How our language structures our thoughts about the environment and our behaviours

The following review of Default Country by Jay Arthur was added to on 9 July 2004.

Reading this book I was reminded of Barry Jones' lament that Australia was not settled by the Swedes rather than the British. If Swedish was our first language, he said, we would need to be bi-lingual to make our way in the world, and bilingualism gives people alternative world views. 

This book is about the way the English language determines the way English-speakers both understand the Australian environment and act in that environment. The English language evolved over 800 years or so in the southern half of an island off the north-west of Europe, in an area about one-sixtieth the size of Australia and, therefore, far more homogeneous in climate, topography, vegetation, wildlife and human culture than is Australia. Over this period, words and expressions for which the need diminished dropped out of use and new shades of meaning developed, mapping the language of England more closely to the daily experience of its inhabitants in their physical and social environments. 

English evolved to explain, celebrate and cope with life in England. 

This language was uprooted and applied uncritically to Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jay Arthur traces the successes and failures of the settlers (her chosen descriptor) as we struggle to use our transplanted, antipodean language to make sense of our experiences of this continent.

The language of the Default Country was repelled by phenomena outside the English experience. For example, Australia's natural climatic cycles, [1] cycles to which the indigenous people, flora and fauna had become closely attuned, were described in terms of extremes: 'droughts and flooding rains', 'Mt Disappointment'; our fauna were rejected as preposterous by European scientists; millions of acres of thriving, established ecosystems are, even today, scorned as 'rubbish country'. The settlers engaged in a procrustean endeavour to shape Australia to the expectations of propriety they brought with their language: fencing it, importing European plants and European fauna, farming it, irrigating it and usually making little attempt to understand Australia on its own terms, instead preferring to correct it. 

Jay Arthur describes what she calls the invention of 'Australia' as the settlers variously accepted, rejected, explored and reshaped Australia. She uses illustrations drawn from twentieth century non-fiction to illustrate her Default Country thesis.  She employs the language of linguistics: 'the metastory begins ... encoding this place in English ... a lexicon of knowledge', and her book is replete with inverted commas. But do not be put off; the book is accessible and lively.  The author shares her delight in playing with words and ideas and her penetrating original insights - some deliciously subtle - pepper her discussion. Her startling connexions and juxtapositions delighted this reader. Her many sources range from the early twentieth century dreamers (who called for the replacement of 'scrub' with green pastures), through the mid-century developers (who felled trees and built dams) and the late-century sufferers (whose farms are salinized, eroded or exhausted).

Here are four examples used by Arthur to illustrate how our view of Australia is blinkered by the way our language approaches our ecology from the Default Country norm. River: "These are Australian rivers which do not seem to know how to be rivers but are 'lost', 'wandering aimlessly', 'degenerated' and flow to 'a dead end'. (p 18) ... Australian rivers need constant explanation" (p 19). Lake: "The dry lakes of northern South Australia have even been described as 'hypothetical' lakes. A dry lake is 'unnatural'. The salt and usually dry Lake Eyre has been described as 'a horrible travesty, a vast white prostrate ghost of a lake'" (p 21). Discovery, naming: Arthur recounts how Europeans 'discovered' what was already thoroughly known by the native inhabitants (better than any settler would ever know it), and how these newly-discovered features were 'first named' or 'named' with the hubris of the terra nullius perspective (p 173). Rarely were they 'renamed' (p 73). Even when an indigenous name was retained, it was wrenched from its indigenous context, given an Anglicized pronunciation, a spelling and slotted into our neat alphabetical lists of other place names. Devaluing Australian nature: Arthur explores how natural ecologies came to be described and accepted as 'inhospitable', 'difficult', 'monstrous', 'stunted', 'heartbreaking' and so on, locating the settlers' problems in the land rather than in their own expectations, behaviours, ignorance or culture (p 60, 87, 94, 103). She even finds examples of personification of the land: 'the land imagined it shouldn't be an arid brown land, but a green land' (p 89) and where land turned over to pasture began 'smiling' (p 104) although first it had to be 'broken' with the plough (p 105). A continent that is so dysfunctional and deficient needs something: development, opening up, change, improvement and so 'the colonist is a gift to Australia' (p 97).

Each chapter takes a different perspective from which to enrich her thesis, analyzing ways our language determines our attitudes and, through them, our actions. The book is not overtly about ecology. It is, however, about the complex ways humans value the environment and the choices they make when they act on their value judgements. Jay Arthur traces the naturalization of our language, a despite rearguard action by those who persist in fighting Australia's landscape, determined to create a European-style Eden. She has nothing to say about the metamorphosis of the original Default Country, an idealized England, into a new kind of default country embedded in the increasingly United States-dominated, globalized, consumerist hegemony. Nevertheless, having led the reader through the Australian experience over a century, she enables us to apply her liberating lessons to the way we look at other non-European ecologies or non-Western cultures. Her analysis points to limitations in George Orwell's advice to develop ideas in your mind before you shackle them with the limitations of language; Arthur shows us that even unverbalized ideas are shaped by our language. The Aborigines of Mornington Island may have something to teach us: their approach to learning practical skills was to discourage verbalization, questioning and discussion, in favour of imitation and creative adaptation based on the experience of what worked. 

Default Country opened my eyes to the constrained way I had previously viewed the Australian landscape.  I had assumed that, after 35 years of close interest in environmental matters, my attitudes were objective. Jay Arthur unsettled my complacency.

Default Country, ISBN 0 86840 542 6, UNSW Press, 2003, 216 pages (rrp $AU39.95)

More on this general topic here, particularly on how humans use language to separate themselves from the other animals.


1. The BBC reported in August 2009 that Australia needs five or six seasons to suit its climate. Tim Entwisle, chief of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, says Australia should "unhook" itself from the "arbitrary" four seasons it inherited from Britain. Mr Entwisle has proposed "sprummer" - the season between spring and summer - and "sprinter" - an early spring. He says a new system could help people better understand their environment and monitor signs of climate change. "Having four three-month seasons... doesn't make any sense in the place we live," he told Australia's public broadcaster ABC News. "Something with more seasons would work better and something that unhooks us from these arbitrary European seasons," he added. Aboriginal Australians use up to eight seasons in some parts of the country to capture local conditions. Mr Entwisle says that for the system to work well, different regions would need a different number of seasons. "I'd be encouraging different areas to have local regional seasons, to spend some time working that out and to use them to reflect what's going on around us," he told ABC.

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