Where have all the young things gone?

Last weekend Canberra was pumping with ideas. Borrowing from K Rudd, this year the annual Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas was titled ‘Fair Suck of the Sauce Bottle: A Celebration of Australian Language’. The sauce bottle didn’t feature much, but the evolution and current usage of language was discussed, dissected and debated.

Jack Waterford's dictionariesBarrister and philologist Julian Burnside was eloquent in his reflection on the specific language surrounding refugees which he described as ‘an exercise in double speak’. He went on to say: ‘I don’t mind when people misuse language but when they deliberately use language to anesthetise or mislead I want to reach for my revolver.’ He talked about how the word ‘illegals’ shaped public perception of refugees as criminals, therefore making it acceptable to lock them up. In reality refugees are ordinary people, including children, who have escaped horrendous situations only to be placed indefinitely behind razor wire without a trial. But this deliberate use of language took away refugees’ humanity in a political ploy to prevent the general public from realising what the government was actually doing.

During the day the issue of disappearing Indigenous languages was a recurring theme. As Aunty Agnes said in her welcome to country, ‘When language is lost, something essential is lost.’ Jeanie Bell, a linguist who is responsible for compiling the Dictionary of the Gubbi-Gubbi and Butchulla Languages with Amanda Seed, continued this theme. ‘Many generations have become very angry and resentful at the loss of language and felt that part of our identity was stolen … There’s a deep grieving and sense of loss about not having language.’ While her work has strived to revive Indigenous languages she admitted it’s a ‘loaded gun’ because there are few examples of success around the world. And with so many dialects (originally 500–600) it makes the task even more difficult. Chief Minister Jon Stanhope joined in the discussion, noting: ‘If language connects us, there is no question that it also divides us.’ Because of this he wants children in ACT schools to be taught Ngunnawal words and phrases – a good idea in my view.

Don Watson gave a rather rambling but amusing talk on the deliberately obscure management-speak that now permeates our lives. He presented a series of examples that had the audience hooting with laughter. But ultimately he worried that this kind of language ‘has a sort of anaesthetic effect … it is now everywhere and it makes us duller’.

As was to be expected during question time audience members lamented the misuse and abuse of words such as ‘literally’ or the introduction of words such as ‘unworry’ and ‘unspend’ which have recently gained currency via a series of NRMA ads. But Watson cautioned against apoplexy. ‘If you worry [for example] about ‘literal’ and ‘refute’ (when you mean deny) and plurals with apostrophes you’ll go mad.’ Like many of the guest speakers he felt unconcerned about the inevitable changing use of language. As Burnside said, ‘Most words change their meaning significantly over the course of a decade … Who’s to say when language was perfect? If change is happening you might as well roll with it.’

David Malouf was in agreement. ‘I’m not worried about change in language. Change is essential … but I am worried about the decay of language.’ He spoke about the overuse of language leading to its debasement: ‘There has never been a time in history when we have been so bombarded by language … and most of it is so unnecessary.’

All of this was entertaining and thought-provoking, yet at the end of the first day one thing was bothering me. As I sat at the back of the theatre, looking out over a sea of grey and white heads, I wondered where all the young lovers of language were. In the audience I counted six people in their twenties (all attending in a group together) and one teenager.

But this problem is not just specific to this event. Over the last decade of attending literary festivals and symposiums in Canberra I have regularly been the youngest person in the room. And there are often two decades between me and the next ‘young thing’. As a woman in my mid-thirties, who is certainly not feeling that young anymore, I find this depressing. Why are these events unable to attract young word lovers? It certainly isn’t because they’re not out there. Is it the content? The guests? The structure? The location? The failure of publicity and marketing strategies? The cost? (In this case I think not since tickets were priced at a reasonable $20 or $15 concession for the Saturday, while the Sunday was free.) I have been puzzling over this for years.

During afternoon tea a colleague and I were ruminating on this problem. ‘I might belong to the grey-haired set,’ she lamented, ‘but I don’t want to sit here listening to the same old stuff.’ We agreed that including young people on the panel might have attracted other young people to attend, but it would also have injected a different kind of energy, and perhaps offered greater balance. Why, for example, mused my colleague, could we not have someone like poet and rapper Omar Musa who would have brought a perspective on contemporary youth language that was lacking.

