Monday night ABC1–”The Grammar of Happiness”

I watched this with interest.

The Grammar Of Happiness follows the story of Daniel Everett amongst the extraordinary ‘unconvertible’ Amazonian Pirahã tribe, a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers whose culture and outlook on life has taken the world of linguistics by storm.

As a young ambitious missionary three decades ago, Dan, a red-bearded towering American, decamped to the Amazon rain forest to save indigenous souls. His assignment was to translate the book of Mark into the tongue of the Pirahã, a people whose puzzling speech seemed unrelated to any other on Earth. What he learned during his time with the Pirahã led him to question the very foundations of his own deep beliefs.

As a ‘born again’ atheist, Dan divorced his devout Christian wife and became estranged from his children. Having lost faith and family, his new life is dominated by the desire to leave behind his legacy. Everett’s most controversial claim is that the Pirahã language lacks ‘recursion’ – the ability to build an infinite number of sentences within sentences, regarded by Chomsky-ists as perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of human language.

The Grammar Of Happiness interweaves the tale of Everett’s attempt to return to the Pirahã with the story of his personal journey since the sixties – from drug-taking musician to evangelical missionary to rabblerousing academic. It’s the adventurous tale of losing faith but finding happiness.

piraha

Photo by Daniel Everett – linked to source

See also Angry Words: Will one researcher’s discovery deep in the Amazon destroy the foundation of modern linguistics?

Christian missionary sets out to convert a remote Amazonian tribe. He lives with them for years in primitive conditions, learns their extremely difficult language, risks his life battling malaria, giant anacondas, and sometimes the tribe itself. In a plot twist, instead of converting them he loses his faith, morphing from an evangelist trying to translate the Bible into an academic determined to understand the people he’s come to respect and love.

Along the way, the former missionary discovers that the language these people speak doesn’t follow one of the fundamental tenets of linguistics, a finding that would seem to turn the field on its head, undermine basic assumptions about how children learn to communicate, and dethrone the discipline’s long-reigning king, who also happens to be among the most well-known and influential intellectuals of the 20th century.

It feels like a movie, and it may in fact turn into one—there’s a script and producers on board. It’s already a documentary that will air in May on the Smithsonian Channel. A play is in the works in London. And the man who lived the story, Daniel Everett, has written two books about it. His 2008 memoir Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is filled with Joseph Conrad-esque drama. The new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, which is lighter on jungle anecdotes, instead takes square aim at Noam Chomsky, who has remained the pre-eminent figure in linguistics since the 1960s, thanks to the brilliance of his ideas and the force of his personality.

But before any Hollywood premiere, it’s worth asking whether Everett actually has it right. Answering that question is not straightforward, in part because it hinges on a bit of grammar that no one except linguists ever thinks about. It’s also made tricky by the fact that Everett is the foremost expert on this language, called Pirahã, and one of only a handful of outsiders who can speak it, making it tough for others to weigh in and leading his critics to wonder aloud if he has somehow rigged the results….

And How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in Pirahã?

His life among his fellow linguists, however, has been far less idyllic, and debate about his scholarship is poised to boil over anew, thanks to his ambitious new book, “Language: The Cultural Tool,” and a forthcoming television documentary that presents an admiring view of his research among the Pirahã along with a darkly conspiratorial view of some of his critics.

In 2005 Dr. Everett shot to international prominence with a paper claiming that he had identified some peculiar features of the Pirahã language that challenged Noam Chomsky’s influential theory, first proposed in the 1950s, that human language is governed by “universal grammar,” a genetically determined capacity that imposes the same fundamental shape on all the world’s tongues.

The paper, published in the journal Current Anthropology, turned him into something of a popular hero but a professional lightning rod, embraced in the press as a giant killer who had felled the mighty Chomsky but denounced by some fellow linguists as a fraud, an attention seeker or worse, promoting dubious ideas about a powerless indigenous group while refusing to release his data to skeptics…

And Chomsky, the Pirahã, and turduckens of the Amazon.

The Pirahã maelstrom has had two vortices: recursion, and the language–culture connection. Recursion promises/threatens to slay Chomsky, who argues that much of grammar is innate. The language–culture connection promises/threatens to resurrect Whorf, who argues that language shapes how we think. I work on the latter and I’ve written (here, here) on why I choose not to work on the former. For now, I’ll concentrate Chomsky and recursion, because, truth be told, the “Pirahã slays Chomsky” headlines seem to me like errors in elementary reasoning. In other words, the kind of “because” abuse that this blog is named after…

Why does recursion matter to Chomsky? Well, one of the ways to think about what he is up to (and how I explain my work at dinner parties) is to pretend the brain is a kind of computer, like an iphone. (Sorry for mixing metaphors, computers with food. But, well, iphones are apples.) Obviously, we share lots of our brain hardware with other animals. But other animals apparently don’t have anything like human languages, not even the vocal, gregarious, communicative ones, not even primates formally schooled in sign languages by eager experimenters. Chomsky has co-written that the crucial difference might be that our hardware at some point became capable of recursion.*…

My iphone tags my photos to say where I took them. It tells me what’s nearby (cafés, restaurants, museums, shops, …). It shows me where I am on maps and how to get to where I want to go and which of my friends are nearby. My mother never tags her photos, she never wants to know what’s around her, she never displays herself as a blip on a map, and, if she wants to know if you’re nearby, she calls. But that’s a fact about how my mother has set her iphone up. All location services are off. But that doesn’t mean her iphone can’t provide that information. The computational capacity of our phones is the same, her configuration is just different.

