Making ‘Australia’ through words: A Review of J.M. Arthur’s The Default Country: A Lexical Cartography of Twentieth-century Australia

Reviewed by Suzanne Eggins

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With much of eastern Australia reluctantly living under water restrictions, and Premier Bob Carr warning Sydney-siders to accustom themselves to a ‘browner’ Sydney, 21 st century Australians are caught in exactly the struggle JM Arthur identifies in The Default Country : how to construe “the place named ‘Australia'” on its own terms, without implicit preferences for wetter, greener, other places.

In her exploration of the changing discursive construction of ‘Australia’ in the twentieth century, Arthur, lexicographer, curator, artist and environmental historian, puts forward the thesis that “Australia cannot be seen first, even by those who have never seen anywhere else, because the language has been formed elsewhere” (27). ‘Australia’, Arthur argues, has always been construed discursively by comparison against what she calls the Default Country:

There is an invisible negative shape working within the language of the colonists, forming ‘Australia’ by discrepancies and absences. The shape is that of the Default Country — which may have once been England but which by the twentieth century is better understood as the kind of country implicitly present in the English language. The Default Country is revealed in the way Australia is described; the omissions and emphases shape the Default Country. It is the non-default part of Australia which becomes ‘Australia’, so that ‘Australia’ emerges as non-standard. (The Default Country 26)

The words (and therefore meanings) used by twentieth-century Australians to construe their country reveal, Arthur argues, its failure to conform to the positive values of the colonial centre (England), with its cool, wet climate, burbling brooks, rich pastures and gently undulating, soft, green landscape.

The claim that the colonizers struggled with the contrariety of Australia’s environment is a familiar one with superficially much to support it: Christmas in the heat of summer; black swans, not white; too little rain; birds that don’t fly; rivers that don’t run; and way too much desert. But cultural historians and critics have lately suggested that this view of the environment as ‘alien and harsh’ tells only part of the story. For example, John Rickard suggests:

It is an enduring cultural myth that Europeans found the Australian environment hostile, alien, oppressive, and that they had great difficulty in coming to terms with it aesthetically.   … Yet the myth is far from accurate: it confuses not only the various levels of perception, but experiences which have quite different cultural contexts. (Rickard 1996: 41)

Rickard then enumerates various scientists and artists who did not find Australia harsh but in fact pleasant, temperate and a welcome change from their country of origin.

But Arthur’s thesis would seem to suggest that far from being a ‘myth’, our perceptions of Australia’s deficiencies and aberrations could not then — and probably cannot now — be avoided: we are inevitably, and perhaps permanently, entrapped by the fact that we experience Australia through the colonizing language, English, with its ever-present comparisons with another, different place:

The experience of colonization is, in part, to be aware of two places at the same moment; to see in this double vision the colonized landscape and the landscape of origin. This remains true as long as the colonist remembers that this was a place where the colonist society or individual once was not. This double vision can be part of personal or collective memory, revealed in naming or in comparative description, but it is also found in the memory of language. The language of the colonist remembers another place because it originated elsewhere and its vocabulary was imprinted with that other place. (The Default Country 27)

The implicit analogy here (evoked explicitly by the promotional comment from Philip Adams on the book’s cover) is with what feminism identifies as the inherently masculinist bias in English. Late twentieth-century feminists questioned whether women’s experience could ever be adequately represented in a language that has been shaped from the perspective in which the male is the linguistically and culturally unmarked form and female presence either marked as deviant or erased altogether.

In support of her thesis that Australian English is inherently colonialist, Arthur offers a wealth of descriptive evidence gathered from extensive qualitative textual research. Arthur’s methodology may explain why she finds more depth to the ‘alien land’ thesis than cultural historians like Rickard. Rather than looking at literary representations of Australia in (myth-building) canonical fictional narratives or artistic works, Arthur’s method is based on an open-ended textual corpus of public discourse.

Drawing on a wide range of non-fiction texts, from guide books to gardening manuals to engineering reports and newspaper articles, Arthur has taken “words and phrases in English in the last century to describe the physical space and environment of the place named ‘Australia'” (p10). She has then organized these words into clusters around particular ideational and evaluative domains. These include: words used to describe time and space in Australia before and after colonization (chapters 2 and 3), words used to know, name and describe the Australian environment (chapters 4 and 5), words of judgement, evaluation and transformation (chapters 6, 7, 8, 9), the paradoxical lexis around our three perennial concerns of drought, flood and fire (chapter 10), and words used to mark the negative legacy of colonization (chapters 11 and 12).

The outcome of this survey of semantic space is a lexical cartography, a ‘map’ of the different words through which ‘Australia’ has been discursively constructed. This map shows, Arthur argues, both how trapped we are by our ‘default-country English’, and the interesting changes that occurred during the twentieth-century as Australians searched for lexical alternatives to re-construe some of the more arrogant and inappropriate claims of colonization.

