Being bi- or multilingual — not one of my accomplishments, sadly!

Given the last 30 years, personally and professionally — living with a Chinese person for some years, being around many Chinese people, teaching ESL — I find this fascinating, and embarrassing, because I am really monolingual, even though I did French and Latin at school.

In the video which follows, the young man’s trilingualism is amazing!

Mind you, Michael Xu is also trilingual (at least) with Shanghainese as a first language and Mandarin as his language of education and his national language. Oh, and English now, of course.

Quite a few of the boys I taught at SBHS were similarly blessed, and not all of them Chinese — speakers of Tamil, for example. Multilingualism is a really good thing — and in general we don’t value it enough in Australia.Insisting all Australians should speak only English is really stupid and short-sighted.

The vlogger is touting a language app, Babbel, which may well be good, or maybe not — thought I would mention it as he does do a commercial for it…

No major political axes to grind that I could see. And he is in New York.It is just interesting!

I am not surprised to see that I have posted on this topic during my ESL days:

Being bilingual – language and thought

08 December 2006

Sunetra Gupta – Language and thinking (full transcript from a Radio National Saturday Breakfast broadcast 16 July 2005). Sadly not available in 2020!

I hope teachers and parents find these reflections on being multilingual informative, and her extrapolation from her experience to the workings of language and thought is certainly interesting.

The talk could double as a text for Year 12 on Journeys. “The complex times we live in need a language that will help us understand them. Language affects how we think, how we experience life and how we understand our experiences. Sunetra Gupta spoke on this at the 12th International Conference on Thinking — she is a reader in the epidemiology of infectious disease — and she publishes complex, interesting novels, which draw on her rich cultural background.”

My exposure to a second language occurred at a very early age – almost as I was learning to speak — for I was just over a year old when my parents moved to Ethiopia from Calcutta — which is where I was born, and still, in most senses, belong to. The Ethiopians were, and I am sure still are, a very proud people, and foreigners had no option but to learn their language Amharic (which has the same roots as Hebrew) if they were to survive there. This my parents did most willingly, as it was their interest in other cultures and languages that had brought them there in the first place. I, of course, acquired it naturally and spoke it alongside my mother tongue with ease — as most bilingual children clearly do. Thus, language was never a monolithic construct for me, and I was sensitized to the distance between a word and its referrent almost as I became conscious.

I am not aware that being exposed this early to two languages had any particular consequences for my personal development, and Amharic is now completely lost to me, or if not lurks so deep in the recesses of my mind that it may as well not be there. In some ways, I was not even conscious of navigating between two languages, and so did not learn one of the most valuable lessons from the process of unglueing word from object — which to my mind is tolerance.

Indeed, when we moved to Zambia when I was four, and I was suddenly surrounded by English speaking children, I reacted with anger rather than bewilderment – how dare they speak in a language I do not understand! — I remember thinking. Soon of course I was speaking English fluently myself, and it has occupied a prominent position in my life ever since, although I still refuse to grant it — quite irrationally of course — the same seat in my heart as my mother tongue.

So, just to summarise where I have got to so far in terms of the relationship between language and thought by indulging in my own early experiences — the demolition of a one to one correspondence between word and object is the simplest useful byproduct of learning more than one language — and in my view this is a critical step towards truly internalising the concept of tolerance, the acceptance of different styles and faiths. And although an early exposure to more than one language may have benefits with regard to fluency in both tongues, I think that too early an exposure actually detracts from the perception of the relationship between word and object as not being fixed and absolute…

2020: I have not examined this in detail but Macquarie University has a Multilingualism Research Centre.

Multilingualism is key to Australia’s multicultural future. Located in Australia’s most multilingual city, with one of Australia’s largest concentrations of language and education researchers, Macquarie University is ideally placed to take the lead in multilingualism research. The Multilingualism Research Centre aims to:

  • foster interdisciplinary research on multilingualism across Macquarie University,
  • build research collaborations with multilingualism researchers in Australia and overseas,
  • build partnerships with community organizations in New South Wales to provide research-based support on multilingual policies and practices.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and community engagement lie at the heart of our approach to research that aims to enhance the quality of life in a multilingual world.