If the Pirahã don’t have turducken sentences, that’s a fact about how their language is configured. It’s not a fact about their hardware. If you kidnapped a Pirahã child (a practice inflicted on numerous indigenous communities) and raised it speaking Portuguese—or, less horrifically, if you exposed it to enough Portuguese for it to grow up bilingual—you’d expect them to be just as capable of learning Portuguese as any other child they were raised with. When Chomsky is concerned with recursion, he is concerned with hardware. The claim is about what brains can learn, not what a particular brain has learned. A dearth of turduckens of the Amazon just doesn’t matter…

And:

And an account by Everett himself at The Edge.

I think that the way that Chomskyan theories developed over the last 50 years has made it completely untestable now. It’s not clear what usefulness there is in the notion of universal grammar. It appeals to the public at large, and it used to appeal to linguists, but as you work more and more with it, there’s no way to test it—I can’t think of a single experiment—in fact I asked Noam this in an e-mail, what is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it? What prediction does it make? And he said, It doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology. 

Now that is not quite right. No scientist can get by without believing in biology, but it’s quite possible to study human language without believing in universal grammar. So UG is really not a field of study in the same sense. I think the history of science shows that the people who develop a theory and who are responsible for the development of the theory are rarely the people who come forward and say: whoops, I was wrong, we need to actually work at it another way, this guy over here had the right idea. It’s rare for that to happen. Noam is not likely to say this.

I want to have well-designed experiments to test my claims on recursion; I want to have mores studies of the Pirahã grammar from people working outside my influence. The more people who can look at this independently, the more likely it is that others are going to start to believe this, because I think it’s going to be shown to be correct. If it’s wrong, that’s also important. The tests have to be done, and then if there is evidence that I might be onto something, we have to look at other languages. And other languages in similar situations where they’ve been cut off for one reason or another from outside influences for long periods of time. And re-examine those languages in light of the possibility that languages can vary more than we thought. And maybe the categories that we have aren’t the best categories.

We need more fieldwork. Linguists have gotten away from fieldwork over the last 50 years. There’s more interest in endangered languages now than there was a few years ago, but there’s just now beginning to be a resurgence of the field work ethic among linguists, and the idea that we can’t figure out everything that we need to know just by looking at grammars that have been written, without going and seeing the language in the cultural context.

And that’s really the biggest research question that I have for the future: What evidence is there that culture can exercise an architectonic effect on the grammar —that it can actually shape the very nature of grammar, and not simply trigger parameters.

In  my years teaching English and English as a Second Language I can conclude that for my purposes Chomsky was pretty much useless. In a paper I wrote for a UTS TESOL course in 1998 I found myself scratching to find anything really relevant to my understanding of how language works and how it may be taught and learned.  It has always surprised me that Chomsky so dominates linguistics when, from my perspective, there are far more interesting and useful linguists all over the shop. For example:

In fact it is fair to say that in Monday night’s documentary Chomsky comes across as a bit of a prick. 

At the same time despite his genuine knowledge of his Amazonians and their language and culture, Everett seemed to me more than a bit naive. It was that tired old nature/nurture, instinct/culture Sapir-Whorf debate in yet another guise. And a bit of an overdose of noble savagery.

I mean, take all the guff about the Pirahã not having tense. So?

For example, say we have the verb ‘go’ but no such thing as went, gone, am going, will go, and etc. Nothing but ‘go’.

  • I go Beijing.
  • She go Beijing.
  • We go Beijing.

How would we try to express tense and time in English under these circumstances? Probably like this, which is one way Chinese does it:

  • Tomorrow I go Beijing.
  • Right now she go Beijing.
  • Yesterday we go Beijing.

Adverbs! Instead of inflecting verbs, the Chinese language relies heavily on the use of adverbs to communicate what English and many other languages do with different verb tenses. And looking at the literal translations in the following examples, you realize that English could probably also get by without verb inflections in a pinch…

Millions of Chinese seem to get by without tense too, nor would I say that this makes the Chinese content to live in an eternal present.

And the Pirahã don’t use numbers.  I was about to say neither do/did Australian Aboriginal languages – “one”, “two”, “heaps” being one way of putting it – but apparently this isn’t true.

Even so, when it comes to Chomsky – and even Pinker – I find myself drawn rather to the anthropological/sociolinguistic varieties of linguistics – the ones I find more interesting and certainly, from the language teaching point of view, more useful.

I must chase up The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson. Oh, and I did enjoy the documentary.

Nambawan Pikinini bilong Misis Kwin na Namba Two Misis Bilong Charles

…and other matters.

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Yes, we now have The Prince of Wales plus Duchess of Cornwall in the house… Believe they go to a horse race today.

