Aboriginal Ways of Using English

Aboriginal Ways of Using English

by Diana Eades

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Written by one of the pioneers of the field of forensic linguistics, this collection presents 30 years of research and writings that focus on the distinct dialect of English spoken in Australia known as Aboriginal English. The implications of Diana Eades's work within the education, legal, and social spheres are of profound importance for understanding the lived


Written by one of the pioneers of the field of forensic linguistics, this collection presents 30 years of research and writings that focus on the distinct dialect of English spoken in Australia known as Aboriginal English. The implications of Diana Eades's work within the education, legal, and social spheres are of profound importance for understanding the lived experiences of Aboriginal Australians and the development of communication processes that overcome the existing inequalities within these spheres. Aboriginal Ways of Using English is a significant contribution to cross-cultural understandings and examines a significant subset of Australian English that is often ignored. The book is invaluable reading for students and scholars in linguistics, Aboriginal studies, criminology, law, education, and communication studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a long-awaited book from one of the leading forensic linguists whose work has had a profound effect on several aspects of the Australian legal system. Diana Eades covers all aspects of interaction within the legal process from the first interview a suspect has with the police, through consultations with lawyers to the complexities of courtroom talk. There is also specific focus on the special problems of child witnesses and those who are not fluent in the language of the court. All readers will find new insights.”  —Malcolm Coulthard, professor of forensic linguistics, Aston University, UK, on Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process

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Aboriginal Ways of Using English

By Diana Eades

Aboriginal Studies Press

Copyright © 2013 Diana Eades
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-922059-28-4



1.1 Overview

The majority of Australian Aboriginal people speak some kind of English. But often this is not quite the same as English spoken by other Australians. This book presents results of sociolinguistic research about Aboriginal ways of using English in non-remote Australia, by bringing together a number of my publications over a thirty-year period. The focus is on language and communication of Aboriginal people who speak English as their first and main language, and who do not speak a traditional language fluently.

Continuing influences from traditional Aboriginal languages and cultures have helped to shape the way Aboriginal people speak English. Part I will show why understanding Aboriginal ways of speaking English is essential for recognising many contemporary Aboriginal societies and cultures. But there is more to it than Aboriginal identities: this understanding is also important for intercultural communication between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In Part II, the focus is on legal contexts, and we will see particularly how ways of speaking English introduced in Part I impact on the participation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system. Take for example the way that people use and interpret silences or pauses in conversation. No matter what language or dialect is being spoken, silence always sounds the same. But it doesn't always have the same meaning, as you will see in Chapter 5. In several chapters in Part II you will see the significance of this feature (and other features) of language use for Aboriginal participation in the legal process. The book will conclude in Chapters 10 and 11 with my latest research, which highlights problems with how the legal process hears and evaluates the evidence of Aboriginal witnesses who speak English as a first language. You will see how the courtroom linguistic trickery that causes difficulties for many witnesses can be compounded for Aboriginal witnesses, and a case study shows how this can be central to the perpetuation of inequality. (In the Further Reading section at the end of this chapter you will find references to research about language and communication issues in legal contexts for people who speak a traditional Aboriginal language as their first language.)

The approach used throughout the book is one which sees speaking and other forms of communication as central interactional activities in all social groups. In order to examine how language is being used (or language practices), we need to go beyond instances of language use — particular conversations, for example — to the investigation of how societies or social groups work, and how their members make sense of their world. Their beliefs, assumptions, values and expectations are integrally bound up with how and why they act and interact in certain ways, and how they interpret the actions of others. Social scientists use the term 'culture' to refer to these practices (or ways of doing things), together with the meanings that people create and share with others in their social group. Despite several decades of academic debate about the usefulness of the term 'culture', we can't do without it. For example, the latest major textbook in linguistic anthropology (Ahearn 2012) talks about knowing a language as being able to use the language 'in socially and culturally appropriate ways' (p. 12).

1.2 Aboriginal English or Aboriginal ways ofspeaking English

Aboriginal English is the name given to dialectal varieties of English spoken by the majority of Aboriginal people throughout Australia. The recognition since the 1960s of Aboriginal English as a valid, rule-governed dialect of English is one of the most valuable contributions that linguistics has made to Australian society. It provides strong evidence to debunk the popular myth that Aboriginal people who don't speak English like most other Australians are lazy, uneducated, bad-mannered or rude (see Chapter 5). Linguistic work on Aboriginal English, particularly by Ian Malcolm and his colleagues over more than three decades, is playing a significant role in educational equity for Aboriginal students (see Further Reading).