The Centre is hosted by the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences (FMHHS), and sponsored by the Linguistics Department in FMHHS and the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts.

Bored of? No way!

It’s undoubtedly a losing battle, but consider 1) I am a retired English teacher and 2) back in 2005 I became a Grammar God!

If your mission in life is not already to preserve the English tongue, it should be. You can smell a grammatical inaccuracy from fifty yards. Your speech is revered by the underlings, though some may blaspheme and call you a snob. They’re just jealous. Go out there and change the world.

Mind you, the issue I am about to consider is one of usage, not grammar.

These days I keep hearing/seeing “bored of”! Unless I am mistaken, even our Prime Minister has been guilty — and that would have the late Alan Whitehurst spinning in his grave. Alan may well have been Scomo’s English teacher.

Let’s check the Oxford Dictionary site.

Which of these expressions should you use: is one of them less acceptable than the others?

Do you ever get bored with eating out all the time?

Delegates were bored by the lectures.

He grew bored of his day job.

The first two constructions, bored with and bored by, are the standard ones. The third, bored of, is more recent than the other two and it’s become extremely common. In fact, the Oxford English Corpus contains almost twice as many instances of bored of than bored by. It represents a perfectly logical development of the language, and was probably formed on the pattern of expressions such as tired of or weary of. Nevertheless, some people dislike it and it’s not fully accepted in standard English. It’s best to avoid using it in formal writing.

Hmmph! I call it a barbarism! See


Thanks to Nye Perram for posting that on Facebook.

And here’s another I definitely heard from Scomo: cereMOANie! That really seems to be galloping away! See English pronunciation of “ceremony” on the Cambridge Dictionary site. But those lefties at the ABC support Scomo on this one.

…No basis for this “correctness” was stated, other than an implication that because the variant was originally American, it was wrong.

My immediate predecessor, Irene Poinkin, didn’t understand the fuss.

“The large number of complaints the ABC receives about [ceremony],” she wrote in a 2013 note, “suggests there must have been some draconian teaching about this at an early stage in people’s schooling.”

Indeed, a common feature of complaints is the recollection of some kind of magical early-childhood injunction against ceremony with third syllable stress.

“I was taught never to ‘moan’ in ceremony,” a journalist once told me, displaying exactly the kind of blind reverence for authority that Australians aren’t supposed to possess.

Harrumph! You’ll never catch me moaning!

Aspergers, English-speaking and Senator Revenant

To supplement my post Testing for English competence? read Annabel Crabb in today’s Sun-Herald.

The policy – proposed by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton with all the mellifluity of a man who has spent nine years in the Queensland Police – is currently under consideration by the parliament…

It’s drawn immediate support from Pauline Hanson.

Asked by Channel Seven what she thought of the proposed test and its associated Australian residency requirement extension from one to four years, the Senator declared: “It’s a start in the right direction.”…

The last minor mangle is a small sample of Senator Revenant’s somewhat loose connection to the English language. What price her IELTS score, I wonder?

Interesting: If you can’t speak English, you don’t deserve to call yourself a Senator, Pauline Hanson.

SHE wears her love of Australia like a badge of honour, but a leading speech expert says Senator Pauline Hanson should consider learning how to speak our language if she wants to inspire the nation.

Michael Kelly, a body language and speech expert gave Ms Hanson’s maiden speech in the Senate barely a pass mark of 5.5 out of 10, blaming her poor pronunciation and “clunky” delivery for creating an “amateurish” first impression.

Putting aside her controversial politics, the 30-minute oration was “not up to the standards Australians should expect of an inspiring member of the Senate,” Mr Kelly said.

Stumbling over basic words like “custody” and “integral,” Ms Hanson gave the impression she had not rehearsed the much-anticipated speech, which “lacked impact,” was “monotone” and at times was “twee” and “juvenile,” Mr Kelly claimed.

“It was like she was completely unprepared. She hadn’t worked out her phrasing, it was monotone and she struggled to read parts of it out,” he said.

“She was mispronouncing words like “custody” which she delivered as “cus-dy” and that just leaves an unprofessional impression,” he said…

The lowest point were her remarks offering to drive migrants to the airport herself, Mr Kelly said, immature and unbecoming of a senior parliamentarian….