Drawing on its rich base of public texts, The Default Country brings together dozens of lexical items, gleaned from all too often invisible textual categories, that map our changing construals of our land, organized into relatively coherent clusters (although there is some awkward redundancy). The book is without technicality, written for the general educated reader, and read in that way it is thought-provoking, even disconcerting. However, to my mind it suffers from two limitations: a tendency to list, rather than interpret, and an associated reluctance to draw on theory. I will return to these points after providing a brief overview of the book’s main contents.

The lexical evidence

Arthur begins her argument at a familiar point: she shows how ‘Australia’s’ early designation as the ‘Antipodes’ named the country as the obverse of ‘Britain’, just as early use of the term ‘Home’ to refer to England construed ‘Australia’ as ‘away from’ the centre. Like many school children of my generation, I was long perplexed by the use of terms such as the ‘Far East’ to label countries that appeared to be neither far, nor east, from Australia. Fortunately, as Arthur notes, “In recent times the original compass bearing which took its direction from Britain has swung around so that it takes its direction from Australia” (29). We now construe ourselves as close to ‘Asia’, as part of the ‘Pacific Rim’ (a geographic location semiotically non-existent until it was lexicalized in the 1970s).

Arthur also tracks changes in directional terms: from the dynamic terms of the age of colonial movement and exploration (‘far’, ‘back’, ‘outback’) we have moved to more static terms (‘isolated’, ‘remote’) to reflect established colonial population patterns.

The ‘colonial calendar’, Arthur finds, is also imbued with its default country legacy. She notes that the frequent use of ‘first’ (eg first sightings, first fleet, first settler, first towns) in twentieth-century non-fiction texts both position the colonist as an outsider arriving from elsewhere, and celebrate the beginnings of colonization:

The marking of these aspects of colonial existence as ‘first’ is a continual reminder of the colonial status of the non-indigenous population and a form of celebration of occupation. … The colonial landscape is everywhere stuck with flags proclaiming a new landing of culture, and of discontinuity with the indigenous culture, which is (implicitly) proclaimed to be without that of which the colonists provide the ‘first’. (41)

Implicit also in the construal of ‘Australia’s beginning’ is the assumption that time did not exist before the arrival of the colonizers, that there is a Year Zero, or terra nullius , of the calendar as Arthur points out, with the erasure of all indigenous existence and experience. For example, a tourist brochure from 1987 states:

Since its discovery by Hume and Hovel in 1824, Burra Creek has had a lively history. (45, from Hume and Hovell Walking Track, Tourist Brochure)

As Arthur points out, a text such as this “constructs the occupation as a chronological fracture, on one side of which is time and on the other non-time” (46). By definition, then, the land before colonization was indeed “timeless”, a term which Arthur notes in twentieth-century texts came to refer to places which had not been closely occupied by the colonists. Later in the 20 th century, the term becomes applied to regions that appear to be little altered by colonization, with ‘timelessness’ emerging as a tourist commodity:


An immense landscape. Ancient. Timeless. So still and silent you could be forgiven for thinking you may have been the first to tread on this undiscovered land. (49, from Kununurra, Tourist Guide, 1997)

Colonisation is as much a process of coming to know and name the country as it is coming to settle it physically. Chapter 4 presents Arthur’s evidence that the lexis used to describe and know ‘Australia’ implies a more favoured default country. Arthur notes that “Colonial knowing begins by un knowing, by denying indigenous knowledge” (54). One cannot but cringe at the total erasure of indigenous presence and knowledge implied in the use of the common lexical items to describe uncolonised space: ‘unknown’, ‘unpeopled’, ‘unfenced’, ‘unsettled’, ‘uninhabited’ and ‘unoccupied’. Arthur shows how even very recent texts construe uncolonised space as ’empty’:

The Outback … this beautiful vast emptiness. (57, A River Somewhere: the Kimberley, 1997 )

Tim Fischer … said Australia was in danger of entering the 21 st century as two nations: one centred in over-populated coastal cities and the other an empty heartland. (58, The Land, 28 April 1994 p9/1-2 )

Terra nullius is again implied in that critical act of colonization – the naming of places – by the very fact that “explorers, discoverers and other colonial identities do not ‘rename’, only ‘name” (73). In most cases, of course, European names are written onto the map, but even where an Aboriginal name is adopted or allowed to co-exist with a European name (eg the numbat or marsupial ant-eater), the act is still a colonising one, the name chosen and applied by the colonist. As Arthur points out, “The ‘Aboriginal name’ operates as an artefact, passed into use, divorced from its social, cultural and geographical context” (75).

