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Chapter 4: Literary Issues, Especially the Role of the

6. Language

exchanges. But for most of us it is also a machine for thinking, for feeling (Malouf 2006, p 48).

Although, as Malouf argues, “the family link is English”, he feels that it is “worth pointing out that a shared language is not necessarily the same language” (2006, p 6).

That is where, for migrant writers whose first language is English, the problem starts when they write for an Australian audience, about their migrant experience. A comparison can be made with the colonists Jay Arthur discusses in The Default Country. “Colonisation”, Arthur declares, “is an event in language as well as in space” (Arthur 2003, p 17). Arthur’s “lexical cartography” has a myriad of examples of linguistic confusion within the English language, and she states that the

consequence of this confusion is “double vision” (2003, p 18). Australian rivers which do not seem to know how to be rivers, but are “lost”, “wandering aimlessly”, are

“degenerated” and flow to “a dead end”: these rivers are understood as “defective”

(2003, p 18-20). “A similar difficulty occurs around the use of ‘lake’”, dry and salty, and therefore “unnatural” (2003, p 20-21). There is, Arthur contends, a “tension produced by the discrepancy of language and experience” (2003, p 20). “The

language does not fit the landscape; the words are describing somewhere else” (2003, p 21). “The double vision results in expectation and disappointment. The words look for what is not there, for the other country that didn’t happen” (2003, p 24). This turmoil experienced by the colonists is, I would propose, comparable to that

encountered by modern-day migrants whose first language is English. The words have changed meaning, and because of this, migrants are forced to understand that

Australia is different, alien even, and that they have to re-learn a language they thought was theirs to use.

That language changes when circumstances do, has been known for generations. Writing in particular about the American situation, Edwin Thumboo asserts that even culture alters “in response to the realities of the new environment, evolving variations and sub-sets. Difference sets in, whether of politics, economics, religion, folk ways, music, social practices, pioneer-frontier experience, or nudging other cultures” (Thumboo in Zach et al 2008, p 94-95). Thumboo quotes American lexicographer Noah Webster to explain how important language is, not only in describing, but also proudly denoting this difference. “‘As an independent nation’”, the instigator of what came to be known as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary wrote,

our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard: for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue (Webster in Thumboo in Zach et al 2008, p 95).

This ‘post-colonial’ pride is also evident in Susan Butler’s foreword of the 1984 Macquarie Thesaurus, which is, she contends,

as well a book of cultural significance, because it makes it possible for us to observe in the patterns that it reveals the focus of thought in our society, the way in which our collective mind tends, the underlying assumptions about the world around us and about humankind, which are so important in shaping our future (Butler in Thumboo in Zach et al 2008, p 95).

The mere fact that there are distinct dictionaries for the languages of the former colonies, leads to the conclusion that “we need to distinguish between what is proposed as a standard code, English (the language of the erstwhile imperial centre), and the linguistic code, english, which has been transformed and subverted into several distinctive varieties throughout the world” (Ashcroft et al 2002 (1989), p 8).

Confusing and disrupting that binary are, I would propose, the English-language speakers who migrated to one of the colonies, especially from the old centre, Britain, itself. In their new country, their old language, English, is considered english, while the new one, previously viewed as english, is regarded as English instead. In their study of ‘Ten Pound Poms’, Hammerton and Thomson tell the story of Margaret Hill, who recalls that local shopkeepers in Australia

‘used to pretend they couldn’t understand what you were talking about’, as when she asked for ice cream: ‘we used to call them tubs and they call them dixies here – and I’d say, “I’ll have a tub” and they’d say, “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, well take yourself off somewhere else, you Poms should learn to speak English”’ (Hammerton and Thomson 2005, p 146).

The pride of the ex-colony in formulating its own language has resulted in a loss, or at least a need for adaptation, for the migrant. Paul Carter, himself an Englishman who migrated to Australia, wrote about the difficulties of language after migration, stating that

Any orientation to the new environment depends initially on finding

resemblances between it and the home left behind, the clarity of light (and life) here may throw the muddiness of one’s former existence into clear and critical relief, but the very possibility of comparison implies a conceptual vocabulary that can be transported from one place to another (Carter 1992, p 2).

Migrants, Carter argues, are forced to go back to a stage in their lives when they were new to the language, and even the world. Not just because the words have suddenly changed meaning, but especially because Australians who were born here do not understand, or do not want to understand, these difficulties. When the migrant “seeks to articulate this, he is greeted with silence, with furrowed brows and a tacit order to hold his tongue, to behave as an infant” (1992, p 7). As Carter sees it, there is no real solution to this dilemma available to the migrant:

Mirroring the host culture’s languages, gestures and manners back to them, migrants will be treated at best with condescension, at worst with suspicion.

Their skills as actors may enable them to get by, to avoid confrontation, but trapped in the mirror of others’ expectations, they will not construct a space where they can speak for themselves. […] Both emotionally and intellectually, migrants lack a tertium quid, a third position that avoids the arbitrary

wilfulness of the other two stances (1992, p 100).

That tertium quid is as essential for migrants who have English as their first language as it is for non-English speakers. Especially for writers it is difficult to have lost not only their first physical, but also their first linguistic home. For writers whose first language is not English, there is the possibility of ‘using’ the fact that they are

‘translated’ men or women in their writing, if they choose to do so. This, in a way, illuminates the story of difference (for example, migrancy), if that is the story they want to tell. For writers whose first language is English, but an English that is non-Australian, this is more difficult. The difference is masked always by the presumption of sameness. This is especially the case if their name sounds similar to what John Howard might call an ‘ordinary’ Australian name, and readers might be forgiven for assuming linguistic and cultural correspondence. Cross-cultural translation is always part of migration, but the content of that is more marked when the visual and aural differences are pronounced. So what language can an English-english/english-English migrant writers use to make the transition audible and readable? What linguistic space is available to them, one that gives voice to the difference and allows an

understandable dialogue with the reader? What else is there to do other than either

assimilate and run the risk of obscuring the difference, or over-emphasise the difference by turning the language into an English-language version of what Jane Warren called “wogspeak” (Warren 1999, p 86)? Is this type of ‘creole’ even possible for English-speaking writers, and if so, what does that look like? I will look at these issues, and many more, in the ensuing chapters.