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Military Terminology and the Olympics Posted by Maralann on 10 Aug 2012

                                           By: Pauline Hopkins 


First we had Ian Thorpe who was popularly known as the ‘Thorpedo’. At this year’s Olympics it has been James ‘The Missile’ Magnussen and the 4 x 100m men’s swim team being dubbed the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. To say nothing of the numerous headlines including phrases such as ‘fails to launch’, ‘settle a score’, ‘battle’bravery’warriors’ or the ‘new weapon in the swimming pool’. Flicking through the sports pages of today’s newspaper, there is ‘a fight ahead’, someone is going to ‘lead the charge,’ and another has ‘battled the brigade’. To say nothing of the ‘shootout’, athletes ‘imploding’, others having a ‘showdown’ or a ‘surrender’ and medal winners nicknamed the ‘pistols’.

The use of military terminology in sport is not new. The sporting arena has been termed a battleground on endless occasions. However, it seems to be particularly during the Olympics when the usage of military metaphors and similes escalates to an inescapable level.

So does it matter? Well, in a word, yes. One only has to look back to the infamous Olympic games in Berlin in 1936, and the use of sport by the Hitler regime to make a point about Aryan superiority to know that it does. Hitler saw sport as a training ground for military recruiting and a way of feeding a nationalistic fervour. However, despite its use by a much-reviled figure, the use of military terminology in sport has nevertheless been accepted as the norm.


Using such terminology on a daily basis makes the horrors of real war somehow seem less horrific. The normalising of military terms through the sports pages desensitises us to the outcomes of war. We become so habituated to reading how an athlete destroyed his foes that when we read the same language in the world news pages we are already immune to the impact those words would otherwise have. War can be viewed as a game, like the sports that share its language, making it seem less real and less serious. We can forget that the conquering that happens on the real war fronts, often involving the deaths of civilians, and of women and children, as well as of soldiers, are ones that involve real deaths not temporary sporting ones. Real wars do not have entertainment value. Having a battle reported on the back pages of the newspaper makes the far-away battle of page 12 seem ordinary, acceptable.

Another problem with the use of this terminology is that it encourages a violent macho culture in sport, with admiration of aggression in sport, of combative attitudes. These seem to be far removed from one of the fundamental principles of Olympism, as stated in the Olympic Charter in force as of 8 July 2011 (available on the website) that ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’ The aim of cooperative participation in sport, the ‘spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play’, also espoused in the charter, are undermined by the military terms that are constantly used in sports reporting which is the language of winners and losers and is not about participation.

This language elevates winners and makes winning the top goal whereas we know that in real war everyone is a loser and many losses are irretrievable. The simplicity of the sporting analogy enables us to mistakenly think that only winning counts and that losing is not an option, thereby feeding the philosophy that underpins governments’ continued participation in wars. The national pride attached to winning in sport is out of proportion to its real value, but it stimulates national pride and facilitates a similar desire to win on the real arena of real war where people die. Being labelled a ‘loser’ is almost the worst insult you can throw at someone and this disgust about losing supports continued military participation in world conflicts.

So as Australia contemplates its tally of medals at these Olympics, far less than the number anticipated, expect retribution. There will be consequences, including a lot more money to be fuelled into elite sport (at the expense of money for community participation in sport.) After all, no-one wants to be a loser, do they?

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Sexist Olympics: “Flirtier, Hotter, Sexier” Posted by Maralann on 27 Jul 2012

By: Danielle Binks 


Last week Chris Berg wrote a fantastic opinion piece called ‘Let the cult begin’, his take on the symbolism, fundamentalism, militarism and fascism behind the Olympic Games. But he left off sexism.

The Ancient Olympic Games, first recorded in 776 BC, had only male competitors and it wasn’t until the 1900 Paris Games that women were first allowed to compete (and even then only in ‘feminine’ sports like equestrian, tennis and croquet). If you think that things have improved since Ancient Greek times though, think again.

