The Great Debate between Herr Howard and The Ruddster was tonight, and I do believe, unless I’m hallucinating, that I heard Mr Howard say he was sorry – and yes, it was in relation to Australia’s history with respect to Aborigines. Except, and this is the clincher, it was an apology that, rather than an apology for.

You can see the section on reconciliation extracted from the entire debate on the ABC website here, and don’t worry, you don’t have to sift through too much to find Howard’s pseud-apology, it’s right at the beginning. In his own words:

Well, I’m sorry, that people were mistreated in the past. Of course I’m sorry. But that’s different from this generation accepting responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.

Look, the idea of asking a present generation to apologise for the deeds of an earlier generation is offensive to millions of Australians, and I will never embrace that.

Hear that? He "will never embrace that".

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy semantics essay on the subject of the apology, which earned me a high distinction¹ from the very astute Michael Walsh, and this is an excellent case-study. Howard apologised that a state of affairs has transpired, though he specifically rules out taking any responsibility for it. This is contrasted with apologising for a state of affairs for which the speaker is responsible in some way.

If you want me to go into detail, here is the breakdown of the speech act ‘to be sorry’ into semantically simple sub-events (where x represents a state of affairs). And, sorry for the simplistic language like ‘feel bad for’, but this is how semantic events are traditionally analysed:

    I know that x has occurred
    [I think that I caused x]
    I think that x was bad for you
    I assume you feel bad because of x
    [I assume you feel bad towards me for causing x]
    I say: I feel bad because of that (edict)
    I say this because I want you to know this
    I assume you want to know this

Those two lines within square brackets represent the crucial semantic difference between an apology that (where they’re absent) and an apology for. Remember the Pope’s famous apology that some people were offended by his incredibly racist remarks? He did not imply that he caused the state of affairs (the offending remark), nor did he concede that others felt bad towards him for his having caused such a state of affairs. In effect, he skillfully and tactfully avoided responsibility.

Of course I’m not suggesting John Howard is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for any of the atrocities committed with respect to aborigines in this country before about 1975. He couldn’t have been – he was just a Canterbury Boys’ High School student appearing on radio quiz shows.

Either way, specifically saying ‘sorry’ is a step much farther than he’s so far been prepared to take. His only concessions have been to move a Motion of Reconciliation, which expresses:

…deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices.

For perspective, all state and territory governments at the time issued there own apology and all of them, except for the federal ‘expression of regret’, included some inflection on the sequence ‘apologise for’. All 9 official statements are published on the Wikipedia page about the Bringing The Home report, which sparked the reconciliation debate back in mid 1999.

What’s my point in this post? Should Howard personally accept responsibility? I don’t think so, no. Should he, as the current leader of the government, issue a statement on behalf of all Australians which assumes collective responsibility for shameful acts of colonisation, systematic abuse and even genocide, resulting in there being a seriously disadvantaged group of people who stand to lose there culture if we don’t act, within a country that prides itself on its so-called economic excellence?

I personally think the answer to that one, hard as it may be for others to accept, is ‘yes’.


¹Sorry – it was one of the few HDs I got during my entire tertiary education.


After my recent blogiversarial lamentations that I’ve strayed away from my original intention of blogging about linguistics and languages and focusing more on politics and indigenous affairs, I feel re-inspired to write about linguistic curios a little more. So here’s a purely matter-of-fact, non-partisan linguistic post.

On the bus this morning, I noticed a sign on the back of the driver’s little compartment, that read something along the lines of:

  • Drinking alcohol is prohibited on this bus
  • Possession of an opened container
    of alcohol is prohibited on this bus

I’ll draw attention to the second point. Note that they don’t merely use an unmarked adjective ‘open’, but a perfect participle construction, a de-verbal adjective ‘opened’. It is of the generalised form verb-en.

The intended meaning is clear: any container that has ever been opened (after being initially sealed, that is), as opposed to merely being temporarily ‘open’ and thus closable, is prohibited. Sydney Buses are clearly precluding any protests from drunken juvenile delinquents claiming that their container of alcohol is not in fact ‘open’, after they’ve quickly re-lidded their bottle of spumante.

‘Open’ is one of those verbs that is so telic that it doesn’t even permit its own inverse: *unopen. This is a purely linguistic constraint though, since it’s perfectly pragmatically acceptable to perform the inverse action of ‘open’, namely, to ‘close’.

I don’t know if there’s a linguisticky term for these verbs, but I’m sure some of my more knowledgeable readers will know at least one.

As a test, these verbs often occur in the construction un-verb-en, but never un-verb. That is, it is possible to describe the state of something that hasn’t undergone the change of state; you can describe something as ‘unopened’, but it is (linguistically) impossible to say you will unopen something (in English at least). However, these verbs often have counterparts; verbs that encode the inverse action, even if the original verb cannot be inversed.