Arthur suggests that the view of Australia as a “blank map” that has “no colonial marks”, leads to the frequent construal of particular regions of Australia as ‘monotonous’ or ‘dreary’, always by an implied or explicit comparison with a default landscape. The frequently voiced disappointment with the ‘monotony’ of ‘Australia’ implies, Arthur suggests, the colonists’ lack of relationship with the land, “an emptiness of association between the place and the occupier” (p60). The land is sometimes construed as baffling, difficult to know because it is so different from the default country.

Nowhere is this unknowable irrationality more apparent than in construals of the Australian climate. Arthur’s discussion of climate lexis is scattered across several chapters, with her most interesting points to do with the lexis of drought. The interest here is partly that drought is upon us again, but mainly because the treatment of drought provides an archetypal illustration of our continual reluctance to construe Australia’s climate on its own terms.

Arthur claims that drought, “much in evidence in the colonizing vocabulary” (139), is most frequently construed in lexis of disease (thus implying drought to be a dysfunction of an otherwise healthy system) and violence. Wild beast vocabulary is common: drought can “grip, bite, ravage, hit, distort, trap, scourge, threaten” (140). Alternatively, drought may be written as ‘war’: it is ‘horrendous’, a ‘deadly enemy’, which leaves behind ‘annihilation’ and ‘devastation’ (140).

Faced with this ‘enemy’, Australians respond either by suffering or by retaliating. The people are the ‘helpless victims’, ‘desperate’, ‘hapless’, ‘stricken’, ‘ruined’ and ‘withered’ (140), or they fight back because drought is construed within a moral discourse: droughts are supposed to ‘teach us lessons’, though exactly what those lessons are is not often apparent and seem always to be forgotten before the next drought hits, Arthur suggests.

What is so extraordinary about these construals is that, despite all the scientific evidence to show the recurrent frequency of drought in Australia, only in a minority of texts is drought written as something normal , an expected, recurring feature of Australia’s climate. As Arthur points out, this is because our default country language binds us to view drought as problematic:

Through language, the colonist problematises a normal aspect of the Australian climate. Colonial language came originally from a country with a climate whose major variations were of centuries rather than of eleven-year cycles and in the short term was relatively predictable. The ignorance of El Nino and other climate patterns … has meant that colonial ignorance of the nature of the place where they were has been interpreted by the colonist as a deficiency belonging to the place. (144)

Drought is not the only feature of this land that is encoded as deficient and problematic. In what she calls the ‘vocabulary of judgements’ about Australia, Arthur finds that evaluations of deficiency and disappointment occur frequently in non-fiction texts. ‘Australia’ is described as a land which lacks all sorts of things, including: “rainfall, coastal waters, placental mammals, extensive inland river systems, rhizomic grasses, visual drama and incident” (88).

The achievement of colonial control over this ‘harsh’ and deviant environment does not come easily. Arthur exemplifies the extensive vocabulary of war, where language “constructs the colonisers as a military force engaged in a hostile relation with the indigenous place” (123). Colonists must constantly ‘do battle’ against indigenous features of Australia (sand, wind, drought, bushfire, native plants and animals). But in a late-twentieth century twist to this colonising battle, Arthur finds a lexicon emerging where it is the colonist who is construed as causing the violent destruction of what comes to be re-lexicalised as a very fragile indigenous land. For example:

Walking in wilderness areas can cause problems for the environment. (136, Habitat, Vol 24. No 2. April 1996, p5/1)

Luckily for the land, colonists are at hand to ‘save’ the indigenous world, a world which in fact now cannot survive without them:

In the battlefield of the indigenous and colonised, the colonist comes as stretcher-bearer to carry away and tend to the indigenous wounded. The indigenous world is thus truly and finally colonised. (137)

In the new ‘map’, characterized now as excessively colonized (‘over-grazed’, ‘over-cleared’, ‘over-fished’), the colonist has come to construe himself/herself as “inappropriate, an uneasy and unintegrated presence in the indigenous scene” (176). The colonists may even feel like ‘aliens’ :

The defining part of the experience of living in the country (northern NSW) is the impact of the landscape. I found the landscape simply overwhelming. Apart from the sheer sub-tropical verdant abundance, I realised that I would never fit, and that probably no-one at least from a non-Aboriginal background ever does. (177, Geoff Lefitus, Lying about the Landscape , 1997)

Beyond lexicography

Although The Default Country is impressive for its ability to present a coherent argument across such a vast lexical terrain , to my mind it suffers from two limitations. The first is perhaps inherent in Arthur’s discipline of lexicography. Unless lexis is theorized as integrated into the semantic potential of language – as a level of meaning, not just a level of linguistic form –   lexicography can all too easily become little more than a listing enterprise, the itemization of interesting words but with little or no theoretical coherence or interpretative power. As contemporary semiotic and functional linguistic theories suggest, lexis is more than just a labeling component of language. Lexis can be viewed as ‘most delicate grammar’, as the lowest level of semantic encoding of cultural context (Halliday 1966). Lexical choices are by necessity semiotic: they are part of the process through which culture and its ideologies are realized in linguistic form. Powerful lexicography, one that connects to more critical and social interpretations of language (eg Fairclough 2003, Martin and Rose 2003), would seek not just to identify patterns of expression but to explain their semiotic implications, to propose answers to questions such as: what is achieved for the culture when one lexical item is selected over another? Or when the lexical systems of the language offer no relevant semantic potential?