It greatly concerns me that young Canberrans are not part of this kind of dialogue. These events need rethinking and reinvigorating. And I’m wondering, is it like this in other states? Or is Canberra just getting it wrong?

And while I’m talking about balance, of the twelve speakers only three were women, and none of those three gave any of the major individual presentations. This had the effect of making it rather a blokey weekend.

Julian BurnsideBut back to specifics. Day two, held in the gardens of Manning Clark House, was more relaxed and generated much laughter. Sitting outside under the marquee, with coffee in hand and autumn sunshine filtering in, put me in a cruisey frame of mind. Participation from the audience was invited and taken up with enthusiasm. Julian Burnside was up again, as were Roly Sussex and Bruce Moore, but it did seem that everything had mostly been said the previous day. Consequently it became a little repetitive.

The day’s most engaging offerings came from those who had not previously spoken. Media commentator Lawrie Zion reflected on the development and characteristics of the Australian accent and the making of his documentary, The Sounds of Aus. Genevieve Jacobs from ABC Canberra was lively in her discussion of the pronunciation pitfalls radio presenters face and the type of Australian accents ABC listeners expect to hear. Canberra journalist Jack Waterford brought in some examples from his private dictionary collection (pictured) which is considered to be one of the finest in the land. ‘I’ve always loved words, they’re my favourite things,’ he explained. He went on to describe one subcontinental dictionary as ‘delicious, a delight to read’, perhaps revealing why his wife has labelled his passion ‘a serious sickness’. I should also mention John Harms, Director of Manning Clark House, who steered all the discussions skilfully. Overall it was an enjoyable, if less stimulating, day.

Manning Clark House

But there’s still that problem. Why are young Canberrans staying away from these events?

Irma Gold

Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in Australian journals and her debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2011 (Affirm Press). She is also the author of two children’s books and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Facebook.

More by Irma Gold ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I suspect events have to be
    1. FREE and
    2. be advertised in the medium that young people respond to (social networking?)
    3. and in the places that young people read (street press? fliers at their places of study or gathering?)
    4. and feature content that is relevant and speakers who are either youthful or have a youthful perspective

    We have a zine fair coming up in June so we’ll be tackling the same questions of promotion and audiences!

  2. I just barely fit in the this category (assuming you can call late 30s ‘young’), and the main reason I rarely get out to events of any kind is that I have two young children and a husband who works late. I probably could have made it to at least part of a weekend event, but most things seem to be on in the early evening when I am still wrangling children and cooking dinner. An event has to be really exceptional for me to make the effort.

  3. I think it’s a general phenomenon. Most literary events skew old. It’s partly a reflection of the readership of Auslit. The conventional wisdom is that main book buyers of fiction and popular non-fiction are middle-aged and middle-class. That’s pretty much the impression you get at most lit festivals, too.
    I must say, though, I do also wonder if younger people are less accustomed to attending public events. I mean, there was a time when a fairly large percentage of the population regularly attended Labor Party branch meetings or union caucuses or even church events. That seems to be a tradition that’s died out over the last few decades, leaving a much more atomised and isolated population.

  4. A decase or so ago I want to see Def Poetry Jam at the Parramatta Riverside Theatres as part of the Sydney Festival. The audience was 97% grey (and Anglo), though the performers were mainly under thirty and African-American/Latino/Hispanic…and then there was my brother and I who stood on our seats afterwards and tried (unsuccessfully) to get a standing ovation going. I remember wondering why on earth they didn’t offer discount tickets for young people of colour in the West (ticket prices being prohibitive).

    The indigenous languages preservation issue fascinates me, as in Jamaica, they are introducing patois as a seperate ‘language’ course in schools for fear it will disappear.

