Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tis the season to celebrate diversity

Happy (Western) New Year to all our Grammar Gang readers - near and far.

Did you know in the last week, most of our visitors came from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and India?   This underscores the fact that visitors to the Grammar Gang are a culturally and linguistically diverse group.

When I first started the Grammar Gang with my colleague, Linda Bergmann (from Purdue), I was a Language and Academic Adviser at the University of South Australia.  My work with language, at that time, was about clarity of expression (aided by correct grammar and punctuation); appropriate tone or register in writing; understanding the task (essay or report?); introducing sources and referencing; explaining data and research and understanding structure (introductions/conclusions/topic sentences).

These days, my work has taken me to another sphere of influence in language, and that is language for inclusivity in a diverse world.  This is linked to the work our team of Aboriginal tutors and I do with computer scientists, engineers and environmentalists in preparing them for professional practice.

To talk about language and diversity is a big BIG subject - way bigger than this post.   However - with the help of some friends - I would like to start a conversation to which I hope you will add.

Written and spoken language are key conduits to a respectful environment and the mores and culture around these change over time. It is so very important for students to understand respect and protocols around language.  If we don't attempt to get this right we can look a bit silly (at best) or unprofessional and disrespectful (at worst).

For example, where once it was regarded as acceptable to use the term 'Aboriginal tribes', a student would be encouraged to use the expression 'Aboriginal community'.  Similarly, in Australia, we tend to refer to 'Aboriginal' and 'non-Aboriginal Australians' rather than names which are based on skin-colour - such as 'black' and 'white'.  The acceptability of this can be very different across cultures.

Sarah Landers - one of our tutors at UniSA - developed a resource for students and others to use and here are a couple of slides to demonstrate respectful terms AND diversity in language:

Landers, S.  2011  'Appropriate Terminology for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People'
Landers, S.  2011  'Appropriate Terminology for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People'

Sometimes, though, context and history can make 'finding the right words' confusing.   For example, the use of the term 'Indigenous' is ambiguous in Australia.   Our Federal Government in Australia recognises this word (over the use of 'Aboriginal') because it encompasses Australians from the Torres Strait Islands who would not normally identify with the term 'Aboriginal'.  

John Browne, Senior Academic Adviser in the Indigenous Student Support Unit at UniSA points out that South Australians much prefer the term 'Aboriginal' over the use of 'Indigenous'.

He said, 'Anyone can be "Indigenous" to a country if they are born there, but Ab-original denotes the "first Australians" prior to colonisation and since beginning of time'.

'Indigenous' is a more academic or official label implying anyone who was born in Australia, he said.

To make matters more interesting, there were many, many Aboriginal countries (or nations) prior to European Settlement in Australia.   Some people may well refer to themselves as Ngarrindjeri; Kaurna or Pitjantjatjara, depending on what part of Australia they come from.

In our experience teaching in the Indigenous Content program, we find students are almost always well intentioned - even if sometimes they don't quite get it right.    According to Sarah, using correct and respectful language is everybody's business and she says we all have a role to play in pointing out the right language.   There is a simple bottom line:  if you are unsure of the correct terminology, ask.

Now - over to you, dear readers.  We would like to hear about your experiences with language and diversity - particularly as these things relate to culture.  It's a BIG subject and a most interesting one.


Anonymous said...

"John Browne, Senior Academic Adviser in the Indigenous Student Support Unit at UniSA points out that South Australians much prefer the term 'Aboriginal' over the use of 'Indigenous'.

He said, 'Anyone can be "Indigenous" to a country if they are born there, but Ab-original denotes the "first Australians" prior to colonisation and since beginning of time'.

'Indigenous' is a more academic or official label implying anyone who was born in Australia, he said."

Interesting. I'd never come across the use of indigenous in the sense of "born in a locality" though I have often heard "native"used in that sense (a native of Ireland). As a biologist, "indigenous" to me means much the same as endemic to an area - i.e. not introduced. But I'd be prepared to believe that common usage differed from scientific and might now have been extended to take the above meaning, until, that is, I'd referred to my Australian Oxford Dictionary (2004) "of or pertaining to the the original inhabitants of a particular land or region".

Pity that academics contribute to the degradation of the accuracy and rich shades of nuance in the English language.

Regarding the rest of the posting, I find much of it highly suspect. For example, it seems that the expression "my country" has now been morphed into Aboriginal territories becoming "countries". The term "country" seems to me to have been used by the aboriginal people I have known (and that is not many)in Kakadu, Cape York and South Australia to indicate a strong, traditional and reciprocal relationship between person and place. Something quite different to, and much deeper than, the meanings associated with the general English usage of "countries".