With only a month until the London Olympics were to commence, Saudi Arabian officials released a statement saying they would permit female qualifiers to compete at the Games – the first time in their history. Before 2012, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the only three countries to never allow women to compete in the Olympics.

More and more people have been writing about sexism in the modern Olympic Games, and for London 2012 the criticism began before the first starting pistol even went off.

Scrutiny started in Australia back in March, when Channel Nine (the official broadcaster of the Games) released their line-up of commentators. It was all the familiar faces for Nine; Ken Sutcliffe, Cameron Williams, Karl Stefanovic, Eddie McGuire and Mark Nicholas with the only female representative being Leila McKinnon (who also happens to be the wife of Channel Nine CEO, David Gyngell). Peter Bannan, in his opinion piece, made a point of listing the many qualified female journalists who could have comfortably slotted into Olympics coverage for Channel Nine. And many more pointed out that Karl Stefanovic and Eddie McGuire were not particularly qualified to commentate on the Games anyway.

Social Media has become a new battleground for Olympians, and no doubt a headache for their PR teams. Women seem to be the biggest targets of online trolls, and the jibes have been typically sexist;




And even more sexist outrage started to trickle through as Australian athletes made their way to London. Much was made of the fact that the Australian women’s basketball team flew to London in premium economy class, while our men’s basketball team flew business. This, despite the fact that the women’s basketball team, The Opals, have won more gold (and were taller!) than their male counterparts, The Boomers. This story was rife with metaphor and headlines screamed a sexist summary; “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” (interestingly, the same thing happened with Japan’s national football team).

Social media erupted in #SexistOlympics talk. But when the initial hubbub died down, voices of reason suggested that it simply came down to budget – The Opals had chosen to spend more of their money on training, rather than airline luxury (which may be why they’ve won more medals too!).

Ad-man, Todd Sampson, spoke about this sexist debacle in the first episode of ABC’s ‘Gruen Sweat’ (taking a critical look at Olympics advertising). Sampson wondered if The Opals had the same (or lower) budget than The Boomers, but explained that regardless of budget allocation there was  “… no way you can side-step the sexist aspect of it. I mean, we know from a money perspective and from a popular television sporting perspective, women are certainly second-class citizens.”

That headline – “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” – seems to be turning into the unofficial underpinning of these Olympic Games, as more and more people express their outrage of, what they consider to be, a very sexist Olympics.

Let’s take a look at the recent media frenzy surrounding Australian swimmer, Leisel Jones. Australian media outlets wanted to open a dialogue about whether or not Jones was prepared for her fourth Olympic games. But the way they went about discussing Jones’s Olympic-readiness was so, so wrong. They posted not one, not two, but fourteen unflattering photos of Jones – taken from various angles (bending over in her bathers – not really a good look for anyone, even on their best day) as well as a number of pics where she looked terrific, but readers were clearly meant to be dismayed at a slight bulge or bump under her t-shirt.

Leaving aside the question “who cares if she is ‘fat’?” what was really bizarre was how many people jumped to the media’s defence – particularly touting the line “it’s not about sexism!”, and explaining that it was meant more as a commentary on her fitness, not image. Those of us who, *gasp*, dared to criticize such blatantly scathing, sexist coverage of one of our female athletes were even accused of overreacting, of being a little bit too precious (the ‘there’s no crying in baseball!’ defence);




One opinion piece pointed out that male athletes receive the same weight-scrutiny, and gave Grant Hackett as a recent swimming example.


Okay. Let’s look at the ‘flab attack’ Hackett received;  



Compare to the pictorial evidence put forward for Jones:




Would you say that’s an equal level of scrutiny?


