The following is text to the speech, Who Am I?, which I gave at the 2011 State Semi Finals of the Plain English Speaking Award (Victoria).
Who am I?
Well I know who I am, and I am not just talking about my address nor my age. I'm talking about my culture, the languages I speak and how they combine to make me. But do you know who you are, and why is language such an important part of this?
Take the indigenous people of Australia for example. They arrived here over 40,000 years ago. Since then, they have spoken more than 750 distinct languages and have created a rich cultural heritage. Today, however, this culture is slipping away. Their celebrations, their religions, their cuisine, their art…these are all disappearing. But how and why is this happening?
As I just said, there were once 750 indigenous languages in Australia; now there are a mere 18. It is no surprise then, that we are seeing a loss of indigenous culture. Without language, there are no means to communicate concepts and ideas, there are no means to teach and learn about culture. The indigenous people could, in theory, use English to replace their own languages, however, English lacks the vocabulary needed to communicate indigenous beliefs, such as those regarding the dreamtime.
Unfortunately, language death, leading to the loss of culture, is not confined to the indigenous languages. Broad Australian English, or “ocker English” has also started to decline in use, which is leading to the loss of some more key aspects of Australian culture.
According to the website www.aussieexperts.com (which is an Australian internet based travel office) the top reason to come to Australia is that Australia has “a people of legendary friendliness”. Furthermore, tourism Australia’s most successful advertisement, which starred comedian and actor Paul Hogan, was not based on our vast and beautiful landscapes, but rather our easy going attitude and our rich vernacular. Viewers are told that the only thing they need to know before coming to Australia is how to say “g’day”.
This simple, and chiefly Australian word is being used less and less in today’s society. We’re replacing “g’day” with British and American equivalents such as “hey” and “sup”. Our slang is what allows us to identify ourselves as Australian and to celebrate this. G’day, among other pearlers such as: well, pearler, no worries, cobba, bugger, sheila, aussie, mozzie, cossie, frothin’ and troppo, is the key to expressing our national identity.
Australian English isn't just for the "working class Aussie". As we know, "we are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come". This lyric sums up our nation perfectly. No matter our heritage, no matter our race, no matter the colour of our skin, no matter how much money we earn, we are all Australian. With our slang, we show this. Take the film "Wog Boy" for example. The main characters, who are portrayed by Vince Collosimo and Nick Giannopoulos, both call themselves wogs. They took a term, usually reserved for insults, and turned it into a word to positively express their identity. Whilst the film is full of references to the differences between their childhood and the childhood of a typical anglo-saxon Australian, the film is also chock-a-block with Aussie slang.
"Wog Boy", and the whole concept of wog, is about celebrating both one's European heritage and celebrating being an Australian. It's about celebrating the multiculturalism of this nation. We can enjoy this celebration of identity and the music, festivals, stories and food that comes with it, because of language.
Language is to culture as air is to humans. Without air, we cannot last, without language, culture cannot last. Thus, the preservation of our language, is essential to preserve our culture and to continue to celebrate the rich and diverse identity of Australia.
So the question is, what can we do?
By chucking the odd Australianism into a sentence, by being that friend who speaks to mum on the phone in that "foreign language which nobody understands" and by hearing all of the stories from nan and pop, nonna è nonno, baba i deda or oma und opa, we start to learn about and develop our language and our cultural identity.
It may seem a small and silly idea, but we're a sharing and caring bunch. Our language is made up of some words from mum and dad, some words from our teachers or colleagues and some words from our mates. It’s always changing and is always open to influence.
We need to go back to the basics and bring back Aussie slang and then watch as everyone else follows.
Every culture is worth preserving, so let’s stop beating around the bush, and do something about preserving ours.
So, it’s time we all start asking ourselves, who am I?