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The first picture comes from and is linked to The Sydney Morning Herald, the second I ripped off the Prince’s own site. Hope I don’t get sent to the Tower of London for that. He is here as part of a Diamond Jubilee Commonwealth tour – his Mum having been more than a touch venturesome herself this year but deputing her Nambawan Pikinini to come to this part of the world on her behalf. A shame as I was rather looking forward to her arrival:

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Before arriving here the Royals were in Papua New Guinea – hence the Tok Pisin heading today. (The Duke of Edinburgh is apparently oldfella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin.” Love it!)

You may read a first-hand account from PNG: Having Dinner with Nambawan Pikinini bilong Misis Kwin na Namba Two Misis Bilong Charles. That blog leads to others from PNG – itself well worth the visit.

I like having C and C here. The older I get the fonder I am of the rather dotty monarchy we in Australia inhabit and the less likely to vote for a republic any time soon; I did vote for one at the turn of the century. It will seem very rude of me but I really do like NOT being American and our head of state NOT being a politician. I also don’t mind the best of the tradition and the world links history has given us. Keep it that way as long as possible, though it is hard to see the system lasting all the way to 2112…. Apparently the young and cool rather agree. No, you won’t find me joining Professor Flint’s mob though – not that desperate.

And as for Charles: he’s not as dim or useless as many think.

And while I am on eccentrics and conservatism – not that Charles is a textbook conservative – I did rather enjoy the (rerun) of Kitchen Cabinet with Barnaby Joyce last night. In fact Kitchen Cabinet is proving quite a treasure.

Last night too QandA went to Perth. An excellent episode, and a reminder that we really are locked too much into the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra axis.

Misoneism?

Is that all it is? The hatred or distrust of new things or ideas?

Australia’s Prime Minister did not define “misogyny” wrong in a blistering attack on a male rival, the dictionary did.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fiery speech last week in which she branded conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott a misogynist for a string of allegedly sexist comments he had made in recent years has been lauded by feminists around the world.

However, Ms. Gillard’s critics have accused her of hyperbole, pointing to dictionary definitions of misogyny as hatred of women.

Sue Butler, Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, regarded as the definitive authority on Australian meanings of words, said on Wednesday the political furore revealed to her fellow Editors that their dictionary’s definition was decades out of date.

The dictionary would broaden its definition from a hatred of women to include entrenched prejudice against women, she said.

“Since the 1980s, ‘misogyny’ has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of ‘entrenched prejudice against women’ rather than ‘pathological hatred’”, she said.

Ms. Gillard’s speech in Parliament last week came after Mr. Abbott attempted to move a motion to oust the House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper over crude and sexist terms Mr. Slipper made in text messages that came to light in a court case.

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror,” Ms. Gillard told Parliament. “Misogyny, sexism every day from this leader of this opposition.”

She complained Mr. Abbott had questioned in a media interview whether it was a bad thing that men had more power than women in Australian society and had described abortion as “the easy way out”.

Ms. Gillard said she was offended when Mr. Abbott once told her in Parliament — “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself …”

The term “making an honest woman” in Australia traditionally refers to a man marrying a woman with whom he has had a sexual relationship. Ms. Butler said while the Oxford English Dictionary had expanded its definition of the word from a psychological term to include its contemporary meaning a decade ago, it took the debate over Ms. Gillard’s speech to prompt Macquarie to review its definition.

She said the decision had drawn complaints.

Among the critics is Senator Fiona Nash, a member of Mr. Abbott’s coalition, who accused Macquarie of making the change to suit Ms. Gillard’s centre-left Labour Party.

Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott declined to comment on the change.

That is from The Hindu, reflecting both the amazing international interest in Julia Gillard’s now famous speech, and the fact of course that Ms Gillard has been lately visiting India.

Julia Gillard Prime Minister Julia Gillard 9I3q2VcdPwfl

First, you will have noted that I was conservative in my attitude to the word misogyny last time I mentioned it, endorsing Annabel Crabb’s opinion that misogyny was a “big call” as an accurate descriptor for Tony Abbott. She cited the Oxford Dictionary. However, the illustrative citation on the Oxford Dictionary web site is “she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny” – which perhaps reflects, if you think about it, more the sense in which Julia Gillard and others have used the word.

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Whatever you may think of the Macquarie Dictionary modifying its definition of misogyny, the assertion that it is “making the change to suit Ms. Gillard’s centre-left Labour Party” is nonsense. On reflection, whether you like it or not, it is clear that a combination of contemporary usage and academic specialist usage has extended (or weakened?) the meaning of the word, and that this predates what happened a few days ago in the Australian parliament. Some idea of this shifting of meaning may be gleaned from Wikipedia and from About.com.

Definition: Misogyny means the hatred of women. The word comes from the Greek misein, to hate and gyne, woman. Misogyny is often used to describe contempt for women as a whole, rather than hatred of specific women.