What is Australia’s preoccupation with the Jones fitness debate? Many people pointed out that such close scrutiny of a female athlete’s image (complete with 14 photos of ‘flab’ evidence!) sent a bad body image message, and it did. But it’s a message that has become part and parcel of the modern Olympic Games. A message that says: it’s not what you do; it’s how you look. Never mind that Leisel Jones has eight Olympic medals to her name, three of them gold. Or that she has secured seven World Championship gold medals and every Commonwealth Games medal that she has won has been gold, all seven of them. Never mind that she must still be ‘fighting fit’ to have qualified for these Olympic Games. No, no – she looks terrible when she bends over in her bathers – she must be put out to pasture.

Sex sells, more’s the pity. In ‘Gruen Sweat’ Todd Sampson also said; “I think most marketing, not all of it, but most marketing tends to portray women, sporting athletes, as sexy rather than talented, which is a shame.” He’s absolutely, unfortunately, right. The marketing of female athletes has become more and more degraded in recent years.

In the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games, female German athletes posed for Playboy. Katharina Scholz (hockey), Petra Niemann (sailing), Romy Tarangul (judo) and Nicole Reinhardt (canoe) all posed topless for Hugh Hefner’s sexist mag;


Last month Lauryn Mark, Australian women's skeet shooter, posed in a bikini and with a rifle for Zoo Weekly Magazine.



The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin expression meaning "Faster, Higher, Stronger". But it seems that “Flirtier, Hotter, Sexier” is more the motto for female athletes these days.

Then think on the Olympic creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Female athletes have fought long and hard to carve a place for themselves in the modern Olympic Games. London 2012 is the first time women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have even been permitted to compete! 

Of course there is still much work to be done to eradicate sexism from the Olympic Games. Admittedly a great deal of that work will rely on the media becoming less complacent and sexist in their coverage, but it’s also up to female athletes to realize that their talents are more than skin-deep and commercial-driven. And it’s a matter of appreciating how long and hard the struggle for female representation in the Games has been. Female Olympians should not fetter that hard-won struggle away on Playboy and Zoo covers, nor should the media take it lightly by taking pot-shot pot-belly headlines.

Enough is enough.

A step in the right direction came yesterday, when it was announced that basketball player Lauren Jackson would be the Australian athlete to carry the flag - for the first time in 20 years - at the opening ceremony. It was a nice (overdue) turn of events, after the “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” headlines – now it’s going to be “Female athlete flies the flag for Australia.”



Now, that’s more like it!

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Movie Review: 'Brave' Posted by Maralann on 11 Jul 2012

By: Danielle Binks

Fifteen-year-old Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a fiery-haired Scottish princess of Clan DunBroch. Although she unsuccessfully tries to mimic her Queen Mother’s lessons in ladylike behaviour, Merida takes after her brutish father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) – she enjoys archery, horse riding and rock-climbing. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), despairs that Merida will ever be a proper princess, and one day fit to rule her clan … so Elinor devises to bring the other three Scottish Clans of Dingwall, MacGuffin and Macintosh to DunBroch, where the three first-born Clan sons will battle it out for Merida’s hand in marriage.

Distraught by the prospect of being prize in a betrothal competition, Merida thinks she can battle for her own hand in marriage, but Elinor is not impressed. While Elinor tries to explain the importance of duty to her wilful young daughter, Merida likewise pleas with her mother to understand the importance of freedom and choosing her own fate – both their arguments fall on deaf ears.

It’s only with the curiously magical help of a looming stone structure, and follow-the-leader will-o’-the-wisps that Merida devises a new plan on how she can take control of her own life.

Brave is the new Disney/Pixar box-office smash-hit. But Brave is not your typical school holiday requisite movie-filler, it’s actually quite the feminist fairy-tale and a welcome breath of fresh-air…

The movie has been subject to some rather disturbing scrutiny in the US these past few weeks. It all started when Adam Markovitz, writing for Entertainment Weekly, asked: ‘Could the heroine of Pixar's Brave be gay?’. Much discussion and web-debate followed, the best of which probably came from the satirical Stephen Colbert, who rightfully stated: "Because any 15-year-old girl who resists an arranged marriage must be gay?" It’s a shame (and slightly creepy) that adult reviewers and commentators feel the need to box and label a Disney character and dissect her sexuality – and that’s really all it is, no matter how much they protest a ‘deeper reading of the text’, it comes down to unnecessary labelling, and because of that many reviewers seem to be missing the forest for the trees.