  5. I agree with Jeff. I don’t know about other writer’s festivals but at all the events I went to at the PWF–and I went to all the free ones, so there was an even greater chance of students being spotted–my girlfriend and I were definitely part of a very small minority, perhaps less than a dozen, of younger people. I have no idea where the CW students that must exist were hiding. Perhaps they were turned off by the mostly aging speakers? I’m honestly not sure. I would have thought the wealth of knowledge that was on display would have been enough to tempt us youngsters out from in front of our computers long enough to learn something useful.

  6. At face value the topic of language at the Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas appeared to be a good “idea” but as Irma said where were all the young things? Where were the “ideas” that might have come from talented young writers, language teachers, journalists, editors, sociologists and students of communication and writing? Why wasn’t there input from younger people towards the debate?

    What about the influence on the development of language that will surely emerge from sub-cultures, niche vocabularies and text speak, graffiti, Hip Hop, Rap, Slam Poetry and other contemporary aspects of youth language? One older audience member pointed out that primary and secondary school students have their own evolving language (not just slang).

    Sitting behind me was a row of fresh looking young men and women. They didn’t offer any comment all day. At first I thought they were students of writing or journalism but they surprised me by saying they were public servants. I asked what they thought of the sessions. They said, “good”. I said, “only good?” They seemed embarrassed when I asked why they hadn’t contributed to the discussions. They explained they felt “too intimidated” to comment or contribute, in particular, to the session on public service jargon, the convoluted language they know in their workplace, the language that Don Watson spoke about so eloquently and with great humour in his presentation. I noticed the group of fresh young people only attended one of the two days.

    For what it’s worth I googled “youth jargon and youth language” and picked out the following three websites There are many more.

    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/depts/elc/resources/slangresearch.html – Slang Research and the Slang and new language archive

    I chose this quote from one of the above.

    “New words are a welcome inclusion into language as they ensure the way people talk continues to evolve and remain fresh. William Shakespeare invented words like ‘lonely’, ‘torture’ and ‘bedroom’, Charles Dickens penned the term ‘boredom’, and the British youth coined the phrase ‘you get me?’.”

    Perhaps “ideas” from youth would add another dimension and attract new, younger audiences to this event and other literary festivals and celebrations.

  7. All that being said, the MWF reports:

    Our main audience segment was in the 20 to 34 years bracket, and again the 35 to 45 year bracket were second most in evidence.

    Mind you, it’s possible those figures are skewed by the school events.

    1. Except most people aged 20 to 34 are no longer in high school.

      I don’t recall providing information about my age so wonder where they got their stats from.

  8. I think this is a problem with any ‘high culture’ event. These events would attract younger and more diverse audiences and participants if they actually attempted to engage with them, as Irma suggested.

    Where is this ‘youth culture’ ‘less accustomed to attending public events’ hiding?

    I went to the KYD launch a fortnight ago – you couldn’t breathe for all the young people there. The fact that Kill your darlings is published by and publishing young and emerging writers might be a pretty large clue.

  9. We shouldn’t be asking why people aren’t at literary cultural events; we should be asking why aren’t they outside organising counter-literary cultural events?

    Whose culture?

  10. Maybe it’s time to stop lauding literary cultural events created by the establishment and look at ways of fostering others. Perhaps in ways that don’t require the pressures of starting another lit journal.

    Solving the problem of not having enough young people at literary events only solves not having enough young people at literary events. Beyond the age factor, I think diversity at literary events is a major issue.

    But what kinds of literary events do we want? Or whose culture?

  11. I wouldn’t pose it like that. Culture doesn’t belong to any one group in that kind of simple way. Whose culture is, say, Patrick White?

    1. You’re right. Culture is more complicated than that. I don’t believe culture belongs to any one group and if you look at readers of speculative fiction, for example, you’ll have an incredibly broad cross-section of society.

      But we can’t ignore the political aspects of culture. And we can’t ignore that there is some writing, like Ayn Rand’s, that represents a regressive culture. And this event, while touting the anesthetic effects of bureaucratic language, gives as much progressive change or challenge as an atheist conference.