To be uncharacteristically fair to the Revenant of Oz. I suspect that much of the trouble she has brought on her own head over the education of children with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, stems from her own intellectual and linguistic incapacity.  Rather than being taken out of context, her remarks had been typically garbled and ill-considered, but she does have a point. There should be better training and resourcing for the education of children with disabilities in the mainstream. I have a little experience here as in my last three years of teaching one of my duties was to support one-on-one some students with Aspergers. I had a couple of successes and one not so successful. At the time (2003-2005) this was all rather new to us. Glad to say one of the students concerned is now a friend on Facebook.

Many years ago — 1970 in fact — I taught at Dapto High School, south of Wollongong. In those days we had no idea at all — I do not exaggerate — when confronted, if we were, with students with such things as Aspergers/autism. Today is so different, as this excellent page from Dapto High attests. Do visit it if you want authoritative information on the subject.

I looked that up because of an item in today’s Sun-Herald by Peter FitzSimons — someone whose writing at times annoys me. But not today…

Even for Pauline Hanson, her attack this week on kids with autism – maintaining they had no place in “our” class-rooms – took the breath away. As ever, her polarising politics is divisive, driven by a mean-spiritedness that has set post-war records in Australian politics, and entirely ill-informed. In fact, the inclusion of students on the autism spectrum and wider Special Needs students has been successful across our brown and pleasant land, and some of it I have seen up close.

TFF’s brother, Andrew, is Principal at Dapto High School, where they have run a stunningly successful integration program for students on the autism spectrum for the last nine years, and they now have no fewer than 28 of them.

“These students enrich our school and this community every day,” he told me on Friday. “Students are encouraged to participate in the full range of activities: sporting, cultural, academic etc. Participation in mainstream classes is accommodated when ever possible; often playing to particular strengths; Art , Music, Engineering etc. It works. Never had a single complaint. It is inspirational and heart-warming on so many levels for so many of our Dapto students . . . and wonderful for those on the spectrum, and their families, too.”

Great to hear!

What was I up to in November 2011? Part 1

Posts from my Monthly Archives: November 2011.

Relaunching with Tom Keneally’s very functional moral compass

Posted on November 4, 2011 by Neil

Our pollies in the main, have lost theirs, it seems – or maybe the salt water has got into them, or they have been sitting on them instead of steering by them  Begin where Tom does and you just might come up with a policy that both makes sense and also makes us proud.

An open letter to ‘Shooty’, who committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.

Dear ‘Shooty’,

I’ve just watched our Prime Minister talking about shared Commonwealth values in Perth. My mind turned at once to you and your solitary, late-night death in Villawood detention centre last week.

I say solitary, but you may have had a mobile. You may have talked to your girlfriend on the outside that dismal night. She is said to have urgently rung Villawood to ask the desk there to call an ambulance because you were taking poison or a lethal overdose. But they declined to make the call at that stage. Your girlfriend’s mother was the one who then contacted the ambulance, which took you to hospital too late. An earlier refusal by the authorities to let you out for a day to attend a Hindu festival may have caused the final despair.

So, after telling your girlfriend you were fed up with Serco, the company that runs the place for profit, you died, a man refugee advocates called perhaps the most positive and chirpy in the camp. Never mind. You were a Tamil from Sri Lanka, and a son of the Commonwealth of Nations. Even if that did you no good, I hope it consoles you.

Your suicide came after two years’ detention. But you had been already declared a bona fide refugee seven months ago. You were waiting only for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to complete a routine security check. After seven months they hadn’t. An unreasonable person, like myself, might ask how long they bloody well need. But of course, I don’t understand the subtleties of their situation. And in any case, you short-circuited their efficiency.

Because you couldn’t take any more of what we dished up to you – those Commonwealth values, the ones on which we take years to deliver while we treat you as if you have committed armed robbery with assault. You could have lived in the community awaiting the formality of the routine ASIO check. But that would have been too much dignity paid to you.