Yes. Merida is a welcome reprieve from the typical sing-songy, prince-obsessed Disney princesses of the past – instead of wearing tulle-filled pink dresses, she rides around in a gown chosen for her by Queen Elinor, which has perpetually ripped sleeves and skewed bodice, from where Merida has contorted to shoot her bow & arrow. Her hair is a wild mass, which seems to have a mind of its own, rather than the strange helmet-headed, block-colouring of those who came before her;

Merida is not a ‘perfect’ princess – she gets dirty and stuffs her face with cakes, she talks back to her mother and snorts when she laughs. She’s real and she’s messy and she’s just the sort of cartoon heroine young girls should be watching! Merida also enjoys a special connection with the DunBroch land, and she’s never happier than when she’s riding on her beloved horse Angus, rock-climbing or drinking from a hidden waterfall.

The big draw-card of Brave was, for me at least, the focus of a mother/daughter bond. The real heart of the story comes from Merida and Elinor’s push-and-pull relationship – and the second-half of the novel turns into a beautiful mother/daughter quest.

Now, Disney has gotten a lot better with regards to representations of mothers in their films. Gone are the days of wicked stepmothers, traumatic deaths of the mother (Bambi, gets me every time!) or just plain never-mentioned mothers (Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast, Pocahontas…). Admittedly, Brave isn’t 100% perfect (there’s a typical crone-like witch character – why is there never a wizard in this fateful role?!) But Brave really marks one of the first Disney movies where there’s a focus on the mother/daughter bond, not by default because of another absent or dead parent, but because the mother/daughter relationship is amongst the most complex and vital.

Arranged marriage and queenly duties aside, Merida and Elinor’s point of contention really isn’t so outlandish that women in the audience can’t relate – it boils down to Merida not living up to Elinor’s ideals. And isn’t that just a Pandora’s box of problems? And we are treated to both Merida and Elinor’s sides of the story – Elinor who just wants what’s best for her, and Merida who feels like she’ll never be good enough. If that sounds, surprisingly, like it will hit close to home for many viewers, then you’d be right. And if it sounds dauntingly complex for a Disney movie, you’d be right again – and that’s why Brave is so darn good.

Forget the ‘is she or isn’t she?’ discussions swirling around Brave and its tom-boy Princess, Merida. Go see this movie because it’s a darn good yarn about mothers and daughters, being yourself and, as a young woman, choosing your own path in life.

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From Neanderthal to App Posted by Maralann on 27 Jun 2012

Talk for launch of Australian Poetry Journal, Issue 2, Technology, June 2012.

By Patricia Sykes

I’ve titled this preamble From Neanderthal to app and I begin idiosyncratically, with a question to myself: is interactive technology capable of functioning as muse? The nine classical muses, said to collaborate in the ordering of the world, were celebrated by the disciples of Pythagoras as “keepers of the knowledge of harmony and the principles of the universe”, which allowed humans “access to the everlasting gods”. This is a statement of faith as well as a claim of privilege and it seems to me that some futurists would like to claim the same for technology. I’m not a Luddite but I am something of a refusenik: I want to maintain a distance between creator and tool. If our era were to define a world order, along the lines of the Elizabethan World Order, ie God, Angels, Humanity and so on down to the insects, where would technology be placed?

Every generation of course uses the tools specific to its discoveries and aspirations, and we’ve been inscribing the planet in one way or another  ─ and more recently our solar system ─ since Neanderthal times. When I began school life the permitted tool was a slate pencil. It was tied to a piece of string which was tied to a corner of the slate. The slate had only a small surface so it needed to be erased frequently. Erasure was by organic method. You spat onto a cloth and then wiped the slate clean.