In feminist theory, misogyny often describes an attitude that is perceived to be negative and demeaning toward women as a group. While it is rare to find someone who actually despises all women just because they are female, feminists more commonly observe prejudice against women or an assumption that women are less deserving than men. This usually leads to actions that harm women. People, usually men, who display hateful behaviors that oppress women are said to be misogynists.

Feminists and other scholars have often discussed misogyny in religion. They have examined the misogyny behind historical incidents such as the Salem witch trials and social traditions such as polygyny.

It is entirely appropriate for the Macquarie – or any dictionary – to take account of the development of the word as shown in the paragraph I have highlighted.

People can be very naive about dictionaries, but also very passionate or protective. See Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it) from Stan Cary’s Sentence First. See also Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.

For a long time, many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs. All around them, people were talking about “parameters” and “life styles,” saying “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested,” “fulsome” when they meant “full.” To the pained listeners, it seemed that they were no longer part of this language group. To others, the complainers were fogies and snobs. The usages they objected to were cause not for grief but for celebration. They were pulsings of our linguistic lifeblood, proof that English was large, contained multitudes.

The second group was right about the multitudes. English is a melding of the languages of the many different peoples who have lived in Britain; it has also changed through commerce and conquest. English has always been a ragbag, and that encouraged further permissiveness. In the past half century or so, however, this situation has produced a serious quarrel, political as well as linguistic, with two combatant parties: the prescriptivists, who were bent on instructing us in how to write and speak; and the descriptivists, who felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was. This dispute is the subject of “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by the English journalist Henry Hitchings, a convinced descriptivist…

Writing about such matters has been a staple of letters to the editor for as long as I can remember, and I guess that’s not entirely a bad thing – but oh my, what a lot of nonsense has been generated! For some common sense see linguist David Crystal’s “Thinking about Dictionaries” (PDF).  See also his blog, for example On complaining about the tide coming in (2006):

A journalist from the Observer, writing a ’fun piece’ for the Christmas edition, phones today to ask my views about the way some English words have become ‘loaded’. She had apparently read a piece in the current issue of the journal of the Queen’s English Society in which someone is complaining about the way certain words have changed their strength of meaning – likemassive being reduced in power to mean ‘huge’ (as in ‘a massive heart attack’) or incredible used so as to mean ‘very fine’ (as in ‘an incredible restaurant’)…

The writer is against people loading words ‘with powers beyond their meaning in the dictionary’. If that was a valid principle – you must only use words with the meaning recorded in the dictionary – English vocabulary would hardly have developed at all, and we would have cut ourselves off from the kind of expressive richness we see in, say, Shakespeare, who was one of the best meaning-extenders the world has ever seen. It is also a misconception of how dictionaries come to be written: lexicographers record meanings as they change, and if there is a widely used meaning currently missing from a dictionary’s pages then it is a weakness of the dictionary rather than of the language.

But the writer was wrong, in any case. Factually wrong. The senses of massive, incredible, and so on are in the dictionary, and have been for some time. But ignorance of the facts of English usage has never stopped people complaining about it…

Words change their meaning. To adapt a phrase rapidly becoming a catch-phrase at the moment (courtesy of the Bishop of Southwark): that’s what they do. They are there to help us talk about our world, and as our world changes, or our ways of looking at the world change, so do the words. It is important to be aware that the changes are taking place, of course, so that we are alert to possible ambiguities and misinformation. We need to know that generally is one of those words which writers often use in a misleading way. That is one of the driving forces behind lexicology, and why it is so important: it helps us manage vocabulary change. But to complain about words changing their meaning is as pointless as complaining about the movement of the tides.

Finally, in the course of looking around I saw for the first time the wonderful OUP blog site, specifically entries tagged “dictionaries”. Lovely stuff. For example:

It cannot but come as a surprise that against the background of countless important words whose origin has never been discovered some totally insignificant verbs and nouns have been traced successfully and convincingly to the very beginning of Indo-European. Fart (“not in delicate use”) looks like a product of our time, but it has existed since time immemorial. Even the nuances have not been lost: one thing is to break wind loudly (farting); quite a different thing is to do it quietly (the now obscure “fisting”). (This fist has nothing to do with fist “clenched fingers” and consequently isn’t related to fisting, a sexual activity requiring, as we are warned, great caution and a lot of tender experience. This reminds me of the instruction Sergei Prokofiev gave to his First Piano Concerto: “Col pugno,” that is ‘with a fist’.)

Both words for the emission of wind (fart and fist) were current in the Old Germanic languages. Frata and físa (the accent over the vowel designates its length, not stress) turned up even in Old Icelandic mythological poems. According to a popular tale, the great god Thor was duped by a giant and spent a night in a mitten, which he took for a house. He was so frightened, as his adversary put it, that he dared neither sneeze nor “fist.” In another poem, the goddess Freyja, notorious for her amatory escapades, was found in bed with her brother and farted (apparently shocked by the discovery)….