For instance break: it is entirely appropriate to say you broke my arm and the doctor mended/fixed my arm but it is impossible to say *the doctor unbroke my arm. Moreover, break will happily allow unbroken as in unbroken lines (on a road).

Doesn’t everyone think about these things on the bus?

I’ve just read that the UN has just listed the creole spoken on Norfolk Island as an endangered language.

The language, known locally as ‘talking Norfolk’, is a mixture of Olde English¹ and Tahitian and can be traced back to the Bounty mutineers.

A quick look at Ethnologue leads me to Pitcairn-Norfolk as the language this article refers to, though it probably has a different vernacular name altogether.

Anyway, it leads me to think about what exactly constitutes ‘endangered’ when it comes to languages and the relative population of speech communities. The Ethnologue page says that Pitcairn-Norfolk had 580 speakers (second language only) in 1989 on Norfolk Island alone, and more in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in the South Pacific. I’m tempted to say this is extraordinarily many, considering the state of many endangered languages in the world (Wagiman has probably 5), but in my opinion it comes down to how many children are learning the language as a proportion of the total speech community. So if a language of 600 speakers has only 20% rate of child acquisition, then I consider it to be more endagered than a language of 50 speakers with 90% of children learning it from birth.

Does the UN consider languages as endangered or not as a function of the raw population of the speech community, or does it look at the rate of uptake as the more important criterion?

Either way, I’d be happy to do a little bit of fieldwork on Norfolk Island in a bid to preserve linguistic diversity.


¹Olde English? Really? I’m certain they mean some form of Early Modern English, and most likely a maritime/naval dialect thereof.

This post has been attracting altogether way too much spam of late, so comments are now off. If you wish to leave a comment, email me.

I have to confess, I can’t recall precisely hearing this, but it seems to be so widespread that, well, I must have heard it. Even so, I seriously doubt its veracity. I rushed to my Macquarie Aboriginal Words to find something from a reputable source, but alas, it contained nothing helpful to inject some sense into this garbage.

This is so widespread that it appears in a myriad of languages, including Czech:

Když angličtí objevitelé přijeli do Austrálie, viděli podivná skákající zvířata (klokany). Zavolali domorodce a snažili se ho zeptat, co je to za zvíře. Domorodec řikal “Kan Ghu Ru” … odtud Kangaroo. Bohužel Kan Ghu Ru v jeho řeči znamenalo: “Já vám nerozumím”.

Arabic Farsi/Dari [My bad. Thanks to Bulbul for the correction] (sorry if the unavoidable italics makes the script look odd):

آيا ميدانستيد که: مهاجرين انگليسي در استراليا با حيوان عجيبي روبرو شدند که بسيار بالا و دور

مي پريده. هنگاميکه از بوميان در مورد اين حيوان با حرکات بدن پرسيده اند آنها در جواب گفته اند:
Kan Ghu Ru

که در زبان انگليسي به Kangaroo تبديل شده است.

در حقيقت منظور بوميان اين بوده که “ما منظور شما را نمي فهميم”.


Cand englezii au ajuns in Australia au vazut un animal ciudat care sarea prin paduri. Au chemat un bastinas si l-au intrebat prin semne ce animal era acela. Cum bastinasul repeta “kan ghu ru” ei au adoptat acel nume pentru animal. Dupa mult timp cercetatorii au constatat ca bastinasul de fap spunea “nu inteleg”.

And Italian – although it looks like this particular writer has taken a little creative license, especially when pointing out that the ‘indigeni’ were ‘extremely pacifistic’:

Quando i conquistatori inglesi arrivarono in Australia, si spaventarono nel vedere degli strani animali che facevano salti incredibili. Chiamarono immediatamente uno del luogo (gli indigeni australiani erano estremamente pacifici) e cercarono di fare domande con i gesti. Sentendo che l’indio diceva sempre “Kan Ghu Ru” adottarono il vocabolo inglese “kangaroo” (canguro). I linguisti determinarono dopo ricerche che il significato di quello che gli indigeni volevano dire era “Non vi capisco”.

In case you’re not familiar with any of these languages, here it is in English:

When the English settlers landed in Australia, they noticed a strange animal that jumped extremely high and far. They asked the aboriginal people using body language and signs trying to ask them about this animal. They responded with ’’Kan Ghu Ru’’ the english then adopted the word kangaroo. What the aboriginal people were really trying to say was ‘’we don’t understand you’’, ‘’ Kan Ghu Ru’’.

There are plenty more versions of this myth in many languages. A Google search for the exact phrase “kan ghu ru” returns 11,800 hits, most of which appear to be this story precisely. Just imagine all those variations that didn’t use that precise spelling.

Given its ubiquity then, why should I think it’s utter nonsense have reservations about it?