My next tool was a pencil. When you had mastered printing you were permitted to progress to cursive writing. When you could write perfectly between the lines, at the designated height, you were permitted to write with a pen, which consisted of a tapered handle, wider at the top. Inside the top was a metal slot into which a nib was inserted. The ink (black, blue or red) was contained in an inkwell into which you dipped the nib: the most poetic aspect of ink wells was how the ink seeped up to striate the petals of the jonquils we stuck in them during winter. This was also an era of much blotting paper: write, blot, write, blot.

Then came the fountain pen. Then the biro, which only became widely accepted in schools in the 1950s. Until then it had been considered injurious to the quality of writing. Then came typewriter, then word processor, then computer and its enhanced facility for memorising and storage. In the time of the slate with its frequent erasures, brain memory was essential. Rote learning too. During and immediately after the end of WWii there was simply not enough paper for school children to write on. Now memory is becoming more a matter of technological storage and retrieval and I’m very aware of this in my own practice.

And so to neuro plasticity: is the tool taking over from its human creator, shaping and attuning the human as it were, and if so what implications might this have for the writing, reading and appreciating of poetry? Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, argues that the rise in IQ ascribed to the visual era of the VDU, or visual display unit, indicates a greater facility with process but not with content. In her view the human brain is being changed by the technological dominance of the visual.

While in Canberra recently I came across four pages in The Canberra Times celebrating Italian National Day. One of the features, Science, technology and innovation, included a description of the iCub, developed at the Instituto Italiano di Technologica in Genoa, as an “open source platform for research into humanoid robotics, brain and cognitive sciences” and which has the capacity “to learn to have natural interactions and to learn from humans”. It’s perhaps no accident that the iCub is shaped like a child “with hands for manipulating objects and…sensors for seeing, hearing and touching”. Therefore cute and non-threatening, on the surface at least. Thus far the iCub is a responder rather than an initiator. But what if further development turns it into an initiator? What if it begins using humans as amanuenses, even apps?

I didn’t have any of this in mind, nor even the theme of technology, when I wrote A flight of leftovers, nor when I submitted it to the journal as part of a small unrelated batch of poems. Which brings me to the process I used in the creation of the poem. I frequently use a voice recorder when I’m driving. No sooner am I behind the steering wheel than a line or an image will slip into my mind and by the time I reach the next set of traffic lights it can have vanished. The recorder is simple technology, relying on batteries and reel-to-reel recording and playback. A year after I began using the device I started to wonder what I was going to do with the accumulating material. The fact that I had a lot of it didn’t matter because I had transcribed it and stored it in computer memory and hey presto retrieval does the rest.

So I was at my desk, having typed out final versions of two poems I’d written by hand and planned to submit, when my eyes alighted on a folder of transcribed recordings. I opened it, reading at random, noting a recurrence of themes, and decided to see what eventuated if I selected a few entries and got them talking to each other in a poem. In the process I discarded some images and lines, in full or in part, wrote new ones, rearranged, re-wrote, and finally arrived at a final draft. I could not have done this without the aid of recorder, computer and printer. Nor could they have fulfilled their functions if I had not fed them.

I wonder what Homer’s response would have been to such tools. I recently heard a Radio National discussion on The Iliad’s first print run, which would have amounted to roughly six painstakingly handwritten copies. Subsequent reprints would have been the of the same order: how different literary history would be without the printing press. I can’t quite imagine reading The Iliad on a Kindle or similar device. To hold the entire book in your hand is to hold the journey. It’s the tactility of a book that I’d find difficult to give up. I find it interesting that the iCub has been designed to include sensory capacity, as if the developers knew that such a capacity would make it more acceptable to its human inter-actors.

