or, On the Grammar Wars

Over the weekend, and extending into the week thus far, a debate has been steadily growing in the blogosphere, both here and in the US, about a controversial set of guidelines for teaching English published last year by the English Teacher’s Association of Queensland (ETAQ).

Before I go on, I might say that the breadth of this debate is such that I barely know where to begin, so logically, I might try beginning at the start.



I’ve been at Sydney University now for over six years, including five years as a full-time student, with full voting rights whenever any elections were held. So I’m not exactly new to the phenomenon that is the stupid election slogan, but I can’t help but wince any time I see fresh paint in the graffiti tunnel, advertising the newest slew of pseudo-political hopefuls.


An noteworthy discussion has been brewing in the letters section of my favourite broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald, over the past few days. It’s about that same old question of whether or not adolescents with their “technology” (that’s supposed to be uttered with vertical fist firmly shaken) are murdering – or better – bastardising the English language.

It all began with a report last week than Australia’s literacy rates – as measured by standardised testing on 15 year olds – have been steadily falling since we were ranked second in the world back in 2001.

Six years ago, Australia was ranked second behind Finland for reading. But in the latest study it has also been outstripped by South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand.

Of course, the current government blames the former government, who would doubtlessly have blamed those evil union-stacked state governments, who blame everyone else. But that aside, the report seems to have sparked a resurgence of the debate over how destructive texting and emails are to our impeccable tongue.

This letter appeared in the Herald the next day (for all these letters page links, you’ll have to scroll through, as individual letters aren’t permalinked, or you can just trust my ability to faithfully copy-paste from the original):

I was not surprised to read that our teenagers are reading less (“Australia slides down the reading list”, December 5). Rarely do I see one of them reading a book on a bus or train. Mostly they pass the time talking or texting on mobile phones. This unfamiliarity with the written word is reflected in their conversations, which seem to be bereft of grammar and comprised almost entirely of code. Mobile phones are not entirely to blame; peer pressure must share some of the guilt. Our youngsters converse, I suspect, out of a desire to be accepted rather than any need to communicate.

Garth Clarke North Sydney

Bereft of grammar? Comprised entirely of code? The fact that Mr Clarke has trouble understanding the sub-cultural lect of Sydney youths does not render their speech ungrammatical.

The following day saw a more considered argument about what literacy entails.

Australian teenagers are not necessarily reading less, Garth Clarke (Letters, December 6), it is the kind of reading they are doing that has precipitated drops in literacy.

The hours teenagers spend reading and writing SMS messages and keeping their blogs and MySpace pages updated indicates a form of literacy. These activities reflect the mutating face of language at the point at which it moves quickest; in the shared patois of the young.

An older generation schooled in the previous incarnation of proper grammar may not like it, but that construct of English is drifting into history. Should we castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English they are no longer using?

Pierre Mol Pymble

I tend to agree; like it or not, language changes. The observed drop in literacy levels (of roughly 7000 15 year olds as compared with an analogous number 6 years ago, with respect to the literacy levels of similar numbers of teenagers in 56 other surveyed countries – sorry, but we should qualify these broad statements) is possibly an artifact of the form of literacy being surveyed.

I don’t want to say that literacy – in the traditional sense – is not important, I think it’s absolutely important to adequately survive in a world that judges people superficially on how they hyphenate their noun compounds noun-compounds. What I’m saying is that as language changes, so does the written representation of it, and the form that literacy takes will inevitably change as well.

Moving on, things got no less heated the next day (I think we’re up to Saturday by now):

Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7) questions whether we have the right to “castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English”. Yes we should¹.

The idea that words mean whatever you want them to robs English of its power of accurate description and explanation.

Losing our language means losing its most basic function: communication.

Peter Lloyd Trevallyn (Tas)

The idea that questioning the benefit of encouraging archaic forms of education is synonymous with such an extreme postmodern position, that words are meaningless and reality is constructed by the individual, is nonsense. No one is saying that ‘words mean whatever you want them to’, rather that there isn’t some objective semantic reality that is accurately encoded in lexical representation, in words. Instead, there are regions of rough semantic space peculiar to the individual, of which their own words are a mere attempt at approximation. In the act of communicating, the goal is to have both interlocutors find the same semantic idea inside their own mental conceptual space.

Anyway, this debate has moved considerably further away from the original drop in literacy levels and threatens to border on some serious cognitive semantics. But before that happens, today’s Herald has two more additions, one of which was very interesting:

Despite the rosy views of Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7), the “form of literacy” evident in SMS and blog messages is a restricted literacy in comparison with that associated with the “archaic form” he despises.