Those interested in the subject and not only in words may want to read the book by Valerie Allen On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (Palgrave 2007), but should skip the short section on etymology with its erroneous conclusion. Here I will comment on several etymologies about which I have often been asked. Latin perditio(from its oblique case, via Old French, English has perdition) is not allied to the words discussed above. Perdition goes back to the past participle of the verb perdere “destroy; (hence) lose.” It has the prefix per-, and the root -der-, so thatr and d do are separated by a morphemic boundary. But if Latin perdix had the ancient root with r, preserved in Old French perdriz, then its English continuation partridge belongs here. According to the usual explanation, a partridge makes a sharp whirring sound when flushed (and thus behaves not unlike a petard – not an overly convincing etymology).

Engl. petition and petulant, from Old French, have the root of Latin petere “seeks; attack. Pet “peeve” should probably be dissociated from collywobbles and the rest, but for Engl. wolf’s fist ~ wolves’ fist and German Bofist ~ Bovist(originally vohenvist “fox’s fist”) “puffball” reproduce Greek lykóperdon “wolf’s fart” and allegedly like partridge, owe their origin to the sound they make when pressed). Few people will remember that in the days of Nikita Khrushchev the only woman in the Soviet Politburo was Ekaterina Furtseva, the minister of culture. That family name made every mention of her in German media a rude joke, for the Germans of course spelled Furzeva or Furtzeva. However, it was derived from the proper name Firs, not from the German verb…

Also doing the rounds

Jim Belshaw posted something related this morning. He also alluded to the panic attacks in the Murdoch press about a pilot anti-homophobia program in NSW. Here is the announcement of that program from January 2011:

A pilot program designed to tackle homophobia in schools will start this year in 12 public schools across Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast.

The $250,000 Proud Schools program aims to build a culture of understanding and respect in NSW public schools through the professional development of school staff, student and parent  workshops and the development of  resources to assist schools build their capacity to support same-sex and gender questioning young people.

Recent national research highlights the impact of homophobic attitudes on young people, including the fact that about two in three same-sex and gender questioning young people reported they had been verbally abused, and that one in five had been physically abused.

The research, conducted by La Trobe University, also showed that the majority of those young people were abused at school and that once the abuse had taken place they no longer felt school was a safe place for them.

Young people who had been abused were also found to be three time more likely to think about harming themselves.

Education minister Verity Firth said bullying or abuse in public schools was not tolerated for any reason.

"That’s why the Proud Schools program aims to replace ignorance with understanding, intolerance with acceptance, and shame with pride," Ms Firth said.

"Proud Schools recognises that for this change to take place whole school communities will need to work together, with parents and teachers playing a key role in identifying and addressing homophobic attitudes."

More from SBS Insight:

The pilot program began this year involves around 12 public high schools across Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast.
The aim of the program is to build on the culture of understanding and respect in NSW schools and includes:

Professional development:
In NSW we have sophisticated training materials to help promote awareness among school staff of racial and sexual discrimination, but there are limited training opportunities to help teachers improve their awareness and understanding of discrimination and abuse of same-sex attracted or gender questioning students. Professional learning will be developed that will include key modules for school leaders and school staff.

Supporting resources
Work is being conducted to inform the development of the program and to identify the kinds of resources and support materials available to support staff and students participating in the program. It is important that we identify early in the program how best to assist schools build their capacity to support same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people.

Student workshops
Consultation sessions will be conducted with NSW students to find out what they think needs to be done to help address homophobia in schools.

Parent Workshops
Experience has shown that when school communities work together real improvements in promoting understanding and reducing discrimination can be made. In every pilot school a parent information workshop will be held to explain the aim and goals of the pilotprogram and to seek their input about how the pilot program can be tailored to suit the needs of their local community.

Steering group
A steering group comprising government and non-government agencies has been established to monitor the pilot program. At the end of the pilot it is anticipated that the steering group will provide a series of recommendations that will inform the development of a final Proud Schools program that can be rolled out across the State.

This is pretty much what I and my colleagues were  trying to do during the past decade or so. See my GLBT Resources Page.

The theme of this page may offend some, but my position is that such offence is less than the needless suffering, failure of self-esteem, depression, and even sometimes suicide, that dishonesty about this subject can lead to.

Nor am I advocating a “lifestyle”: to quote from an article mentioned below:

There is a big taboo about converting straight people to homosexuality. (Personally I think the chances of that actually happening are as good as your chances of getting kicked to death by a duck.)

This page is dedicated to understanding at least and acceptance at best.

To quote Jim’s post:

If all this wasn’t enough, I happened to read this story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: Being straight no longer normal, students taught. I am not normally a Telegraph reader, but the paper was there while I was waiting. This introduced me to a whole new term that I had yet to hear, heterosexism.

The story was about a pilot program in NSW schools. This appeared to define heterosexism, and I quote from the story,  

….the practice of "positioning heterosexuality as the norm for human relationship," according to the Proud Schools Consultation Report.

"It involves ignoring, making invisible or discriminating against non-heterosexual people, their relationships and their interests. Heterosexism feeds homophobia."

The program should "focus on the dominance of heterosexism rather than on homophobia," according to the minutes from the Proud Schools steering committee on March 22, 2011.

Now given the Telegraph’s usual market positioning, I would be far from certain about the accuracy of the reporting. Even so, heterosexism? It’s really all becoming far too confusing!