I think one of the ways technology spoils and deludes us is through the dubious reward of immediacy, things at the fingertips, quick, quick, quick. Perhaps it’s because I was born in an era when it was still the practice that I value the organic aspects of writing poetry, the writing by hand, the musings and interactions between hand and mind. I’ve long been fascinated by the Chinese perception of calligraphy, how they named it the greatest art because there is no first draft, no erasure, no editing, only finished object: the idea or form travelling into the mind, down the arm into the hand onto the page in one fluid movement: breathless! In contrast my poem is a worked and re-worked thing, laboured over.  

Patricia Sykes is an award-winning poet, and a librettist, whose work has been described as ‘leaping over boundaries’. Her most recent work is 'The Abbotsford Mysteries' published by Spinifex Press.

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Losing Language, Losing Knowledge Posted by Maralann on 26 Jun 2012

* Losing Language, Losing Knowledge

By: Susan Hawthorne

The snake-wielding Goddess of Smiss, Gotland, largest island in the Baltic Sea, off the southeast coast of Sweden. Early medieval, pre-Christian era, c. 400-1000 CE. These double-snake goddesses appear all over: Iran, Nigeria, Crete, Canaan, Mexico, Britain, Ecuador...

PICTURE: Goddess of Smiss, Gotland. Image taken from the wonderful Suppressed Histories Archives Facebook page.

This talk was prepared for a session at the 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival. It forms the basis of what I talked about in that session.

Session description: Of the 7,000 languages in the world today, 50% are likely to disappear in our lifetime. Preserving and appreciating cultural and linguistic diversity is among the central challenges of our times.

The river sings, bubbling

words into speech

from speech comes lyric poetry

sung by young women

in the service of Sappho

sister to Saraswati

who wrote her world

into existence, memory

inscribed on stone, on palm leaf

and she carried fire

underwater, underground

where she flows invisibly

more sacred than the things

that can be seen

lapis -> halapis -> salapis ->sarapis ->

sarapphis -> sarappha -> sappha  -> psappha

sarappha -> sarapfa -> sarapva -> sarapwa ->

sarahapwa-> saraswa -> saraswati -> savoir (The Butterfly Effect p. 171)

I wrote this poem after hearing about the River Sarasvati, a mythical underground river in India that is known by the name of the goddess of language. It seems an apt metaphor for the loss of language and the loss of memory which surrounds us. In this poem, I have imagined a connection between the precious stone lapis, the lyric poems of Sappho, the goddess of knowledge and language, Sarasvati and the French word for knowledge, savoir.

One of the elements rarely discussed when there is public speech about languages is the role that women play in language acquisition and maintenance. While there are exceptions, by and large it is women who are the first teachers of language. They sing, they burble with their babies, they interact with toddlers with encouragement and as they get older by correcting or by displaying correct usage.

In recent years there has been a greater recognition of women as the social glue, as the keepers of knowledge, as the maintainers of traditions. In Indigenous societies this is often accompanied by knowledge of plants and medicinal usage, in ‘modern’ societies it is the passing down of family histories, of stories that span several generations, of songs sung by grandmothers, aunts and mothers.

In spite of this reluctant recognition, there is little public acclamation. In part this is due to our economic system which simply does not recognise work done in the domestic sphere (compare the budgets of home remedies with medicine; of history with genealogy; of classical music with traditional songs).

In 1969, I enrolled in a PhD in Philosophy on the structure of belief systems in ancient societies. Unfortunately, I only lasted a year mostly due to my inability to explain what it was I wanted to write. This project, however, took me to studying Ancient Greek and by a rather circuitous route almost 30 years later, to studying Sanskrit. While I did not go on to complete the research, it has nevertheless informed much of what I have done since (so instead of one PhD, I have a novel, a very different PhD in Political Science and several collections of poetry).

