Tag Archives: Australia

An Australian Dictionary Redefines Misogyny

Australian Conservative Party Leader Tony Abbott, accused of “misogyny”

In politics, words can take on new meanings in the blink of an eye. The phrase “binders full of women” had zero currency before the second Obama-Romney debate. Now it’s what many people remember as the debate’s takeaway moment, full of perceived meaning about women, power and the workplace.

In Australia, another word has become caught up in a political storm over the role of women in society and politics. It was uttered—several times—by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny,” Gillard told the Australian parliament.

That was the start of a speech that has rapidly become famous around the globe, thanks to YouTube.

Gillard was defending her government, which had been accused of protecting the speaker of the house, who’d been caught using sexist language in text messages.

Rather than talk about that case, Gillard turned the tables on her government’s accusers, specifically Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” said Gillard. “I hope the Leader of the Opposition…is writing out his resignation.”

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” she contined, “he needs a mirror.”

Gillard’s opponents didn’t take kindly to this speech. More than a few objected to her use of the word misogyny. They said that was going too far, much farther than the word “sexism.”

Sexism, they pointed out, means discrimination based on a person’s sex. But misogyny means intense dislike and mistrust of women.

That’s what the dictionaries say. For the time being at least.

Sue Butler, who is editor of the best-known dictionary of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary, said it’s time to update the definition of misogyny. After watching Gillard’s speech, Butler and her fellow editors wondered about their dictionary’s definition of misogyny.

Like most other dictionaries, the Macquarie Dictionary used a definition “that had been standard for some centuries”: the hatred of women.

But Butler and her team of editors didn’t think that Gillard was using the word quite like that. She wasn’t accusing Abbott of a “pathological hatred of women.” The accusation was more of a “common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power.”

Butler’s team tracked the evolving meaning of misogyny back to 1970s feminist discourse in the United States, where it was often used as a synonym for sexism; a synonym “with a bit more bite to it perhaps,” said Butler. “But still in the same range of meaning of entrenched prejudice.”

And so the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have announced that they will be updating their definition of misogyny to reflect the way it has evolved in recent decades.

That’s only enraged Prime Minister Gillard’s political opponents for a second time. They say the dictionary’s editors are letting Gillard off the hook, rather than forcing her take responsibility for her hyperbole.

To which Macquarie editor Sue Butler shrugged, and pointed out that many words change their meanings over time.

But what of the statements made by Australia’s Conservative leader Tony Abbott—the very statements that Gillard was calling “misogyny”?

Abbott once wondered whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women, and suggested that men might be more “adapted to exercise authority.”

And then there were his personal attacks on Julia Gillard.

Gillard told MPs she was offended when Abbott stood next signs that said “Ditch the Witch” and one that called her “a man’s bitch.”

It almost makes the Obama-Romney debate, repeatedly described in the US news media as “feisty,” seem friendly.



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Tourette’s Hero: Changing the World One Tic at a Time

Jess Thom dresses like a superhero. Mask, shiny blue cape, the whole bit. She calls her alter ego Tourette’s Hero.

Whether dressed as Tourette’s Hero or as herself, Thom speaks with an impressive array of verbal tics. She says biscuit a lot.

“Tourette’s is a condition that waxes and wanes BISCUIT,” says Thom. “So it changes over the course of somebody’s BISCUIT life.”

Thom is 31. She remembers having tics from as early as age six, though she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her twenties.

The tics are more severe these days.

Tics can “change over the course of a day (HAPPY BIRTHDAY).”

Happy birthday is another of Thom’s regular tics.

And then there are the rude things that pop out. Thom is among the ten percent of people with Tourette’s who exhibit Coprolalia, the involuntary blurting out of taboo language: swearwords, body parts etc.

Whether taboo or not, Thom’s tics are often very funny. There’s a reason, after all, there are so many jokes about Tourette’s.

Thom welcomes the jokes. In fact, she likes to own them. Hence her website, Tourette’s Hero.

The point of Tourette’s Hero, Thom says is to “celebrate the creativity and humor of Tourette’s, and to reclaim the laughter associated with Tourette’s.”

And Tourette’s Hero isn’t just a website just for people with Tourette’s. It’s for everybody. (Though be warned: it may not be appropriate for young children or those offended by strong language.)

On the site, Thom posts tics that she has said in the past two years. She invites people to vote for their favorites:

  • Batman Breastfed my Mum
  • I Love You Chemical Weapon
  • Lucy in the Sky with Pencils

People can also submit artwork to illustrate them.

Thom delights in the poetry of her Tourette’s. Her condition, she says, opens doors. Her tic-filled conversations take her and others to unique places. And the website is part of that conversation.

Tourette’s Hero, she believes, is part of greater movement among disabled people to change attitudes towards disability by means of humor and creativity.

Biscuit. Happy birthday.

Also in the pod this week:

  • An Indian boy’s life changes forever when he is transported on a train to Bengal, where they don’t speak his native tongue, and he can’t figure out how to get home. Detailed article on this here.
  • Morse code signals to and from the Titanic in the days and hours before it sank.  The pod has excerpts. The entire BBC program is here.
  • Renewed interest in a Nazi-era German film version of the Titanic.


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Australia Through its Languages

When Barack Obama goes abroad, he has a knack of disarming the locals by quoting from the local language. Even if the locals speak English. In Australia, he won laughs for his (slightly off) rendering of expressions like spot on, chinwag and ear bashing.

So, what better time to consider Australia’s languages, and its use of English? Australia is, of course, home to a great diversity (though not so great these days) of Aboriginal languages. For decades,  white Australians either ignored these languages or actively tried to eliminate them. Only recently have Australians begun to embrace these languages as a central part of the country’s culture.

On the pod, three Australians talk about this and other language-related issues: novelist and historian Thomas Keneally, opera singer and composer Deborah Cheetham and historical novelist Kate Grenville. As well as the discussion of the history and  fate of Aboriginal languages,  bush ranger Ned Kelly is remembered for a choice turn of phrase ( “a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat-headed big-bellied, magpied-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords”).

This discussion was first broadcast on the BBC’s Start the Week. There’s a podcast version here. It’s always a must-listen.

For some more Aussie English, curated of the great Australian poet Les Murray, check out this previous pod/post.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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