Arthur’s lexicography is certainly more than just listing, but at times only just. She offers an interesting thesis, which has definite theoretical potential, touching as it does on debates about language in post-colonial cultures, as well as the more general semiotic issue of the relationship between language, ideology and cultural change. But theory is largely abandoned after chapter one in favour of simply listing examples that prove her thesis. The problem with this approach is that the reader can see her point but is not challenged to think about the implications. To return to the analogy with feminism, it’s a bit like pointing out over and over again that English is inherently sexist, without moving on to theorize the inscription of sexism throughout different levels in the system and how change might be possible (both of which tasks feminist theory has actively engaged with).

At times Arthur does offer the outlines of interpretative explanations, such as in her discussion of what is achieved by the construal of ‘Australia’ as ‘harsh’:

‘Difficult’, ‘harsh’, ‘heartbreaking’, ‘inhospitable’ and so on locate the problems of colonisation within the colonised space, rather than within the behaviour, responses, knowledge or culture of the colonists. If Australia is by nature ‘unpleasant’, it puts the onus on any failure of relationship upon the land; the land is difficult, therefore the colonist struggles. The land is ‘severe’ and ‘cruel’, so the suffering undergone by the colonist is the fault of the land. The land opposes colonisation, so colonial failure does not arise from inappropriate responses to the conditions. (87)

This is an interesting claim, but could be taken another step or two by asking: why is this view of ‘Australia’ maintained by present day colonists? What ideological functions in the culture do these construals serve? Amongst those who have asked such questions is Graeme Turner (1993), who suggests that the construal of ‘Australia’ as harsh allows the culture to justify limiting the need for individual agency and social change:

The problem of survival with the land establishes a myth which sets limits to personal achievement and to personal endeavour. The threshold of transcendence is thus lowered, so that instead of mastering the land, the real heroism lies in surviving it. Living with the land is mythologised as the authentic Australian experience. The effect of this on the individual is that it also supports an ideology which depends upon the necessity of accepting personal and socio-economic limitations, and of settling for survival as the highest good. The myth of the land is a myth of the culture in that it tells us how we are to live within Australia; and it is a myth that withdraws from the individual most possibilities of change, or of the assertion of personal imperatives. (Turner 1993:36-7)

Perhaps Arthur kept away from theory out of fear of losing her general readership, but she is an accessible writer who is certainly capable of taking the reader with her to explore these more challenging interpretations of what our lexical choices mean.

Arthur’s conclusion also touches on theory, when she asks provocatively what effect it would have if we evolved a new lexis for talking about Australia’s climate:

What if we dropped the word ‘drought’ from Australian English and used ‘El Nino season’ to refer to the phase of normal climatic conditions we presently call ‘drought’? What if we abandoned the terms ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ and developed new terms which speak for southern Australia as ‘The Dry’ and ‘The Wet’ speak of the seasons of tropical Australia? What if we had words, as yet unformed in English, which could talk about the ‘unreliable’ climate with terms of knowing? (181)

But as Arthur suggests, to take such steps Australian English would need to liberate itself from the default country, a step that we seem unwilling or unable to take. What we need next is a lexicography that can theorize why.

Suzanne Eggins is the author of An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (1994) and co-author of Analysing Casual Conversation (1997). She lectures in children’s literature, professional writing and functional linguistics at the School of English, UNSW.


Fairclough, N 2003 Analyzing discourse: textual analysis for social research Routledge, NY

Halliday, MAK 1966 ‘Lexis as a Linguistic Level’ in C.E. Bazell, J.C. Catford & MAK Halliday (eds) In Memory of JR Firth , 148-162. Longman, London

Martin, JR & David Rose 2003 Working with Discourse   Continuum, London

Rickard, John 1996 Australia   – a cultural history 2nd edition Longman.

Turner, Graeme 1993 National Fictions – Literature, film and the construction of Australian narrative 2nd edition Allen & Unwin

Suzanne Eggins is the author of An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (1994) and co-author of Analysing Casual Conversation (1997). She lectures in children’s literature, professional writing and functional linguistics at the School of English, UNSW.

J.M. Arthur’s The Default Country: a Lexical Cartography of Twentieth-century Australia was published in Sydney by UNSW Press in 2003. ISBN 0 86840 542 6.

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