Your death comes at the end of a period when the psychiatric advisers to the government had warned the government that self-destructive acts like yours would occur. Yet the funny thing is, Shooty, that had you been able to endure, you would have become a resident and an Australian. A brother. A fellow guest at the table of the Commonwealth of Australia. A mate, clasped by the shoulder and probably praised at barbecues – in that back-handed way – as a decent bloody brown bastard!

At CHOGM, the high table of Commonwealth values, Sri Lanka went un-punished for atrocities against Tamils. But even when the Tamil human-shield civilians were being blasted at the end of the Sri Lankan war between the government and the Tigers, we all knew some people like you would inevitably come to Australia. Good old John Dowd, who is head of our local chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, had already called for the trial of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia for war crimes against your people. This just cry, like most just cries these days, has penetrated the stratosphere and vanished into space.

Amnesty International has reported death and torture of those asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka. Of course, none of those accusations made it to the high table of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Mateship. The only person who said anything of note at CHOGM, anything that tried to push out the envelope of concern, was the Queen.

It’s important to know none of what befell you was personal. You died for a failing government that has lost its soul and will soon lose an election. That is, it will have sold its essence to no benefit, and you’ll still be dead. A crease-browed, callow young Minister for Immigration can console us in dusk news bulletins as to why the circumstances imposed on you were so necessary to Australia’s security. And the rest of us have the rhetoric of morning radio and, thank you, but we decided some time back we don’t want you adding your static to our heedless days.

At least until the next suicide, the next foretold and desperate death, some Australians, an increasing number, weep for you as for a brother. Some curse the ineptitude, the cosy lies, the political conjuring and party self-deceit that brought you to your death. And the ironic truth is your remains will have a claim on a patch of Australian soil we wouldn’t give you before.

If we could summon up your soul from that place, we would offer you our useless apologies. If we could summon up your soul, we would ask it to remain among us – the man who was on the brink of Australian-ness, led to water, not allowed to drink. But for now, mandatory detention rolls on, a wheel that crushes many and avails Australia nothing.

What we need, Shooty, what we Australians need for the peace of our souls, is a whisper, a breeze from the direction of your vanished spirit. And what it would say is: treat us as members of the same species. What it would say is: I thought you were a just people.

Tom Keneally, AO, is the Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark. ‘Shooty’ committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.


Heading up to Sydney

Posted on November 6, 2011 by Neil

Remember Sirdan–changes coming? Well the auction was yesterday and was not successful, though there is a nibble… Guess I will find out more later today.

Mystery figure in Five Islands Brewery reflection: is it a ghost?



One of these is one of my grand-nephews… Well OK, the one on the left…


On being in Surry Hills yesterday and finding Nick Jose’s anthology remaindered

Posted on November 7, 2011 by Neil

First The Trinity Bar: pork spare ribs – apologies to some folk further down this post – to die for! (I guess people have died on account of pork over the years…)


On the way to the pub I deviated to the Bargain Book Basement at Central Station. Look what I found, here seen at the coffee shop on the way back to Central after the pub.



That’s the US edition. In July 2009 I wrote:

In today’s Australian Nicholas Jose has an article about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. A companion, the excellent Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, has already been published.

… But what is Australian literature anyway? If it seems a dumb question, the answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Does a piece of writing have to be about Australia to qualify, or is it enough if it is written by an Australian, or someone who was in Australia some of the time? Can fantasy or science fiction be Australian if it is written by an Australian but set in another world?

My answer would be yes, potentially, but it helps to be able to point to something Australian, however elusive. Nikki Gemmell’s novel The Bride Stripped Bare is an interesting case. First published by Anonymous in 2003, it was no surprise when the author was revealed as Australian.

There’s a giveaway when the heroine escapes the London cold for Morocco and the sun heats her up in a way she seems to know from some other life … down under.

And how do we define literature? Does genre writing such as romance and crime fiction count, and what about history writing or the speeches of (some) politicians? Again my answer would be yes, potentially, depending on what’s happening in the language, the ideas, the literary imagination of those writers, and what effect their words have on us as readers.