In my earliest Southeast Queensland work I did not use the term 'Aboriginal English', saying that the people I was researching were speakers of varieties of Standard English (see Section 2.1). Aboriginal English at that time was defined in terms of structural language features (such as grammar and sound system). My focus was instead on pragmatic features, that is, features of language use in specific social contexts. The particular features I examined were how people used language to achieve certain social functions: seeking and giving information, seeking and giving reasons for actions, and talking about the future(see Chapters 2, 3 and 4 respectively). I soon realised that there were indeed some structural features of Aboriginal English in the way that many Aboriginal people in Southeast Queensland were speaking English, but pointed out that 'the major language variety used by many Aboriginal people today is grammatically very close to Standard English' (see Section 3.1). As I continued the research, and also became aware of the applied relevance of my research — especially to education and the law — I realised the importance of including pragmatic features in the definition of Aboriginal English. In an overview chapter published in 1991, I wrote that

definitions of Aboriginal English need to look beyond grammatical features and include aspects of communicative strategies. I therefore use the term 'Aboriginal English' to refer to Aboriginal varieties of English, which in some instances may differ from Standard Australian English primarily in features of pragmatics (and minimally in grammar) (Eades 1991a, p. 84, see also Eades 1993).

In his recent work, Sharifian (e.g. 2005, 2007) makes a similar argument about the role of cultural conceptualisations in the definition of Aboriginal English, that is, the way that meanings in Aboriginal English words are deeply rooted in Aboriginal cultures.

In the late 1980s, while giving courtroom evidence about the Aboriginal English of a defendant, I was asked a good question by a judge: 'How many dialects of Aboriginal English are there?' The short answer to this, as to so many other sensible questions that non-linguists ask linguists, is 'it depends ...'!It depends on how you define dialect and how much you take into consideration the overlaps between neighbouring ways of speaking the same language. A more specific answer is 'it's best to think of Aboriginal English as a cover term for overlapping varieties of the dialect(s) of English spoken by Aboriginal people'. (And you'd need a similar answer to the question 'How many dialects of American English are there?'.) Linguists sometimes use the terms 'light Aboriginal English' to refer to varieties closer to Standard English, and 'heavy Aboriginal English' to refer to varieties further from Standard English.

The judge's question highlights the difficulty, which has been pointed out by many scholars, of naming, separating and counting related language varieties. Thirty years ago (see Section 2.1), I referred to the problematic view of a language as 'a well-bounded static entity', a view termed the 'reification of languages'. That was part of my 1982 critique of the way that Australian linguists were conceptualising the relationships between traditional languages, only on the basis of structural features, to the exclusion of social dimensions of language use. But the issue of the reification of languages has continued to concern me in relation to Aboriginal English (see Eades, forthcoming). Language and dialect names are inventions — sometimes by speakers, sometimes by linguists. In attributing a language or dialect name to a person's speech, we are presenting a dynamic and fluid process (speaking) as a static thing — that is, we are reifying it. And this can be confusing and misleading, for example when trying to work out whether a particular person speaks a light variety of Aboriginal English or general Australian English with a few Aboriginal English features. But the decision about what label to give to this person's language variety might depend on the situation, particularly as people speak differently in different contexts, and distinctively Aboriginal features of 'English' may not occur at all in some conversations.

For this reason, I increasingly favour the use of expressions like 'Aboriginal ways of speaking English', coming back to my early 1980s approach. In highlighting that this is not the same as general Australian English, it can also be helpful to think in terms of how English can be an Aboriginal language, as in the title of my 1983 PhD thesis. (Of course, the label 'English' itself is also an invention.)

However, the label 'Aboriginal English' continues to work in constructive ways, particularly in the field of education. Indeed, the reification involved in this label can be particularly appropriate in applied areas, such as policy and provision of services, and for presenting the findings of linguistic research to non-linguists in practical and accessible ways. (This is an example of what Benor (2010) refers to as 'strategic reification', adopting the concept of 'strategic essentialism' which will be discussed in Section 1.5.2 below). For the reasons explained in this section, I now use both 'Aboriginal ways of speaking English' and 'Aboriginal English'.

While 'Aboriginal English' has mostly been defined in linguistic terms to refer to dialectal varieties of English, the term has also sometimes been extended to cover Aboriginal interlanguage varieties of English. Interlanguage English is the linguistic term for the language system of a person who speaks some English in addition to another or several other languages, but has not finished learning English. Aboriginal speakers of interlanguage English mostly live in the more remote and northern areas of Australia, where I have never conducted research. It appears that some of the sociolinguistic findings of the research reported in this book are also relevant to speakers of interlanguage varieties of English, but this is outside of the scope of this book. (See Cooke [2002, 2009], who refers to Aboriginal interlanguage varieties of English as 'Aboriginal Learners' English'.)

1.3 A few terminological notes

I rarely use the term 'Indigenous' in this book. It refers to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have never done research with Torres Strait Islanders, and there are significant ways in which their cultures and ways of communicating differ from those of Aboriginal people, so my work is only about one of the two groups that make up the group 'Indigenous Australians'. I use the term 'Indigenous' only in those situations where referring to research, such as census analysis, which does not separate the two groups of Indigenous Australians.