There have always been linguistic forms associated with different age groups, cultures and occupations, but it was generally accepted that a standard, more complex version of the language existed, available to and understood by all, which, because of its structural and lexical nuances, was capable of expressing more complicated ideas.

Its relative constancy also allows access to the thoughts and feelings of millions of people from different times and cultures. The deficits in thought associated with the stripped-down English of informal electronic communication are all too evident to me in my interactions with undergraduate students.

There will always be a place for an alternative “patois”, but genuine literacy is ultimately the key to the world.

Dr Paul Foley Randwick

Dr Foley’s letter sums up the position that I belittled earlier, that the English-speaking world judges people’s worth on the basis of their largely irrelevant ability to, say, punctuate appropriately. Before I read this I’d have scoffed at it, but on reflection it’s a very good point. We shouldn’t disregard the value of a standardised register of English and the benefit of being fluent in speaking it and literate in reading it. However, it’s not the case in my view, that not being literate or fluent in a particular dialect of English renders you any less intelligent. I would also contend his point of view that sub-cultural registers and lects of any language are less complex in any meaningful way, than a standard.

If I were any more enthusiastic an epistolographer, I’d have chimed in. Instead I’ll keenly read on, until such time as the letters editor decides it’s no longer an issue.

On the original point of literacy rates, I mean really, we’re ranked sixth in the world, behind countries like Finland (where common sense was invented, just look at that nominal case system), Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Should we really be mortally worried that out kids are getting stupider when it’s really a matter of other countries’ kids improving faster?

Also, we’ve just ousted the most conservative, Thatcherite government this country has ever seen, who pulled more federal money than ever before, out of public education to fund wars, offshore prisons for foreigners and comfy ministerial chairs. What do we expect – a nation full of genii?!

Another lengthy post – I thank you for persevering, and congratulate you for making it through unscathed.


¹Ironically, a bit of a stylistic error there; ‘yes we should’ should have had an antecedent clause headed by a ‘should’ modal, but instead the previous sentence was framed in a ‘do we have the right to…’. So it should have been either Do we have the right to castigate… Yes, we do or otherwise should we castigate… Yes, we should.

I’m picking nits, I know.

Today’s Herald contains an encouraging story about the place of indigenous languages in public high schools. Year 8 students at Bourke High School were compulsorily taught Wangkamurra this year, and the results have been positive enough that the State Government is planning on extending the program to more state schools with large enough populations of aboriginal students.

Since Aboriginal language was made compulsory at Bourke High School in year 8, student attendance rates and retention of students to year 9 had improved, [NSW Director-General of Education, Michael] Coutts-Trotter said.

It had also helped improve English literacy and numeracy.

It’s also been especially positive for Bourke High’s indigenous population, who normally finish year 12 at half the rate that non-indigenous students do.

It also helped Aboriginal students identify with their culture, which improved their confidence and sense of identity.

“All this can then lift student confidence in approaching other study areas,” he said.

This is clearly a good program and I would personally like to see it adopted by all state and territory governments. Surely most would agree. 

Except there’s seemingly never a piece of good news about indigenous issues in this country without some bad news alongside it…

Howard has defended the government’s choice to not ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed on Thursday by an impressive 143 to 4, citing its implicit legitimisation of customary law and the possibility of “separate developments inside one country” as his key points of dispute. I wish he’d elaborate on the latter, because it doesn’t appear to me to be all that bad.

Mr Howard says the decision was an easy one.

I bet. He also attacked Labor for their support for the declaration, claiming it is at odds with their support for the NT intervention. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if you ignore the politics, it isn’t the case that supporting paternalistic action to reduce rates of abuse in aboriginal communities requires you to oppose rights for indigenous people. The fact that Howard appears to think so is perhaps not unexpected, but worrying all the same.

Interestingly, in that article it paraphrases Howard as saying:

…there should not be special arrangements for special groups in the Australian community.

Yet, this is precisely why the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow the NT intervention legislation to pass, because it makes special arrangements for special groups within the Australian community. The only difference with that and the UN Declaration (apart from the fact that the latter is legally impotent) is that Howard’s ‘special arrangements’ are detrimental to aborigines.

Every day reveals more blatant hypocrisy from this increasingly desperate autocrat.