The terms Australian and literature are a potent but unstable combination, invoked in lofty charters and fierce debate…

There’s a touching scene in Alien Son, Judah Waten’s 1952 memoir in which the boy’s mother, a migrant to Melbourne from Odessa, wanting a “musical education” for her kids, takes them to listen to records at a friend’s house. The music “sounded far away and thin, like the voice of a ventriloquist mimicking far-off musical instruments”. They go to a music shop where the mother asks the salesman to play records to the embarrassed children — Caruso, Chaliapin, “whole symphonies and concertos” — until the manager asks if she ever intends to buy one.

The son must translate his mother’s reply about her children’s “right to music and culture and in fact the rights of all men”: “Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?”

The striving of many people such as Waten’s mother, and Waten himself, as a writer, has given Australia an extraordinary culture, including a great body of literature, transformed from distant mimicry into something of our own, something to share, to argue with, to extend and pass on.

I cherish in all the arts a space for Australian voices – even if it is just to remind ourselves that we are not, after all, Americans.  Winking smile   This is not jingoism. Arts that can show us who and where we are with conviction and authenticity (old-fashioned words I know) are to be cherished, and the paradox is that it is often those works from other countries and cultures which are most “local” that move us most. So rather than being the literary equivalent of McDonalds, works like The Great Gatsby or even To Kill a Mockingbird speak to us of – and beyond – a locale they so wonderfully evoke.

I guess I will be able to learn more of the Macquarie anthology; I’ll be dining at M’s on Sunday and Nicholas Jose will be the guest of honour.

I followed that up here: Last night: Oz Lit, refugees and other matters.  “No, I can’t say what was said because any detail is embargoed until the official launch later this week, but I can tell you it is big (around 1,500 pages) and anyone interested in Australian Literature will want one. There may be some surprises.” William Yang was there that night and one of the surprises is that William is in the anthology!

Hard to believe that two years have gone by! Strange too to find (after searching the libraries at Surry Hills and Wollongong and never snaffling a copy to borrow) that the US edition (Norton 2009) is now in the remainder shop!

Our good luck though. Buy it of you can. It is so good!

Last night SBS presented the first episode of Channel Four’s The Bible: A History. Very little about the first episode on Genesis and creation, presented by novelist Howard Jacobson, really surprised me and I am afraid he will have pleased no one. I couldn’t help reflecting on what twaddle F R Leavis represented – I was taught by one of Leavis’s most ardent disciples, Sam Goldberg, and Jacobson by the man himself. Jacobson reflects in that in Howard Jacobson on being taught by FR Leavis.

Upon being nervously greeted by me, he suggested I go into the porter’s lodge and make myself known. Thereafter, in the week before term began, I continued to run into him, by the gates. I summoned the courage to tell him I was rereading The Dunciad and enjoying it. He looked, I thought, disapprovingly at me. The following day I told him I had finished rereading The Dunciad but had not in the end, enjoyed it all that much.

He still looked disapprovingly at me. He was not, I realised, going to be easy to please.

The next week term began in earnest and a person not at all like the person I’d been talking to turned up and distributed practical criticism sheets. If this was Dr Leavis, then who had I been discussing The Dunciad with? I discovered, in due course, that it was a college porter, I believe called Tony.

You don’t forget a mistake like that. I felt a fool the whole time I was there. But I felt a fraud, too…

The true frauds were probably the dons…

That aside, I am looking forward to the next episode where…

War correspondent Rageh Omaar, who was brought up as a Muslim, examines Abraham, one of the most revered patriarchs of both the Jewish and Christian Bible and of the Muslim Holy Qur’an.

According to all three faiths, he was the first man to worship one God – and one God alone – and all three religions claim him as an ancestor.

He’s often cited by world statesman as a unifying figure for all the three religions, yet today many of the ‘children of Abraham’ are locked in conflict.

Omaar travels to Israel, the West Bank and Iraq to investigate the story of Abraham, and ask whether his legacy is a source of great division or if the great patriarch holds the key to peace and reconciliation.

