February 13, 2008

Apology in Australia

Language Log has visited the topic of linguistic means for apologizing many times, first in my post on the sorry story of Pete Rose, who found himself utterly incapable of making a true apology despite apparently struggling to do it. The topic was taken up again here and here and here and we have returned to it since (see in particular Geoff Nunberg's delightful discussion of apologies in 2006). In Australia, apology has been particularly slow in coming — over ten years — but it finally happened yesterday. The new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, managed what John Howard had found himself utterly unable to do for over a decade.

For as long as I have been aware of what was going on in Australian politics (I first visited in 1996, spending time there every year until The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language was finished, and I have retained a strong interest in the place) there has been an insistent demand that the country's political leaders should apologize to the Aboriginal population for the policies that led to what is known as "the stolen generation". The topic is extremely controversial (those who want to read about the side of it that says no apology was ever necessary should look into the work of Keith Windschuttle), but it is fairly clear that large numbers of Aboriginal Australian children (and especially mixed-race children) were taken away from their Aboriginal families to be raised in institutions during the years between the passing of the Aboriginal Protection Act in 1869 and the official discontinuance of the policy a hundred years later, and especially between 1910 and 1970.

The debate is mostly not about whether children were at least sometimes taken from their families (there are many people alive to whom it actually happened, and a significant sum of financial compensation has been paid to at least one of them); it is about frequency, and about peripheral matters like whether words like "stolen" or "generations" are appropriate, and more substantively, about whether the policy was benign — whether it was mostly aimed at rescuing children to protect them from poverty and abuse in disorderly or alcohol-addicted communities. But there is fairly good evidence that, especially in Western Australia, for at least some people the reason for raising Aboriginal and mixed-race children in the white community was to breed the Aboriginality out of them and kill off the entire race and all of the associated languages.

Aboriginal adults who were removed from their families as children have reported that they were taught to regard their culture of origin as evil and their native language as worthless, something to be ashamed of rather than proud of. The many Australian linguists who have spent their careers puzzling out the details of the rich and intriguing grammatical systems found in Australia's hundreds of languages find this particularly tragic. I have known quite a few such linguists, and they seem without exception to have come to love and admire the people whose languages they worked on. My introduction to the fascinating details and complexity of Australian languages, but also to some of the facts about how Aboriginal people had been treated over the years, came from reading Robert M. W. Dixon's extraordinary book The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland (Cambridge University Press, 1972), and the landmark political statement on its dedication page. For me, it was a surprise to arrive in Australia for the first time almost a quarter-century after that book had been published to find that (in the state of Queensland anyway) prejudice against Aboriginal people was still quite strong. I guess I thought, naively, that we were over all that.

We weren't entirely over it. But things had changed a lot. By about 2000 the majority of the Australian population had come to support the idea that an apology should be made. However, conservative Prime Minister John Howard set his face firmly against it no matter what, and he did in that way hold onto the votes of many of the more bigoted rural white Australians. (In Australia most conservatives are in a party known as the Liberal Party; do not try to interpret Australian politics using an American political dictionary.) Howard succeeded in getting re-elected four times, and served eleven years. But he would never apologize to the stolen generations, no matter how popular that would have been.

Kevin Rudd has now done it very simply and very clearly, to great applause from all over Australia. Wikipedia has an article (tagged "The neutrality of this article is disputed" at the top) in which the evidence is reviewed, and it already includes the full transcript of Mr Rudd's speech.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 13, 2008 04:57 AM