Jim spots the problem, as he often does, and I’m afraid I can’t really be bothered following the story too seriously or even reading the crap the Tele (and Miranda Devine) are flinging around. I find that as reported it is at best a total parody of what may really have happened – if anything! (How someone as sane as Maralyn Parker can work in that environment amazes me, but I am glad her balanced views on schools and schooling are there as well.)

Rather than raise my own blood pressure I will let you read what Same Same has had to say.

Toxic newspaper columnist Miranda Devine’s outlandish concern over a new program designed to stamp out homophobic bullying in schools has created a nonsensical front page story today.

The Proud Schools program, being trialed in twelve high schools across New South Wales, simply aims to spread the message that diversity is OK and encourages conversations around homophobia and the use of anti-gay slurs – even the widespread use of terms like ‘that’s so gay’ to mean something best avoided.

“You have the right to be proud of who you are and you have the right to be safe at school,” says the program, which was based on a similar one trialed in Victoria and gained cross-party support in NSW.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today, Devine points to concerns from several Liberal MPs who believe the program goes too far when it calls for heterosexuality to no longer be portrayed as the only ‘norm’ for relationships.

“It’s not up to academics to dictate attitudes to society via indoctrination of captive children in classrooms, and it’s irresponsible of politicians to allow them to do so,” Devine opined.

She also sought a comment from notoriously anti-gay NSW Upper house MP Fred Nile, who can never resist putting the boot in. “I’m totally opposed to the brainwashing of high school students, especially when they are going through puberty,” he said, labeling the program “propaganda.”

Devine has a history of wading in unhelpfully on LGBT issues – which culminated in her most embarrassingly irrational opinion piece of last year, where she wrote that Finance Minister Penny Wong’s new baby with her female partner was symbolic of a ‘fatherless society’ which results in situations like the London riots.

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann is among those who’ve been quick to blast Devine’s views this morning. “Her attempt to stir fear about the Proud Schools program will fall flat because the fact is, people have grown up on this issue – it’s time she did as well,” she says.

“The rest of us have moved on from the days when people thought being gay was somehow abnormal. It’s ‘60s era thinking and Ms Devine should catch up.

“Unfortunately homophobia in schools is still a big issue, with homophobic abuse and bullying causing significant distress and harm to young people. That’s why programs like Proud Schools exist in the first place – to make sure young people understand that same-sex attraction is perfectly normal.”

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has today also defended the Proud Schools pilot program, which he says is helping to assist schools to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students.

Recent national research highlights the impact of homophobic attitudes on young people, including the fact that about two in three same-sex and gender questioning youth reported they had been verbally abused, and that one in five had been physically abused.

Update

I made a messy comment on Jim Belshaw’s post:

My point about The Macquarie and "misogyny" would really be that nothing very extraordinary has happened. The recent kerfuffle alerted Sue Butler and colleagues that something was happening with the word and, on reflection, had been for some time. They responded as modern lexicographers normally do. They were not trying to please anyone.

I then referred to Rewriting the OED as an example of lexicography today –  which is where the comment began to look messy. So:

Today’s OED offices in Oxford and New York are a hive of lexicographical activity. Over seventy editors work on updating the text of the dictionary for its Third Edition (2000-). Every three months the entire OED database is republished online, with new words added for the first time and older entries revised according the exacting standards of modern historical lexicography.

The Oxford English Dictionary is changing. In the first comprehensive revision undertaken since the original volumes were published between 1884 and 1928, every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed to improve the accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and the historical quotations.

Every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed…

Once the huge task of updating the existing work is finished, the editors will continue to add new information to the Dictionary database as they receive it, instead of storing it away for the next print revision. Readers will be able to access an online version of the Dictionary, giving them the latest information on every word in the Dictionary as soon as it is inserted in the database. These technological advances, plus the enormous number of content revisions, ensure that the Oxford English Dictionary will be an even more authoritative record of the English language in the twenty-first century…

Today’s historical dictionaries are not monumental, static volumes, but dynamic texts which incorporate up-to-date information and respond rapidly to new information about the language as it comes to light. So how is the Third Edition of the OED being compiled? These are the principal steps in the editorial process:

  • collection and sorting of quotations for individual entries
  • editing of entries (by specialist new-words, scientific, and generalist editors), including the provision of British English and American English pronunciations (and others where necessary)
  • commissioning research on and specialist review of edited entries
  • preparation of etymologies (by the OED‘s Etymology group)
  • verification of bibliographical information for quotations to be published
  • final review by the Chief and Deputy Chief Editor
  • and, only then, publication

I doubt whether in the Macquarie the “new” definition of misogyny will “replace” the current usual definition; rather it will supplement it, perhaps with an added usage note. The dictionary is a record of the language and also, properly used, a guide for speakers and writers, but it is not, despite what so many think, THE holy writ on what words might actually mean in use.

That aside, I really am rather fond of The American Heritage Dictionary myself, you know.

My overstuffed (virtual) bookshelf — 5

The only dedicated bookshop in Wollongong itself these days is one of those bargain all books for $5 remainder shops. Given what the rise of eBooks and internet book trading has wrought in the past few years it isn’t hard to see why.