In my novel, The Falling Woman, I wrote:

Each carries within her the seed of future generations, and in her mind the seed of future actions, future realities, dreams that will burst into flower. The germination of a thought may mean the creation of a whole new world, or the loss of an old one.

Each is a creatrix in her own right. (The Falling Woman p. 64)

This novel takes the reader on a journey to the centre: an external geographical centre as well as an internal centre, exploring the mythic in the everyday.

In Sanskrit there is the word Prakṛti. It combines all the following: MW 654.1: in mythology Prakṛtī is a goddess; the original producer of the material world; in grammar it is the elementary form of the word: the root. It also means cause, original source, nature, model, matter, matrix, seed.

And in keeping with the connection between matter, matrix, mother, German Mutter, and perhaps mutter and mud in English and German, Prākṛt means low, vulgar, unrefined, original and any provincial or vernacular dialect cognate with Sanskrit. Prākṛt is the language spoken by women and ‘inferior characters’.

If, as linguist and novelist, Suzette Haden Elgin argues, language structures the way we see the world, it is likely that the speakers of Sanskrit (men of the upper caste, Brahmins) and speakers of Prākṛt (women and lower castes) saw the world rather differently. Interestingly, while Prākṛt has to do with creation and matter, Sanskrit (from the word saṃskṛta) is constructed, perfected, highly ornamented, finished, cooked, refined. Looks like the women are in the linguistic kitchen!

In her novel, Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin creates a non-patriarchal language in which the experiences of women are reflected in language. Here is one of her words:

radíidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of the work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help. [think Christmas]

With my latest book Cow, I wanted to enter the mythic zone and the best way for me to do so was to write from the perspective of an animal, as so many mythic stories are. I have a character Queenie: she is a woman, she is a cow. Like Prakṛti, she creates the world, think of the Milky Way, she carries language and knowledge in her dilly bag (the word queen in English comes from Sanskrit gau, to Greek gune, to Norse kvinna, to English queen). I chose Queenie and cows as my vehicle for this book because the cow is the default among bovines, on the one hand she is worshipped, on the other she is meat, she is a herbivore and brings much to the community. In many societies the cow holds a special place (she may be a bovine, a whale, a dugong, a camel or an elephant). She produces milk, which is magically transformed into curd or butter or cheese; she produces dung for building, making fires or improving soil quality, her hide is used for garments or shelter. It’s not surprising that rock art in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and North America includes many images of cows.

Teachers of Sanskrit tell you that learning language is like the four feet of the cow: the first is the teacher, the second foot is the student; the third are fellow students, and the fourth is time. So whether it is Sanskrit or Prākrit, Gaelic or English, Djiru or Yaggera the learning of language is what makes it possible for us to live in social units.


what the linguist says about Queenie

she was dancing over India

and out fell the languages

thousands of them written

in hundreds of alphabets

a dancer and linguist

Queenie steps out the letters

in the sands of Phoenicia

aleph alpha alif ox and cow

travelling east and west

her hooves have split

the letters morph through

Tocharian and Gandhari

Prakrit Sanskrit Tamil and Pali

there are many trade routes

many tales in the passage

of these letters finding the

edge of sound and shape

she traces vowels in the cave

of her mouth the consonants

travel from larynx to lips

she teaches them the sound of the universe (Cow, p. 79)


(The letters Hebrew aleph, Greek alpha and Arabic alif are all derived from the Phoenician word for ox or cow.)

And if we ignore the speakers of other languages, or half the speakers of the dominant language, we are losing a great deal. Linguistic and cultural diversity are as important as biodiversity. We know that when biodiversity is reduced an ecosystem goes out of balance. Likewise, linguistic and cultural diversity are essential in maintaining the knowledge of many generations of peoples. Sadly, in a period in Europe referred to as the Renaissance, millions of women died, burnt at the stake as witches. These women carried the old knowledge, particularly targeted were those who understood the medicinal use of plants, or who carried on old traditions of rituals that had become a threat to the church. It shares a great deal with colonisation which involves rooting out language use, disconnecting people from their land and the seasonal round of responsibilities.