Canada elected a new government 18 months ago and it appears that they’re trying to prevent the UN Human Rights Council’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from being approved (adopted, in the official terminology) by the general assembly. To put this into perspective, the decleration and resolution, avaliable from here, took 24 years to negotiate.

I went and had a look at the resolution to see what could have been so odious that Canada would want to prevent it from becoming bound by international law, but it seems reasonable to me. Here’s an interesting excerpt that is especially relevant in a current local debate in Australia.

Article 13

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

Article 14

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.

3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.

I draw particular attention to the last sentence, the one that orders States to provide education to indigenous people in their own language. So if Canada aren’t successful in hindering this declaration any further, bilingual education could become a matter of international law. Interesting.



It appears that Howard may have had a slight helping hand in Canada’s change of heart, rather than it being due to merely a change in government.

The newspaper is quoting unnamed political sources as saying Mr Howard convinced Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his visit that the declaration would be “problematic.”

Although, ‘unnamed’ sources are always a bit sketchy, the timeline is curious:

Mr Howard visited Ottawa and the Toronto Globe and Mail says things began to happen within days.


Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log has weighed in on the debate over the role of English in Aboriginal communitues in Australia, and the return to the days of the White Australia policy and assimilation, perpetrated by the most conservative government in our history, under the subterfuge of ‘allowing aborigines to integrate into the mainstream economy’.

For some more background, I wrote about this here, Carmel O’Shannessy and Jane Simpson did so here and Kim Christen also wrote on it here.

I need not point out that Pullum is not an Australian and is therefore somewhat more insulated from calls of political bias (I assume he has no stake in whether or not the current government wins the next election). It is particularly encouraging to read such scathing denouncement of this policy from Pullum, which includes several points that I had somewhat euphemised, specifically, that we in Australia have an awful lot to be ashamed of, and need to stop procrastinating and start making up for it, beginning with an apology for the settlers’ treatment of the indigenous population up until just over 40 years ago (and even right up until today).

Brough continues that English-by-force tradition, urging that aborigines to be required to learn English so that they can be absorbed into the mainstream of Australian culture — in other words, so that aboriginal languages and cultures can die and aborigines can become just a dark-skinned under-privileged substratum of English-speaking Australian society.

Zing! I wish I’d said that!

I might point out though, since contrary ideas appear to pervade throughout all the discussion of this issue, that learning English is already compulsory for all children in every Australian school (see here). So Brough’s motivation, in my opinion, is designed to draw attention away from, and perhaps even rationalise, the government’s appalling record when it comes to adequate education funding in remote areas.

I am confident this issue won’t die anytime soon.


This from Claire:

…one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to education in, and the right to use one’s own language. Australia is a signatory of this Declaration.

Bob Brown has also demonstrated he is considerably more versed in the issue than Brough.

Today, the Group of Eight universities (Australia’s version of the Ivy League, or Russel Group) has called for languages to be compulsory until year 10 (16 years). It seems that less than 6% of final year students in Australia can speak a language other than English – though, this figure is suffixed with the qualification “in some areas”.

I agree completely, since I was one of those who finished from High School with only rudimentary knowledge of any foreign language, that is, I could count to 100 in Italian (through rote memory, mind you) or say very nasty things about your mother in Mandarin (Xie xie, Yang Yang).

Due to the conditions of my degree, I was obliged to undertake 28 credit points (about 8 courses) of a language. I chose Italian, purely because I was working for Italians at the time and thought – erroneously – that they might be able to help me out. Now I can also say very nasty things about your mother in Siciliano (Grazie, Giuseppe).

I was discussing this just today with my professor – he and another member of staff were kind enough to attend my graduation – who studied at a couple of universities in the US. Over there, it seems, tertiary education is much more liberal, in the liberal arts sense of the word. Students must study a language, a hard science, a social science as well as a few other requirements, before specialising into majors in second year. In Australia on the other hand, it is perfectly possible to go through one’s entire degree without diverging from their favoured subject areas. The idea of my degree, Bachelor of Liberal Studies, was to move towards the US system, thus producing well-balanced educated graduates, able to hold down a conversation in a wide range of areas.

So if making a language compulsory until year 10 is another step in this direction, I’m all for it. Especially since we Australians are so overwhelmingly monolingual (despite having a huge concentration of distinct pre-colonial languages, but that’s another rant). More High School students learning Cymraeg, isiXhosa or Pitjantjatjara would certainly be welcome.


June 2: This story has been taken up by the Herald in a bit more detail. It reveals that the more appropriate figure is that 13% of school leavers have a second language, down from the 1960s figure of 40%.