Kobo I and I went to lunch at Diggers today, calling in at the bargain shop on the way.

P4150465

P4150466

Now what I am reading there was published just yesterday: a very conservative but also very good grammar of the English sentence: Traditional English Sentence Style by Robert Einarsson.

This 86 page textbook/workbook promises not only to teach you about grammar, but also to show you the "grammar secrets" of some of the great writers of English. You will learn how writers
like Austen, Lincoln, Yeats and Wells go about composing their writing styles. Through the extensive exercises in this workbook, you will learn to write more like these classic authors of English.This book will improve your knowledge of grammar, and help you develop your own personal writing style.

“A sentence is not a loose or random stream of words.  Instead, every sentence has definite construction and parts within it.  This textbook is based on the study of the internal segments within the sentence.  We will study the sentence in the same way that a botanist studies a flower, or a biologist studies a cell; i.e., we will ask ‘what are the internal parts within this entity?’ and ‘how do the internal parts connect to each other?’  The parts, in the case of sentences, are word clusters of the types that we will identify in the chapters ahead.”

einnarson

But I did fall for two “real” books…

P4150467

Note that under those two are 1,600 more on Kobo!

The one on the left may be a dud, but the one on the right looks most promising. And when I am on the Eco I will be checking my copy of this on Kobo:

protocols

Piers Akerman versus the 1933 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary

It’s ages since I bothered with Mr Akerman, the self-styled conservative who poses as a reasonable commentator in the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Today, given my own little dummy spit on Facebook, I thought I would attempt to out-pedant him.

My dummy spit? Here:

I was not impressed by yesterday’s circus in Canberra. If that puts off some of my friends here, so be it. I am sick of crap both left and right on these matters, totally over it, totally!

Akerman’s crap is as follows:

EVER ready to cry “racist”, Labor is now backing proposed changes to the Australian Constitution which would enshrine a two-tier citizenship based on claims of race.

That’s what used to be called apartheid when South Africa had such evil laws.

Labor has promised to hold a referendum on the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians on or before the next federal election, due next year.

Like the word “gay”, “indigenous” no longer means what it used to – originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment.

That would mean that every person born in Australia is indigenous.

But in the Orwellian newspeak of the politically correct “indigenous” does not mean born in Australia. It means Aborigine as in Australian Aborigine, a definition that is also becoming increasingly fluid…

I could be really annoying and point out that so far as I can tell “gay” has never meant “originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment” – but that would just be mean of me! However, to “indigenous”.  It would have surprised Sir Thomas Browne writing in the 17th century to hear he was being “politically correct” when he insisted that Africans are not “indigenous or proper natives of America.”

indigenous

Kangaroos are indigenous to Australia, Piers; rabbits, dogs, cats and Akermans are not.  Even when born here. Which you were not. I suppose that makes you an Indigenous Papuan?

Oh and do note what a true conservative I am in the matter of dictionaries… Winking smile

Interlude

The joys of spam and/or self-abuse

Before I delete it, let me share this gem of a comment.

You realize therefore significantly relating to this topic, made me in my view believe it from a lot of numerous angles. Its like men and women are not involved unless it’s something to accomplish with Woman gaga! Your individual stuffs great. Always handle it up!

Such insight! Such relevance! Rarely has a bot spoken so exquisitely!

And speaking of handling it up, one of my favourite 21st century words is fap.

are_you_fapping__by_omniputance-d3dq098

It has such potential for word-formation. Fapulous! Fapolescent. You exercise your ingenuity.

I am rather attracted to faptivism to describe compulsive activism and pursuance of fashionable causes…

Fapture?

wait-your-fapping

Hey hang on right there! We can’t have things like that on this blog!

wait-your-fapping1

That’s better!

The sad decline of key terms of abuse

Take this.

urgers_by_josh98052-d30l5gn

“Urger” was one of my father’s favourite terms of abuse. Google kept insisting I really meant “burgers” which is terribly culturally imperialist of it, and makes the joke above doubly funny. Josh Larsen, who took the photo, lives in Seattle so I can’t help wondering if he sees the joke I as an Australian see in it.

noun

Australian informal

  • a person who gives tips at a race meeting.

  • a person who takes advantage of others ; a racketeer:he was a free enterprise man — he thought all unionists were urgers

A comment on Language Log (Parliamentary decorum) by one Rob Weaver makes a further point:

There’s a little bit more to ‘urger’ than that. Specifically it means someone who encourages you to a risky or costly course of action that will benefit them significantly more than it might benefit you.

The term originally referred to a particular kind of race-course hustler who would give hot tips – one for each likely winner – to a selection of unconnected punters so as to be able, when inevitably one of the tips won, to appear at the elbow of the bettor whose pick had come first and wheedle a share of the winnings, or at least a free beer.