Been rereading Exodus myself lately. It is a highly unlikely story and in many respects a thoroughly immoral one. God is more than a bit of a psychopath in it – but you often find that in The Scriptures, the Koran no more than the Bible as any objective reader of either will very quickly find. (For the purpose I commend in the case of The Bible the Contemporary English Version from the American Bible Society, which reads very easily and at the same time defamilarises the text – an essential aid to objective reading.) But one thing I share with Jacobson is a love of uncertainty and paradox, so I can also see that it is a highly significant archetypal narrative of liberation – a use to which Black Americans especially applied themselves in their rhetoric of liberation down to and including Martin Luther King. Let my people go! Oh yes!

From a purely historical perspective of course the Exodus didn’t really happen, nor did the conquest of Canaan. But then neither did the saga of Abraham as told in the Jewish and Christian traditions and retold from Ishmael’s perspective in the Muslim tradition. Myth. But not therefore insignificant.

The conservative as fool

Posted on November 20, 2011 by Neil

That’s Britain’s Ann Widdecombe, possessor of a very large bonnet which is home to quite a few extremely confused bees – or so it would seem from tonight’s episode of The Bible a History on SBS. I turned her off on the grounds that the series title was patently inappropriate for this batty woman whose grasp of historiography and biblical criticism probably extends to having fairies at the bottom of her garden.  Faith is nice but Widdecombe is on a track that smacks of gullibility, self-delusion and extraordinary disrespect for scholarship and evidence. This isn’t a conservatism worth knowing about; this is just wilful denial of reality. It isn’t faith, it’s cloud cuckoo land. Religion is not served by such naked obscurantism.

Anyone in the 21st century who seriously thinks Moses literally wrote the first five books of the Bible may be many things but “historian” isn’t one of them. It’s even less likely that Moses was the writer of the Pentateuch than the numerous anyone-but-Shakespeares that we are seeing a bit of a cinema-led revival of lately wrote the plays that really were most likely written by Shakespeare – a far more likely proposition than Moses writing Genesis through Deuteronomy.

I am not a fan of Hitchens, and I think Stephen Fry, and I am a fan,  is not being a great historian either in the following exchange which I am not bothering to watch again, having already seen the YouTube, but they do make Widdecombe look a fool – NOT hard as she clearly IS a fool!

All in all a waste of space, the whole episode.

See also I watched Rageh Omaar on Abraham last night (SBS) … and On being in Surry Hills yesterday and finding Nick Jose’s anthology remaindered.

Surry Hills revisited–people — 1

Posted on November 8, 2011 by Neil

Last Sunday I revisited Surry Hills. Even encountered Madam from the Devonshire Street of many moons ago – just as I had done five years back:

Tonight I saw Madam in Elizabeth Street, and this will mean most to The Rabbit, after whom she asked. She was pleased to hear about the English teaching. She is still doing some catering, she tells me, has some Japanese students staying with her, and is enjoying the freedom of not running a cafe. She seems to be over her Bulgarian period. (Mind you, I liked him.)

Her cafe was a bit like Rick’s. If smaller. Much smaller. And there was no piano. But it was as much a haven for all kinds of refugees as Rick’s ever was. I am sure The Rabbit remembers it with as much affection as I do.

Ah, Cafe Max. I haven’t really taken to its replacement.

And just as then she asked after Mister Rabbit.

But also on Sunday:


Morphs in Crown Street Mall

Posted on November 11, 2011 by Neil

Part of Viva La Gong.


Very cool kids in Wollongong Mall yesterday

Posted on November 12, 2011 by Neil



The sad decline of key terms of abuse

Posted on November 15, 2011 by Neil

Take this.


“Urger” was one of my father’s favourite terms of abuse. Google kept insisting I really meant “burgers” which is terribly culturally imperialist of it, and makes the joke above doubly funny. Josh Larsen, who took the photo, lives in Seattle so I can’t help wondering if he sees the joke I as an Australian see in it.


Australian informal

  • a person who gives tips at a race meeting.
  • a person who takes advantage of others ; a racketeer:he was a free enterprise man — he thought all unionists were urgers

A comment on Language Log (Parliamentary decorum) by one Rob Weaver makes a further point:

There’s a little bit more to ‘urger’ than that. Specifically it means someone who encourages you to a risky or costly course of action that will benefit them significantly more than it might benefit you.