I can't say that in 25 years of working in remote areas in Australia and developing countries, including areas where groups having not only different languages but also different ethnic origins occupied adjacent valleys, I've ever seen such a usage either in the anthropological literature or in common usage.

Personally, unless explanations are provided for the proposed terms (vs the terms in common usage, I'd regards much of what is proposed here as PC and academic make-work.

I'm posting this anonymously not because I'm afraid to engage in discussion but because I don't want my personal email or blogs deluged with responses.

Andrea Duff said...

Thank you for this post.

While you may not have entirely agreed with some aspects of the post, I am pleased that we are having a conversation about respectful use of language.

I liked the way you elaborated on the use of the term 'country', pointing to the 'strong, traditional and reciproical relationship between person and place'.

I wonder if readers from countries other than Australia have some views around this?


Julia Miller said...

I'm a Grammar Ganger, and live in Australia but come from the UK. I think this is a very useful debate, because I do try to be sensitive in the language I use but find it hard to keep up sometimes, as usage can change and yet we are not always aware of the changes if we don't work in a certain area.
I'm interested in the word 'indigenous', though. I first heard the word when I was 11, in A. A. Milne's play 'Toad of Toad Hall', based on Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows'. In the play, Toad is in trouble and finds himself in court, where the judge refers to him as 'the indigenous Toad'. Toad protests 'I'm not indigenous!' The response is, 'Well, if you're not, you very soon will be.' The exchange is funny because neither Toad nor the Judge appears to understand the term 'indigenous'.
Checking various dictionaries, I can see that the OED defines the term as 'Born or produced naturally in a land or region; native or belonging naturally to (the soil, region, etc.). (Used primarily of aboriginal inhabitants or natural products.)' The Macquarie dictionary gives 'originating in and characterising a particular region or country'. How do we define 'originating in', though? If I was born in a country, do I originate from that country? Since it's such a politically sensitive area I can see the whole question is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps the capital 'I' at the beginning of Indigenous is what makes the difference? (Small 'i' might mean that someone came from a country, but was not one of the original inhabitants? Or maybe I'm being fanciful?)
Perhaps someone from an Indigenous group, in Australia or elsewhere, would like to comment?

lisanz said...

In New Zealand, this whole issue is fraught with difficulty. We know, for example, that the Maori came to New Zealand many centuries before Europeans came. Yet I think they (Maori) would consider themselves to be indigenous to this country in that they have developed a cultural/ethnic identity as "tangata whenua" or people or the land.

As someone who is of European origin, a Pakeha (in Maori terms), I would not consider myself to belong to a race that is indigenous to New Zealand. I have tended to see indigenous as applying to an ethnic group and not to individuals. Maori are distinct to NZ, but pakeha are not. And yet, I think it could be argued, that NZ pakeha are developing a distinctive cultural (but perhaps not ethnic) identity which is different to that of other people of European origin. And so perhaps we may yet become indigenous to New Zealand?


ACB said...

I don't understand why "Aboriginal person" should be preferable to "Aboriginal." I am a Jew, not a Jewish person. My friend Maria is a "Mexican," not a "Mexican person." I appreciate that one might not want to imply that a person's racial, ethnic, or national identity denotes their entire identity, but in no other case in the English language is this considered to be the implication when using nouns (rather than adjective + person) to refer to people.

Andrea Duff said...


Sorry it has taken me a while to respond to you. Nomenclature is a funny thing and is often culturally bound. When my partner and I went travelling in the States a couple of years ago, he naively refered to Barack Obama as a 'Negro'. The reference was not malicous in anyway, but based on the fact that in Australia, the word has been in common usage for many, many years (although we now use 'African American').

Our Jewish friend quickly (and gently) corrected him and pointed out that 'people should be called what they want to be called'.

'Aboriginal person' is, for many, the preferred reference. However, once again, it does come down to personal choice ('Aboriginal man'; 'Aboriginal woman'; 'Aboriginal community' or, indeed 'Aboriginal').

Sarah (who is an Aboriginal woman working extensively with Aboriginal communities), does not necessarily exclude 'Aboriginal' as an adjective, but rather as a noun. For example 'The Aboriginals have an ancient culture' is less acceptable than 'Aboriginal people have an ancient culture'. This puts people before race (a point you alluded to).

Thanks for raising this - it is very interesting point, indeed.