An Unapologetic Rant

Categories Medical

First a disclaimer. This post is a rant: pure and simple. Why have a blog if you can’t complain every now and then? So, you’ve been warned – read on at your own risk.

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The cover of the Medical Journal of Australia’s recent issue carried the headline “Manna from Country”. It was an issue timed to coincide with NAIDOC week, and is full of good articles relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

My problem is with the way that we use grammar when we talk about Indigenous issues. Manna from country, living in community, birthing on country, speaking in language, caring for land… the list goes on. It is as if we neglect to use words like “the”, “my”, “his”, “their” for some reason. Where are the definite articles, pronouns and prepositions? (I had to look that up on Wikipedia). I hear these sorts of sentences all the time. In the hospital: “there’s a great resource about diabetes in language”. In the media: “living on country”. About a patient: “He’s going back to community”.

Why do we use these awkward sentences when we talk about Indigenous people? Is it because we are trying to talk like Indigenous people do? We use many other Aboriginal English words in this way: whitefella, walkabout, sorry business, big mob, humbug. I haven’t heard any of my Yolŋu patients talking like this. Or perhaps our jilted English harks back to a colonial era, where domineering white people talked to Indigenous people in a simplified way, assuming they wouldn’t understand. Or perhaps this is just the way that everyone talks and we never question it.

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I think we should question the way we talk. When we say “he’s going back to country”, perhaps we should say “he’s going back to his country”, and indicate ownership through our language. Or when we say “translate this into language”, perhaps we could say “translate this into Yolŋu Matha”, and by naming the language identify its importance. At the very least, we could try to use proper grammar when we talk about Indigenous people.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. Thanks for reading to here!

Andy is a GP obstetrician living in remote Northern Territory, Australia. He is totally outnumbered by girls in his family - one wife, 3 daughters, 2 chooks.

3 thoughts on “An Unapologetic Rant

  1. Thanks for this thought provoking rant! I’ve been thinking…
    Certainly if language reflects any racist attitudes or assumptions it should be challenged.
    However I wonder if at least part of the problem is with English. Should it be, “Birthing on one’s country”? – there’s an awkwardness about that, too.
    There’s also the difference about what “my country” means. It depends who you are. When we learnt Nepali, after we could say, “What is your name?” and “My name is …”, the next thing was, “What is your country?”, and its answer, “My country is Australia.” When I say that my country is Australia, it means something quite different from an Aboriginal person saying, “my country is Perrederr.”
    I also wonder about what preposition to use. Should it be on, in or at? None of them really convey what it means to be part of the country in the way Indigenous people are. Perhaps there’s another alternative word.
    Keep thinking and ranting!

    1. Thanks for those thoughts. I wrote a really great reply then it got eaten by the computer.

      The bottom line was, I think that Aboriginal Australians are different depending on where you are, and there is no “one size fits all” approach that will work for everyone. Perhaps it’s the same with the language that we use too.

  2. Love your passion Andy. Good rant.
    I’m feeling as though a little bit of research on my part concerning Indigenous countries and Languages are in order. Thanks for the reality check! 😉

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