Well, a number of reasons. First, these different versions are all identical apart from the language they’re in (a superficial difference), which suggests just how recent it is (although this could be an artefact of the five minutes on Google that is my half-arsed attempt at serious research). Obviously the older a story is, the more variable it becomes, as different people tell a slightly different version. Chinese whispers on steroids.

Secondly, this story is heavy on detail, such as the spelling of the supposed actual utterance and its meaning, yet it contains nothing about where this encounter may have taken place. It merely refers to when the English ‘arrived’. I think I recall hearing that ‘kangaroo’ comes from Cook’s first encounter with aboriginal people in Cape York, and possibly from as far back as the first voyage, in the 1770s¹ (other online sources identify ‘kangaroo’ as deriving from Guugu-Yimidhirr, which vindicates my vague memories).

Thirdly, doesn’t it seem way too light in morphemes to say all that? I mean, I don’t know squat about Wik or Kuku languages, and while it’s entirely possible for the four mains bits of meaning, we, you, understand and not, to correspond to the possible four morphemes here, ka-, -n, -ghu and ru, I am still heavily sceptical.

Lastly, Wik-Mungkan, one of the language on the Cape, was the well-documented source of other names for animals, such as the Taipan, Thuuk Thaipan (accounting of course for noun classifiers), so the two parties were clearly able to communicate beyond this fairy-tale, ‘We don’t understand you’ rubbish!

So when you next hear such misinformed folk etymology, tell them where to go.


¹Or whenever it was that Cook sailed south to observe the Transit of Venus.

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.

Everyone know what a Spoonerism is, right? When you metathesise, or switch, some set of segments from one word to another – usually everything before the first vowel – for some sort of effect. For instance, “you have hissed all my mystery lectures” as opposed to “you have missed all my history lectures”, or a favourite of mine “John Hunt is a coward” as opposed to “John Howard…” et cetera.

This morning I heard “It’s one of those toffee gays” instead of “It’s one of those coffee days”.

Purely on the face of it, it looks like two phonemes were replaced with two different phonemes, but looking more closely, this is actually metathesis of some phonological features but not others.

The /k/ from ‘coffee’ and the /d/ from ‘days’ were split up into features. /k/ is voiceless and it is velar while /d/ is voiced and alveolar. The voice feature was retained in each word while the place of articulation was metathesised. So, the alveolar and velar moved across, producing a voiceless alveolar stop, /t/, and a voiced velar stop /g/, “it’s one of those toffee gays”.

Don’t ask me what a toffee gay is though.

I’ve closed comments on this post due to massive amounts of spam. If you have any more etymological information to add, please email me and I’ll be grateful.

I was just reading an article on the Herald website about the government’s spending some $23 million on an advertising campaign about climate change and it included a saying that I’ve never heard in my life.

Labor treasury spokesman Wayne Swan said Mr Howard didn’t know whether he was Arthur or Martha on climate change.

Arthur or Martha? I mean, its meaning is clear given the context; Swan is pointing out that the government has always lacked a policy concerning climate change and therefore doesn’t know where he stands. Yet still, the phrase struck me as odd.

A quick search told me I was on the right track as to its interpretation, but I am still no closer to its source. One commenter on an ABC forum four years ago attributes it to Tony Abbott in passing, but I suspect it was simply a misuse of the word ‘coin’:

I wonder what Mr Abbot was referring to when he coined the term Arthur or Martha or was it Mr Costello or doesn’t it matter?

Another forum claims that the phrase refers to sexual ambiguity/ambivalence. The quote below is second-hand, the commenter later claims that another site (apart from the one where they saw this) says the term is Australian, which he rejects.

We don’t know who first used it but we can only assume it was someone about three hundred years ago. It’s sometimes used to describe bisexuals – they don’t care if it’s arthur or martha who they date – but frankly, unless you are dating someone in their seventies its not a very useful term. Its [sic] not like there aren’t other rhyming names that sound less drab – Steve or Eve, Jerry or Kerry, Helen or a hole cut into a melon. We think its got more to do with the implication that bisexuals aren’t that fussy.

Probably a closer interpretation would be that it describes (in jest) someone who themselves is sexually ambiguous, and does not know whether they are Arthur or Martha, but I’m sceptical about a sexual interpretation altogether.

It certainly wouldn’t be from any R-ful dialect, since the names wouldn’t rhyme. So that rules out most of the US, and probably the rest too, due to the cultural influence of R-ful dialects, and cuts out some parts of the UK.

I think it is Australian, based on the names (they sound reminiscent of late 19th century or early 20th century Australian names), in which case the ‘about three hundred years’ would be stretching it a bit. For the same reason I don’t think this is about sexual ambiguity as the person above claims. He’s on the right track though, the names Arthur and Martha are too… incongruous with a culture that talks about sexual ambiguity enough to have idiomatic phrases about it. I also severely doubt that Abbott would be using it if it had anything remotely to do with transsexuality.

So, does anyone have a better idea of where this phrase has its basis? I’d be very somewhat interested.