‘The Commonwealth of Speech’ by Alan Atkinson

2002, 136 p & notes.

The full title of this book is The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future . The extended title gives a better indication of the book’s flavour because it is a wide-ranging publication that meanders between history, politics, rhetoric and methodology.  Many of the chapters were originally presented as speeches or lectures in their own right, thereby complicating for us the relationship between speech and writing from the start.

Talking and writing were fundamental in the founding of Australia, Atkinson argues, and indeed the first chapter of Atkinson’s intended-trilogy The Europeans in Australia is titled “Talk”.  When the Aborigines came across from Timor or Sulewesi, they must have used language to plan their trip, and by the time the English made their own journey in 1788  the logistics and implementation of the First Fleet was a product of detailed bureaucratic talk and writing.  Unlike any other people in the world, the convicts and soldiers of the New South Wales penal settlement were recorded in writing from the very inception of the colony,  in convict indents and admiralty documentation.  Frontier life demanded writing, in the form of overseers’ orders, information from agents’ letters and the provincial newspapers that quickly emerged. When the early forms of democracy arrived,  their introduction was largely unproblematic because of this underlying basis of literacy.

Early white  settlers recognized that Aboriginal people were highly attuned to speech.  They noticed, even if they didn’t fully understand,  that when aboriginal people spoke among themselves, there were nuances of affability, tact, respect and authority. This is something that white Australians are still learning today.   Despite the ubiquity of text, talk is still important in both black and white communities.  Atkinson spends quite a bit of time on Australia’s bi-centenary in 1988, examining the speeches given by Bob Hawke, Prince Charles and Galarrwuy Yunupingu for the occasion, and notes the power-plays jostling amongst the three speeches and the paradoxical symmetry between the speeches given by Charles and Yunupingu.

In another chapter, Atkinson discusses what he calls “vernacular history”.

Vernacular History rests on a body of assumptions about the ethnic or national past which exists, mostly unquestioned, as part of common conversation and common judgement….They regularly seep into popular, everyday writing.  And the more familiar they become on the printed page, the more they belong to everyday talk. (p. 27) …..Vernacular History always throws up moral themes.  It establishes, or it tries to establish, a uniform moral message.  It offers moral contrast, sometimes even melodrama, with the evocation of heroes and villains, of golden ages and dark days. (p. 31)

I’m still not sure whether he approves of vernacular history or not:  he describes it as a

peculiarly powerful combination of formulas, old and new, a vivid mix of subtle tones and heavy patterning. (p.33)

He proposes three examples of Vernacular Historians: Manning Clarke, Robert Hughes and Henry Reynolds.  All three, he says, presented themselves as unique figures, somehow independent of the community of scholars.  Their histories burst off the page and broke out of the academy to become integrated into the talk of ‘ordinary’ Australians (albeit often at a fairly simplistic level).  He spends quite a bit of time on Henry Reynolds in particular, whose history, Atkinson argues, is a history told from the perspective of “we” whites that relies on the tension borne of the moral relationship between current-day blacks and whites.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I can see that I’ll be using it later in my thesis.  I’ve been aware, in my work on Judge Willis, of the importance of talk-  the talk of power in the courts, the middle-class respectable talk of men’s debating societies, and the gossip of the streets.  I enjoyed spectating while Atkinson joustedwith other historians (an acquired taste, I admit) and his discussion of the use of history by politicians.

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3 responses to “‘The Commonwealth of Speech’ by Alan Atkinson

  1. Speech fascinates me. We all do it, but we all do it differently. How quickly the Australian accent had changed since I was young but there is still a class divide in speech, or at least a way to classify people by the way they speak.

  2. residentjudge

    Yes, I noticed an article in The Age the other day about politicians’ speech
    http://www.theage.com.au/national/an-expert-lends-an-ear-to-politicians-voices-20100608-xtoj.html

    Although so much of our discourse is visual now, we still make judgments on the way people sound when they speak.
    I agree with you about the way our accent has changed in our lifetime (I hope I’m not unjustifiably including you in my middle-aged demographic!). When you listen to the voiceover on documentaries from the 1960s, the voice seems to come from another era completely.

  3. I did read that article and did not agree with it all. ‘Fraid I am middle age, perhaps even on the older side of middle age. The age to be middle aged has changed too. My mother’s parents were very middle class market gardeners, yet their speech was anything but what is now considered middle class. Hehe, Dandelong Road/Market comes to mind. Even allowing for poor audio from the time, to hear pollies like Hughes or Curtain speak is very interesting.

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