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 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.

I meant to write about this when it happened rather than over a week later, but it slipped my mind. It falls very neatly under one of the various foci of this blog, the language of politics, and therefore I should have pounced on it earlier. Anyway:

The Howard government has just launched a new advertising campaign to counteract the unpopularity of its Thatcherite industrial relations laws. The issue of whether or not public funds should be spent on this ad campaign rather than the Liberal party’s money (I’ll give you a hint: Not), is beside the point. The point is that they’re also changing the name of the legislation.

When the laws were introduced, they were called Work Choices. It is a misnomer in itself because the net effect of the laws has been to reduce the number of options for employees down to a simple ‘Sign the contract or find another employer’, which, it appears, is legitimate business practice and appropriate employee relations for Australian industry¹. In spite of the implication of this name, the legislation was gravely unpopular and the government decided to drop the name altogether.

The Government has stopped using the term WorkChoices to describe the legislation, saying the change of language is designed to highlight the newly introduced fairness test for low and middle income earners on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). (source)

The title WorkChoices has been banished in this campaign, which aims to allay the fears of voters who are anxious about the laws and promote a new “fairness test”.

And newspaper advertisements, which feature the slogan “Know Where You Stand”, do not mention the controversial workplace agreements by name. (source)

I subconsciously switch off whenever I see a government ad so I can’t be a good judge, but the Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey’s aesthetically nauseating website has a media release wherein no such instance of Work Choices occurs.

This is going to be a bit of a loose connection, but does this show anything about the government’s stance on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Linguistic Relativity?

First off, the fact that the laws were unpopular, despite the benign sounding name Work Choices, suggests not; the electorate were quick to see that the laws had nothing to do with “choice”. But then again, the fact that the government drops the name in view of its unpopularity, while everything else about the laws remains the same, indicates that Howard et al. buy into the theory that language can have some influence on the way we think. Otherwise they may as well name the laws anything they want. “Fred” comes to mind!


¹Before anyone starts raving at me that, statistically speaking, workers on AWAs (Australian Workplace Agreements, individual contracts) earn more than those on EBAs (Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, collective contracts), I might point out that while it is statistically true, the data is skewed by the fact that just about every management role, every executive role, every CEO, is filled by someone on a contract, and they naturally earn more. In some cases they earn much much more (and often undeservedly so).

I might also point out that that is not the point. It’s been demonstrated that uneducated, unskilled workers, the most vulnerable in the entire workforce, are being forced to sign away benefits, and occasionally income, just for the opportunity to work. As far as industry and business is concerned, jobs go to the lowest bidder. The logical extreme of this situation already has a name: slavery.

While browsing a few of my more regular news websites, I came across this article on the BBC World News site, about Zimbabwe, Mugabe and Howard, who is being accused by Mugabe of financially supporting ‘terrorism’.

Aside from any political discussions about the issue of terrorism, Zimbabwe and Mugabe (it’s tempting, but I may leave it to a footnote) I was drawn to the caption underneath the image of Howard. It reads:

Mr Howard accused Robert Mugabe of being a “grubby dictator”

What drew my attention was the Mr, which is curious as it isn’t his usual title. It would ordinarily be something like Prime Minister Howard or the completely repugnant The Right-Honorable something-or-other. Now, Mr Howard is the name that Kevin Rudd, leader of the opposition (which I can finally say without using quote marks), has been using of late when referring to him.

To me, the choice of Mr as opposed to some of the more uppity titles available for a Prime Minister of a sovereign nation, is actually a relatively diminutive term, which was, as I understood it, Rudd’s motivation for the choice.


I went to the extraordinary step of asking the BBC what motivated the choice of title. The response was underwhelming but entirely acceptable:

Our style is to refer to all living men as “Mr” on second reference, unless they are a medical doctor, or have been convicted of a crime.

On re-reading the article, the first reference was to Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Still, I wonder what they use to refer to males who have been convicted of a crime.



While I’m talking about titles of parliamentarians, something that never fails to annoy me is the completely ungrammatical (no matter what your opinion of English usage) double determiner-phrase used by the speaker of the house during parliamentary sessions.

The honorable the Leader of the Opposition

Don’t the first two determiners jump out at you as being incompatible? The only way this can be grammatical for me is if the the two constituents beginning with the are conjoined as though they were members of a list, similar to the one, the only… Except this can’t be right, since the honorable and the leader are not the same sort of constituent and so can’t be readily conjoined. It’d be like the brown, the dog over there. Completely awful.