The term 'traditional Aboriginal languages' refers to languages which were spoken before British invasion and colonisation, and had no connection to English before this time. Some of these languages continue to be spoken, and the term 'traditional' is not meant to imply that the languages have not changed: languages, societies and cultures are always in the process of change.

Over three decades I've been grappling with ways of characterising different kinds of Aboriginal societies and cultures, trying to balance the need in some situations for generalisations with the avoidance of overgeneralisations (see Section 1.5.2). I often use the terms 'traditionally oriented' and 'non-traditionally oriented' to refer to contemporary Aboriginal societies. 'Traditionally oriented' societies are found in remote Australia, where non-English related — or 'traditional' — languages often remain strong, as do a large number of social and cultural practices with strong continuities from pre-colonial times. This is not meant to imply that Aboriginal culture and language are dead in other parts of the country, but rather that they have undergone much more change, as captured in my use of the term 'non-traditionally oriented'. The terms 'traditional' and 'non-traditional', used in some of my early writing, were never intended to ignore the continuities between pre-invasion societies and languages on the one hand, and contemporary societies and their ways of using English, on the other.

Finding ways of talking about commonalities and shared cultural norms and ways of speaking in the broader Australian society is even more challenging. In my earliest work (see Chapter 2), I used the term 'middle class white Australians', with the acronym MCWA, in my comparisons between Aboriginal ways of speaking English and the norms and practices in which I was socialised, and which predominate in the institutions in which Aboriginal people participate, such as education and law. Walsh (1994) took a similar approach, using AWMC for 'Anglo white middle class'. Other terms I have used to contrast with Aboriginal people include 'whites' (e.g. Chapter 4), people in 'mainstream Australian society' (e.g. Chapter 4) and 'non-Aboriginal people'(e.g. Chapters 11 and 12). Reeders (2008) uses ADC for 'Australian Dominant Culture of mainstream Australian society'. None of these terms is meant to ignore the increasingly multicultural and complex nature of Australian society. Rather they are attempts to refer to the mainstream/dominant/majority society with its norms and expectations, which figure so prominently in much intercultural communication in education and law.

1.4 Introducing the chapters

The ten chapters which make up Parts I and II of this book have been selected from more than fifty of my chapters and articles, published over the last thirty years, about Aboriginal ways of speaking English as a first language. It has been impossible to represent all of my work over this time, although Chapter 9 provides summaries of several studies in legal contexts. In making the selection I have chosen some key works and a few hard-to-access publications, and the References section lists further material. I hope that the book will be useful for Year 11–12 high school students and undergraduate tertiary students in the fields of Aboriginal studies, linguistics, legal studies, criminology, education, communication and English. A glossary of technical terms is provided on p. 220.

While my academic training and employment have been in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology (which has also been called anthropological linguistics), for many years I have sought to make the findings of my research accessible to a wider readership than scholars and students in these disciplines. Thus Chapters 5, 6, 9 and 10 were originally written for readers without any linguistics background. While the remaining chapters were originally written for publications aimed at linguistically trained readers, I have mostly assumed this might include those who have not yet finished their training, or who are trained in a different sub-field of linguistics. Thus I hope that these chapters will also be accessible to students and scholars with little or no linguistics background. Some readers of this book might find Chapter 11 challenging reading. Although originally published in an international sociolinguistic journal, it was written to be as accessible as possible for any readers interested in an argument about how language is involved in a sociopolitical process — namely the perpetuation of neocolonial control — and wanting to see concrete evidence in support of this argument.

Spanning three decades of research and writing (1982–2012), the chapters in this book show some of the ways that sociolinguistic understandings have developed in this period and how my own work has matured. Sections 1.5.2 and 1.5.3 address issues which arise from using work written over this time span, and new introductions and textboxes — particularly in the earlier chapters — provide updates and contemporary reflections.

Where possible, I have avoided editing the original publications, with the exception of updating the spelling of language names and standardising punctuation conventions and organisational aspects such as section numbers and within text references. However, I have eliminated, replaced or edited some embarrassingly outdated expressions, gendered language and unhelpful overgeneralisations, mainly from chapters in Part I. Replacement or added words or sentences are indicated within square brackets [ ]. Where you see sentences with square brackets, you should read the whole sentence without omitting the words in brackets, with the understanding that the original version of the sentence did not contain those bracketed words. Where references in original publications are to theses or unpublished papers which have since been published, the original references to unpublished works have been replaced by references to published versions.


Excerpted from Aboriginal Ways of Using English by Diana Eades. Copyright © 2013 Diana Eades. Excerpted by permission of Aboriginal Studies Press.
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Meet the Author

Diana Eades is an adjunct professor at the University of New England who specializes in critical sociolinguistics, language in the legal process, and intercultural communication, particularly involving Australian Aboriginal people who speak varieties of English. She is coeditor of the International Journal of Speech Language and the Law and is the author of Courtroom Talk and Neocolonial Control, Linguistic Description, History and Development: Linguistic Indulgence in Memory of Terry Crowley, and Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process.

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