  12. Literary youth culture is definitely alive and well in Canberra. There are events – like the poetry slams for example, or launches of the Block journal (which like KYD features work by emerging writers and is published by a group of young people operating out of ANU) – which are full of young people. It’s just that they’re not engaging with these mainstream events. I do wonder if it’s partly the perception that they’re stuffy and boring, and that it’s not actually targeted at them. Jenny’s point is a telling one, I think. For those young people that did attend this event they felt marginalised and intimated to the point where they felt they couldn’t contribute to the discussion.

    I find the stats on the MWF interesting and wonder, like Jacinda, how they got these results. I didn’t attend last year but unless it changed dramatically from the year before the 20-34 age group was definitely not the majority. That said representation from that group was certainly better than at most Canberra events.

    I actually think it would benefit everyone to have a broader cross-section at these events (although perhaps the old guard would disagree). I suspect part of the solution is to get young people involved on the organising committees of these events. That way they inform the event AND the organisation gets to tap into their networks.

    1. If I were in the young demographic I would expect (correctly or incorrectly) such a weekend would devote lots of time to rants about how young people were misusing and destroying the language. Not an attractive destination.
      However if it promoted artists, peformers, speakers and thinkers who celebrated my language, perspectives and interests I’d be interested.

      Even the title suggests it was not for the young. ‘Fair suck of the sauce bottle: a celebration of Australian Language’ implies celebration of language…back in the day. (Before KRudd used it recently most people below the age of 23 – according to a recent poll of three – had never heard the ‘Fair suck’ term before).

      What if it had been called ‘Gay, Random, Whatever: a celebration of Australian language. Now and then.’ Only half joking. One 19 yr old I spoke to wondered if her language and her friends’ could even be considered Australian. ‘It’s global now’. So perhaps the premise did not flag young concerns.

      Everywhere you go – church, politics, festivals and concerts – grey is the new black – if you’re going where those people always went. This doesn’t mean non-greys are disengaged about words and ideas (or politics, ideas, music or spirituality). They’re just doing it elsewhere so maybe it’s just not the right format. Similar to the lament heard frequently: where are the protests and the protestors? Dissent and new ideas are always taking new forms – that’s why it’s dissent and why it’s new. Perhaps the format belongs to a certain time and demographic.

      So Anne-Maree Britton’s comments are spot-on. Spruik where young people are plugged in, as well as everywhere else. As others have said above, spruik what young people want to come to. And as Irma, Jenny and others suggest, the young inclusion thing begins at the begining. (Watching episodes of Madmen with ad execs trying to work out what women want, is a reminder that you have to have WHO you want, planning WHAT you do).

      Getting young people in is a ground-up job, not some add-on when everything else is in place.

      Having said that, as Natalie suggests, sometimes not attending comes down to plain old domestic detritus.

      A great article Irma and thoughtful comments too. Do you think the event was even intended for young types? Maybe organisers got what they wanted and only you and your colleague noticed or were dismayed.

      1. A good point Claire. Ockerisms like ‘fair suck of the sauce bottle’ and agonising over what constitutes an Australian idiom in general was a concern of the 1970s (time of the three Barry’s – Humphries, Crocker, and Mackenzie). A good time to be alive. A fine time to be alive. A great time for artists. Forty years ago – ie, not now.

  13. As Irma suggests and in my experience as an events development person it is a good idea for literary and other arts events to ensure youth representation on committees either by forming separate youth committees or by inviting creative and inspired young minds to participate in the development of such events with existing committees.
    Perhaps, in particular, the organisers of future The Weekend of Ideas
    in Canberra might consider this.

  14. 1. They’re boring.
    2. There are better literary events out there.
    3. They’re boring.
    4. They tend to be organised and peopled by well-known older institutional figures who only invite other well-known older institutional figures to speak, thus
    5. They’re boring.
    6. They’re often not so much cultural events as marketing events for a city, or political/ideological events, because they tend to be funded by local and state governments, which means –
    7. They’re boring.

  15. I think you’re right on every point, Anne-Maree. I also think word of mouth is crucial, and of course having young people involved on the organising committee helps get the ball rolling with this. Claire is absolutely right about working from the ground up. But I wonder if the organisers are even interested in having young people there? It seems to be a bit of a chicken and an egg thing. What came first? Young people’s disinterest, or organisations’ disinterest in having them there? Either way, it seems to me that everyone is worse off.