The term originally referred to a particular kind of race-course hustler who would give hot tips – one for each likely winner – to a selection of unconnected punters so as to be able, when inevitably one of the tips won, to appear at the elbow of the bettor whose pick had come first and wheedle a share of the winnings, or at least a free beer.

The post at Language Log is well worth repeating:

In the context of concerns about declining civility in American political discourse, Victor Steinbok points to a post at Vukutu on Australian Political Language, which quotes from “Mungo MacCallum’s great book, How to be a Megalomaniac, … a list of the terms of abuse which [former prime minister Paul] Keating  had used against his opponents duing his time in politics”:

“harlots, sleazebags, frauds, immoral cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, boxheads, criminal intellects, criminals, stupid crooks, corporate crooks, friends of tax cheats, brain-damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul-mouthed grub, piece of criminal garbage, dullards, stupid, mindless, crazy, alley cat, bunyip aristocracy, clot, fop, gigolo, hare-brained, hillbilly, malcontent, mealy-mouthed, ninny, rustbucket, scumbag, scum, sucker, thug, dimwits, dummies, a swill, a pig sty, Liberal muck, vile constituency, fools and incompetents, rip-off merchants, perfumed gigolos, gutless spiv, glib rubbish, tripe and drivel, constitutional vandals, stunned mullets, half-baked crim, insane stupidities, champion liar, ghouls of the National Party, barnyard bullies, piece of parliamentary filth.”

“MacCallum notes that this listing is only of terms which Keating used in Federal Parliament, which of course has rules of decorum not applying in the rougher world outside.”

We noted Keating’s way with words a few years ago ( “A tale of two Dons“, 12/22/2003), and cited the Paul Keating Insults Page, which offers useful context for a large collection of insults, and also must be one of the few accessible pages that can trace a continuous history back to 1995.

a-spivThen there’s “spiv”.  Lovely word. There’s a great discussion of it on World Wide Words.

…Until recently, we have had no idea where the name comes from, which has given rise to a lot of uninformed speculation. It has indeed been said that it is VIPs backwards; also that it was a police acronym for Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. VIP does date from the same period, but it would be very surprising if it were the source. Apart from the sense being wrong, inverted acronyms based on word play were uncommon then. The police story is a well-meaning attempt at making sense of the matter.

An early appearance in print was in School for Scoundrels in 1934: “Spiv, petty crook who will turn his hand to anything so long as it does not involve honest work”. As a result of investigation in 2007 by a BBC television programme, Balderdash & Piffle, we have learned that the word was around earlier. Its first appearance in print is now known to be in a book of 1929, The Crooks of the Underworld, written under the pseudonym of C G Gordon; this included a reference to “a clique of Manchester ‘spives’”. We also have a better idea of the historical background to the term. The activities of an unsuccessful petty crook named Henry Bagster, a London newspaper seller and petty criminal of the early years of the early twentieth century, were widely reported at the time. Bagster’s court appearances for theft, selling counterfeit goods, assault, and loitering with intent to commit a felony were recorded in the British national press between 1903 and 1906. His nickname was “Spiv” recorded from 1904.

We don’t know why he was given that nickname, though it may indicate that the slang term was in use even then. The word itself may well have come from the dialect term spiving, smart, or spiff, a well-dressed man. This developed into the adjective spiffy, smart or spruce, recorded from the 1850s, and also into spiffed up, smartly dressed. In The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green instead suggests the Romany spiv, a sparrow, which was used by gypsies, he says “as a derogatory reference to those who existed by picking up the leavings of their betters, criminal or legitimate”.

More distinctly Oz, I thought,  is “lurk merchant”The Urban Dictionary provides the following dialogues:

Dave: My boss goes away a lot and he asks me to mind his apartment. Last week his secretary came over not expecting to see me and was found out.I banged her in the boss’s bed and made a date for next time he’s out of town
Bob: Man!!! How did you get a lurk like that?

Stella: Maxine sucked up to the boss so she could take the company truck home just so she can drive around all weekend for free delivering pizzas.The tanks empty when she comes back on Monday morning.
Thelma: What a lurk merchant.

As my father used it the term rather more broadly referred to the kinds of unscrupulous business practices he found distressing and offensive to his own principles of integrity and honesty. (In the end my father didn’t do all that well in business.)

