazing etymological discovery of the century. "Noone has ever made the link between 'atishoo' and 'à tes souhaits' before!" (And also "which dictionary do I contact about this and how much glory will be showered upon me!?!").

But luckily I Googled further and learned that I was not, in fact, the Neil Armstrong of sneeze-related vocab etymologies, but that there were plenty who had observed the link. The Wiktionary entry has a short discussion in the back-end user commentary:
Is this the anglicised version of what the French say after someone has sneezed which is:- "A tes souhaits" or God Bless you? If this is said quickly sounds like atishoo and the French do say it quickly after someone has sneezed. (me: Yes, der., but the one reply dismissed it as 'plausible, but unprovable')
Looking around, the link is made many times over in comments and blogs. Another example: language learning app Duolingo (which has been very helpful in my French development) has discussion boards and one commenter also noted the atishoo/à tes souhaits link when discussing a list of handy phrases:

By this stage, I was beginning to calm my farm. Plenty of people of recognised that the weird word 'atishoo' we all sang in Kindy had wriggled its way there from the French phrase meaning 'bless you'. And it makes perfect sense in the context of the song Ring a Ring o Rosie too:
Ring-a-ring o' rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down
The Wikipedia page about the song points out that 'rosie' (which doesn't exist in my English lexicon) is borrowed directly from the French word for rosebush: rosier. It makes perfect sense that the third line of the song would also be a French borrowing. I 100% stand by my etymology of 'atishoo'.

I accept that I am no expert lexicographer or etymologist, but surely me and many others who have noted the atishoo/à tes souhaits link have a convincing argument based not just on phonology but also looking at context of the song in which it occurs (which is I'm sure how most people come to know the word). It seems like a real gap if dictionaries are not making the etymological link and to me it's quite insufficient to just say its 'of imitative origin'.

Now who's gonna show this to a lexicographer for me? I'd love to hear more thoughts on this if you have any.