  16. Irma wonders

    But there’s still that problem. Why are young Canberrans staying away from these events?

    Sadly, Irma probably answered her own question in her first paragraph. Not a literary festival goer myself, I was attracted by a festival titled \Fair Suck of the Sauce Bottle: A Celebration of Australian Language.\ But then Irma immediately follows with \The sauce bottle didn’t feature much.\

    I dare say this is the problem.

    1. While Julian Burnside is unquestionably an excellent barrister who does first class human rights work, he really is the insomniac’s magic potion. At a conference celebrating Aussie vernacular, his contribution was about disjunctures between newspaper rhetoric and the language of the UN Refugee Convention?? I mean come on. First of all tabloid language IS Australian language. UN Convention language is UN-Australian.

    2. What does \Aunty Agnes\ have to do with anything? She is talking about languages that are no longer spoken, or even exist. A tough lesson about linguistic natural selection to be sure, but that’s the way the sauce bottle pours.

    3. Jon Stanhope’s state jackboot is the antithesis of how Aussie vernacular evolved. I am shocked that no-one questioned a politician’s presumption to decide \which Aboriginal words and languages ACT school kids must learn…\

    4. Irma says \It greatly concerns me that young Canberrans are not part of this kind of dialogue.\ But what \dialogue\ was there at this festival? It was more an authoritarian denial of Aussie vernacular.

    5. Quite frankly it is probably a good thing that \of the twelve speakers only three were women.\ At least there is hope that one day a festival might be held that celebrates actual Aussie vernacular.

    Ultimately, the reason there were so few younger people is that this crowd of middle-aged, middle-class, white people would be absolutely horrified at the current vibrancy of the Aussie vernacular of our youth. Blue singlets are called \wife beaters;\ boring pop songs are dismissed as \so gay,\ and expressions far more shocking.

    The truth is that the literary festival crowd are not interested in the Australia language at all. Unfortunately, their demographic represents everything that is antithetical to a vibrant Aussie vernacular.

    1. Kim, you make some interesting points, but apart from your final summation on the Aussie vernacular of our youth, there’s not much I can agree with.

      A couple of points:

      1. Julian Burnside (who by the way I found engaging, hardly an ‘insomniac’s magic potion’) spoke about an issue that is highly relevant: the language used by politicians and the media to describe asylum seekers. Mungo MacCallum’s excellent essay in the current issue of Overland covers similar territory. With the whole fear campaign ramping up again at the moment this kind of discussion is vital.

      2. While many of the Indigenous languages have been lost, 145 languages are still spoken, although 110 of those are endangered. For example, Jeanie Bell, who I mention in this piece, compiled the Dictionary of the Gubbi-Gubbi and Butchulla Languages in an attempt to prevent these languages from being lost. They are currently still in use and are now being taught at schools in Indigenous communities in Queensland. Language is so intrinsically bound up with identity and a sense of belonging that to suggest so dismissively that the loss of language is just a ‘tough lesson about linguistic natural selection’ fails to acknowledge the repercussions for individuals and their communities. In a discussion that attempted to embrace different aspects of Australian language (although failed, as we have repeatedly noted, to embrace youth vernacular) talking about Indigenous languages is entirely relevant.

  17. Irma’s point about language being intrinsically bound up with identity and belonging makes absolute sense to me. So if the language of existing literary events doesn’t resonate with ‘the young things’ they’ll stay away. As Anne-Maree said word of mouth (the kind of language used to communicate the event) is everything and will make or break an event. The fact that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of young people creating their own literary festivals or events in the way that they create music festivals and concerts or dance parties and flock to events like the National Folk Festival must mean that there is no interest from them in supporting or becoming involved with existing mainstream literary events. This has become an interesting debate and one which Irma and I first pondered at the MCH Weekend of Ideas. I for one have certainly become fascinated with the development of new language and culture by ‘the young things’ even as young as four and five years. Last weekend Rhubarb Crumble became Rumble Crumble and though it’s probably not the best example I like it.

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