Then there was “two bob lair”.

Compare other expressions in Oz English that refer to someone who is angry, crazy or just eccentric — in other words, “out of their mind” in some way such as Mad as a cut snake, as a beetle, as a dingbat, as a frilled lizard, as a maggot, as a goanna, as a wet hen, as a gum-tree full of galahs. And as crazy as a tin full of worms, or as silly as a two bob watch. A two bob watch was some kind of badly made timepiece, often extended and used generally for anything cheap and nasty; expression dates from the 1950s. (Two bob “two shillings” appears to have been the amount of money most often used in derogatory expressions of worth; it referred generally to “inferior, rubbishy, useless”). You could compare the Oz expression two bob with US two bit as in he’s a two bit crook in other words, a crook of no note. (Other two bob expressions included: a two-bob lair 1940s “someone who dresses flashily, but cheaply”; go off like a two-bob etc. Both expressions like silly as a two bob watch and dead as door-nail, show the wondrous creativity of slang. If there were time it’d be nice to talk a bit about this constant renewal of expressions and the creativity of slang. – Kate Burridge.

I sometimes feel that the reason I don’t seem to hear these words so much these days is thatthe urgers, spivs, lurk merchants and lairs are now totally running the shop. What do you think?

On a brighter though still verbal note, I have become a late convert to SBS’s delightfully pointless game show Letters and Numbers.

Losing your mother tongue

In the later years of my teaching career I was particularly involved in ESL: English as a Second Language. (See my archival ESL blog. Search there for mother tongue.)

One often repeated axiom among ESL teachers is this:

Your children will learn English much more effectively if they continue to develop their first language at the same time.

Not that it is quite that simple. See a bit of a guru, Michael Swan:

In this paper I shall consider the ways in which the mother tongue can support, fail to support or actively hinder someone who is learning or using  the vocabulary of a second language. This may happen: 1) when a learner acquires new vocabulary, 2) when he or she tries to recall and use previously-learnt vocabulary, and 3) when he or she tries to construct a complex word or expression that has not already been learnt as a unit.

“As a learning process, transfer supports the learner’s selection and remodelling of input structures as he progresses in the development of his interlanguage knowledge. As a production process, transfer is involved in the learner’s retrieval of this knowledge and in his efforts to bridge linguistically those gaps in his knowledge which cannot be side-stepped by avoidance.”  (Kohn 1986: 22)

Before looking at these three areas, it will be useful to consider briefly how languages differ in the ways they encode the world through lexis, and to settle on a definition of crosslinguistic influence…

It is a poem that has made me think of these things. Some time ago I subscribed to a rather good literary site, Narrative.

A nonprofit organization founded in 2003, Narrative is dedicated to advancing literary arts in the digital age by supporting the finest writing talent and encouraging readership across generations, in schools, and around the globe. Our online library of new literature by celebrated authors and by the best new and emerging writers is available for free…

In the latest number is a poem “Do You Speak Persian?” by Kaveh Akbar, born in Tehran, a doctoral student at Florida State University. An extract:

I have been so careless with the words I already have.

I don’t remember how to say home
in my first language, or lonely, or light.

I remember only
delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

and shab bekheir, goodnight.




(If like me you needed to look up Romeo Santos… Thanks, Wikipedia!)

I used always to encourage my LBOTE (language background other than English) students to maintain their mother tongues if they were fortunate enough still to have them. Multilinguals are an asset to the country, even aside from the personal and family benefits of being better than monolingual.

Irrelevant footnote

Somehow in the course of preparing this post I stumbled on this in the Auslit site. I had never seen it before.

Neil Whitfield studied at the University of Sydney before becoming an English and History teacher at Cronulla, Dapto, and Wollongong. He also taught in Sydney at Fort Street, Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls High Schools. He edited the little magazine Neos: Young Writers from 1981 to 1985. He later became a prolific blogger, often writing about education and ESL topics. His blogs, including Floating Life and Neil’s Second Decade, have been archived by the NLA’s PANDORA archive.

All that past tense! Is there something I haven’t been told yet?