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