A team of experts at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra has been hard at work, poring over a database of words and phrases that have special significance for the country’s history, as they update their national dictionary. Phrases such as “loose unit” and “mad as a cut snake” are being bandied around and those like “story custodian” or “battler” are being rescued.
The attempt at decolonising language is part of an ongoing process of reclamation and repatriation of languages the world over. There is a unique ownership of English in countries such as India, Pakistan, or those in the Caribbean islands and the New World, that has resulted in a wealth of original literature acknowledged by international literary prizes. The lack of esteem once associated with pidgins — patois that developed out of interactions between colonisers and indigenous communities — is now on the wane.
At the heart of this process is an essential recognition of the fact that in its role as the stepping stone to identity and culture, language is the canvas for power play. It is language that acts as a currency of power — remoulding, reinforcing, subverting or invisibilising dialects till they moult beyond recognition. While early policies in Australia had dealt a death knell to many indigenous languages, linguistic biases often work insidiously, shaping tongues covertly over generations till they become a socialised phenomenon. In recognising and rescuing those communal experiences lost to time and policies, the good people at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are attempting to right a historical wrong. That may be hard yakka, hard work, but that’s defo gnarly — definitely awesome!