Grammar matters
Grammar matters

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Grammar matters

3.1 Representing events

In the following activity you will explore a further illustration of the ideational metafunction: how different lexicogrammatical choices represent events in different ways.

Activity 7: ‘The Killing Time’

Timing: 30 minutes
Figure 8 A Warlpiri resettlement scheme

Read the following short text, which was part of an exhibition at the Australia Museum in Sydney. The text is about the arrival of white colonial settlers in Australia and its devastating consequences for the indigenous population. Make notes in the first text box about how the passage represents the Warlpiri people and the events which occurred. 

When Europeans arrived, the way of life of the Warlpiri people was changed.

The best land was taken over by Europeans for cattle and sheep and the Aborigines had only the desert land to live in.

In 1928, a severe drought forced Warlpiri people from the desert. Some tried to get food and water on the better land and fights broke out. A large group of Warlpiri people were killed by Europeans. The Warlpiri refer to this as the Killing Time.

Those people who remained became dependent upon European society and were resettled at government controlled townships like Warrabri and Yuendumu. There, many people were alienated from their own country, their dreaming and their spiritual guardians.

(Australian Museum text, cited in Ferguson et al., 1995, p. 7)
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Now look at the passage for a second time, paying particular attention to the verbs used to represent past events or processes. These have been highlighted using italics. Make a note of whether each verb form is active or passive, who is the agent and who is ‘acted on’ by the action represented by the verb in each case. In the second text box, make a note of whether this closer look has altered your interpretation of the passage.

When Europeans arrived, the way of life of the Warlpiri people was changed.

The best land was taken over by Europeans for cattle and sheep and the Aborigines had only the desert land to live in.

In 1928, a severe drought forced Warlpiri people from the desert. Some tried to get food and water on the better land and fights broke out. A large group of Warlpiri people were killed by Europeans. The Warlpiri refer to this as the Killing Time.

Those people who remained became dependent upon European society and were resettled at government controlled townships like Warrabri and Yuendumu. There, many people were alienated from their own country, their dreaming and their spiritual guardians.

(Australian Museum text, cited in Ferguson et al., 1995, p. 7)
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Discussion

This passage was used by some Australian linguists and colleagues (Ferguson et al., 1995, p. 7) to explain to museum educators how their lexicogrammatical choices shaped the way they represented Australian history and culture to museum visitors.

They comment that the first impression given is that this is quite a progressive take on events. It acknowledges past violence by European settlers and appears to represent the Warlpiri point of view. There is no attempt to disguise who did the killing. On the other hand, closer analysis of the verb groups used in the passage provides a different perspective. The Warlpiri are often referred to as being affected by events rather than as agents (e.g. a severe drought forced [them] from the desert). Where the actions of the Warlpiri are referred to using active verb forms, the choices made convey a sense that their agency is limited (e.g. they tried to get food; [they] became dependent). Also, the most violent act referred to is written in the passive, lessening its impact: A large group … were killed by Europeans). The authors argue that the text unwittingly perpetuates a view of Australian history which subtly promotes cultural stereotypes and downplays the enormity of colonial violence. In doing so, they demonstrate that a detailed analysis helps to explain how ‘a particular orientation is constructed for readers’ (p. 7), even in a seemingly objective text. They show museum curators that they need to be highly conscious of their language choices in order to avoid giving unintentional messages.

Whether or not you agree with this particular interpretation or not is less important here than understanding how such choices matter when it comes to representing how the world is and what happens in it.

E304_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371