The post at Language Log is well worth repeating:

In the context of concerns about declining civility in American political discourse, Victor Steinbok points to a post at Vukutu on Australian Political Language, which quotes from "Mungo MacCallum’s great book, How to be a Megalomaniac, … a list of the terms of abuse which [former prime minister Paul] Keating  had used against his opponents duing his time in politics":

“harlots, sleazebags, frauds, immoral cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, boxheads, criminal intellects, criminals, stupid crooks, corporate crooks, friends of tax cheats, brain-damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul-mouthed grub, piece of criminal garbage, dullards, stupid, mindless, crazy, alley cat, bunyip aristocracy, clot, fop, gigolo, hare-brained, hillbilly, malcontent, mealy-mouthed, ninny, rustbucket, scumbag, scum, sucker, thug, dimwits, dummies, a swill, a pig sty, Liberal muck, vile constituency, fools and incompetents, rip-off merchants, perfumed gigolos, gutless spiv, glib rubbish, tripe and drivel, constitutional vandals, stunned mullets, half-baked crim, insane stupidities, champion liar, ghouls of the National Party, barnyard bullies, piece of parliamentary filth.”

"MacCallum notes that this listing is only of terms which Keating used in Federal Parliament, which of course has rules of decorum not applying in the rougher world outside."

We noted Keating’s way with words a few years ago ( "A tale of two Dons", 12/22/2003), and cited the Paul Keating Insults Page, which offers useful context for a large collection of insults, and also must be one of the few accessible pages that can trace a continuous history back to 1995.

a-spivThen there’s “spiv”.  Lovely word. There’s a great discussion of it on World Wide Words.

…Until recently, we have had no idea where the name comes from, which has given rise to a lot of uninformed speculation. It has indeed been said that it is VIPsbackwards; also that it was a police acronym forSuspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. VIP does date from the same period, but it would be very surprising if it were the source. Apart from the sense being wrong, inverted acronyms based on word play were uncommon then. The police story is a well-meaning attempt at making sense of the matter.

An early appearance in print was in School for Scoundrels in 1934: “Spiv, petty crook who will turn his hand to anything so long as it does not involve honest work”. As a result of investigation in 2007 by a BBC television programme, Balderdash & Piffle, we have learned that the word was around earlier. Its first appearance in print is now known to be in a book of 1929, The Crooks of the Underworld, written under the pseudonym of C G Gordon; this included a reference to “a clique of Manchester ‘spives’”. We also have a better idea of the historical background to the term. The activities of an unsuccessful petty crook named Henry Bagster, a London newspaper seller and petty criminal of the early years of the early twentieth century, were widely reported at the time. Bagster’s court appearances for theft, selling counterfeit goods, assault, and loitering with intent to commit a felony were recorded in the British national press between 1903 and 1906. His nickname was “Spiv” recorded from 1904.

We don’t know why he was given that nickname, though it may indicate that the slang term was in use even then. The word itself may well have come from the dialect term spiving, smart, or spiff, a well-dressed man. This developed into the adjectivespiffy, smart or spruce, recorded from the 1850s, and also into spiffed up, smartly dressed. In The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green instead suggests the Romany spiv, a sparrow, which was used by gypsies, he says “as a derogatory reference to those who existed by picking up the leavings of their betters, criminal or legitimate”.

More distinctly Oz, I thought,  is “lurk merchant”The Urban Dictionary provides the following dialogues:

Dave: My boss goes away a lot and he asks me to mind his apartment.Last week his secretary came over not expecting to see me and was found out.I banged her in the boss’s bed and made a date for next time he’s out of town
Bob: Man!!! How did you get a lurk like that?

Stella: Maxine sucked up to the boss so she could take the company truck home just so she can drive around all weekend for free delivering pizzas.The tanks empty when she comes back on Monday morning.
Thelma: What a lurk merchant.

As my father used it the term rather more broadly referred to the kinds of unscrupulous business practices he found distressing and offensive to his own principles of integrity and honesty. (In the end my father didn’t do all that well in business.)

Then there was “two bob lair”.

Compare other expressions in Oz English that refer to someone who is angry, crazy or just eccentric — in other words, “out of their mind” in some way such as Mad as a cut snake, as a beetle, as a dingbat, as a frilled lizard, as a maggot, as a goanna, as a wet hen, as a gum-tree full of galahs. And as crazy as a tin full of worms, or as silly as a two bob watch. A two bob watch was some kind of badly made timepiece, often extended and used generally for anything cheap and nasty; expression dates from the 1950s. (Two bob “two shillings” appears to have been the amount of money most often used in derogatory expressions of worth; it referred generally to “inferior, rubbishy, useless”). You could compare the Oz expression two bob with US two bit as in he’s a two bit crook in other words, a crook of no note. (Other two bob expressions included: a two-bob lair 1940s “someone who dresses flashily, but cheaply”; go off like a two-bob etc. Both expressions like silly as a two bob watch and dead as door-nail, show the wondrous creativity of slang. If there were time it’d be nice to talk a bit about this constant renewal of expressions and the creativity of slang. – Kate Burridge.

I sometimes feel that the reason I don’t seem to hear these words so much these days is that the urgers, spivs, lurk merchants and lairs are now totally running the shop. What do you think?

On a brighter though still verbal note, I have become a late convert to SBS’s delightfully pointless game show Letters and Numbers.