It is heartening to hear how learning language through song is a useful way of learning one’s culture as Borooloola descendant, Shellie Morris recently discovered working in her grandmother’s language with Borooloola songwoman Amy Friday (Andrew Bock, New chapter for ancient songbook, Age, 29 August)

In the globalised world of the 21st century it involves microcolonialism in the form of the Human Genome Diversity Project, or the bioprospecting (really biopiracy) of plants and Indigenous knowledge. I see it in my own community of far north Queensland where attempts have been made to recolonise the rainforest and use the cassowary as an excuse for that. We need a world in which multiversity (knowledge that draws on diverse cultures) is respected in which so-called development is not used as yet another means of displacing people from their homes, from the places where they have lived for many generations.

I argue in my book, Wild Politics, for a society in which we have, as Murri thinker and artist Lilla Watson said back in 1984, a 40,000-year plan. She said that for Aboriginal people the future extends as far forward as the past and that means at least a 40,000-year plan.

If we are to take on this idea seriously, and I believe we must, then we need all kinds of layers of sustainability:

•          we need a world inspired by biodiversity not profit – therefore a no-growth economy, or as Wade puts it in his book: instead of economic models that are projections and arrows, they should be circles (Wayfinders p. 217)

•          in order for this to happen, languages must not only survive but thrive (and I do not mean that the languages should then be colonised and prospected for answers)

•          in order for languages to thrive, cultural knowledge – what Queenie carries around in her dilly bag – needs to be respected. The multilayered world of poetry with its cross resonances and metaphors and conceptual forms is based on linguistic knowledge and understanding of the world from inside the culture

•          along with poetry comes the mythic world, the world of ritual, dance, music, art and memory

•          with memory comes understanding of the ecology of place, of sustainable living in an environment

•          for those who can’t trust their memories, we need bibliodiversity, books that are to publishing what biodiversity is to ecology; we need the stories of those who have not been heard; that means feminists, Indigenous people, any group who has been outcast

•          we need an alternative to a world which is corporatised, homogenised and privatised

•          we need a world in which women are not subjected to pornography, prostitution and violence (the poorest of the world’s poor are women and poor – including Indigenous – women are the most likely to suffer these shameful exploitations). If the body is an ecology then none of them is ecologically sound

•          our public voices need to be heard: listen to what the women have to say, listen to the unheard or those who have been prevented from speaking their language, their world, but beware the pretenders

•          we are living in a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe

In 2006, I sat through Category-5 Cyclone Larry and again this year through Category-5 Cyclone Yasi. Previously, cyclones of this size have been around 20 years apart. I wrote this poem after finding the word yugantameghaha in the dictionary: meghaha means clouds, anta: the end and yuga: an epoch: a gathering of clouds at the end of an epoch, and there is a reference in here to the moth in the Bhagavad Gita which flies into the flame.



At the end of every cosmic cycle

at the end of a generation―yuganta-

meghaha―clouds congregate

gathering souls for the next yuga

cloud breath, soul mist

rasping winds, rattling bones

here come the galloping horses

humans astride their flanks

here come the thundering clouds

breaking the world apart

the Hercules moth climbs every building

rising upwards through 110 floors

scaling the earth to find the moon

that light in the sky through which

he might escape earth’s pull

and melt into the inferno of light. (p. 67 Earth’s Breath)


As I said at the beginning, for the last 30 years, I have been looking for ways to tell the story of the power of ancient knowledge systems. It has taken me to languages and to places I never imagined I would go to. Much of it lies right here, in knowledge of our selves, in our knowledge of the people and places who give us meaning.

* Prompted to post this, thanks to an extraordinary July 2012 National Geographic piece entitled 'Vanishing Languages', by Russ Rymer that expands on the question "What is lost when a language goes silent?"

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