I was going to attempt to segment this NP into its various smaller nodes and discuss it further, but it occurred to me that my knowledge of English syntax, specifically where DPs, NPs and APs fit in with eachother, is pretty rudimentary and I don’t want to make myself look a fool! I’m pretty certain the section The leader of the opposition breaks down like this:

{NP [DP The] Leader (PP Of {NP [DP The] Opposition})}

But when I try to stick honorable in as well, I get too many conflicting ideas about APs inside DPs, NPs inside APs etc. Best to leave it there.

The Guide to the House of Representatives Practice includes a small section on titles, which claims that the correct method for referring to a minister (who warrants the title ‘honorable’) is something like The honorable member for (electorate) which makes perfect sense. Except the current speaker of the house, the honorable David Hawker, always inserts a second the, and I just can’t accept it!



As implied earlier, I might take a little moment to editorialise about ‘terrorism’ and Zimbabwe.

Now, don’t take this as an advocation of the Zimbabwean government, I think Mugabe’s a raving lunatic and should be overthrown by force, I would even actively support revolutionary sentiment in order to do so. But the issue brings to light an interesting question as to the meaning of ‘terrorism’, which, despite occurring in pieces of legislation around the world, lacks an adequate definition.

I’m sure the various governments that are involved would certainly scoff at being accused of providing material support for terrorism with respect to Mugabe and Zimbabwe, but how can terrorism possibly be defined that would include politically motivated violence in some countries but not in others? Surely it would be morally impermissible to make decisions based on judgments like we don’t like that government, therefore violence against it is not terrorism, but that seems to be the determining factor more often than not.

This is why I often put terrorism in quote marks.


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I smell a new euphemism wafting out of Canberra.

A report came out this morning in which it was argued that a 25% renewable energy target for 2020 would in fact financially harm consumers less than business as usual, and would create jobs, contrary to popular belief.

The Minister for the Environment (apparently) Malcolm Turnbull was predictably playing down the report’s conclusions and at one point addressed the difference in current price between green energy and coal. Except, when he was due to say ‘coal’, he paused, um‘d and ah‘d a couple of times, then came out with this gem.

He refered to it as “conventional grid electricity”.

I’m not a happy pappy. I had to wait until a conference on Australian Languages to hear that I’ve picked a pretty bad title for my blog. I’m not going to name names, but D. Nash – no wait, that’s a little too obvious, let’s just say… David N., – pointed out to me at the annual informal gathering of Australian Language specialists known as Blackwood, held over the weekend, that The Bloviator is a little stupid. In retrospect, he’s probably right.

I have another name that I’ve been quietly ruminating over for a few days but I’m still undecided. I am tending towards a Wagiman phrase, since it’s the first language I’ve worked on as a linguist and I feel attached to it in some respect.

The front-running candidate at the moment is mamin matjjin-nehen¹ and it means literally a (white) man (or a devil, funnily enough) without a language, or even simply matjjin-nehen ‘language-less’. It is meant to be a comment on my effective monolingualism². I grew up in an English-only household in Sydney and pretty much never gave a thought to the vastness and diversity of the languages of the world until university, and certainly knew nothing of the languages of Australia until well into university.

The role of language in my life thus never went beyond being a means of communication. So when I did my first research fieldtrip to study the Wagiman language, one of the most striking things was the cultural salience and identity attached to language. In fact, such was the importance of language to culture that it made me feel bereft of both language and culture.

So when I say I’m a man without language, I mean that I lack the sort of rich cultural background that values and connects language, land and kin. I’m taking the concept matjjin ‘language/story/word’ to metaphorically represent all this.

So that’s the front runner for the time being, but I’m not going to make the mistake of changing to it until I feel it’s the right one.

Feedback on this will be welcomed.


¹The tjj is a fortis palatal stop, but it sounds to the European ear like a voiceless alveolar affricate, like at the end of much. The h in nehen is a glottal stop, but it usually reduces to a long vowel ne:n.

²Yes, I’m aware that being monolingual doesn’t make me ‘language-less’ as such; I’m speaking metaphorically. And yes, I’m well-aware of the irony of describing myself as ‘language-less’ in another language, but of course, it isn’t my language, it’s theirs; they’re just allowing me speak it a little.