Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Tide: A Visual Pataka of Cultural and Socio-Historical Data

‘Language n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.’— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

‘Language exerts hidden power, like a moon
on the tides.’— Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch.

From a lexicographer’s viewpoint, it is both exhilarating
and gratifying to examine the ways in which the late (1997), which is now out-of-print, has been adopted by John Reynolds in a re-representation of a work that took more than forty years to compile and which is an essential part of New Zealand culture and history.
And for that re-representation to be made in two linked but essentially individual works of art is even more gratifying. For years I have described a national lexicon such as the work of Orsman, based on historical principles, as a pataka of cultural and socio-historical data. Although Harry Orsman’s text had international significance, it was to Aotearoa New Zealand that it was recognised as a taonga by more than one reviewer at the time of publication, winning the Montana medal for ­non-fiction in July, 1998. That Reynolds should have his work arranged as an architectural pataka or wharenui is entirely coincidental. Here, approximately 700 headword Maori borrowings and Maori-English ­­compoundings along with 473 sub-entries are used from Orsman. There is nothing arbitrary. Lexicography is principled and Orsman developed principles of collection, recording, and selection, thus allowing Reynolds to capitalise on those principles and to preclude both subjectivity and random selections.

The post-Biennale work is both similar to and different from the 2006 CLOUD work. A notable feature of the 2007 work, which has been repeatedly referred to as Black Cloud to differentiate and yet relate it to CLOUD, the earlier work from which Reynolds drew words from the Orsman dictionary, is the pattern that is formed by the alphabetical order, a pattern that is reflective of tukutuku panels. Where CLOUD is ephemeral, floating, billowing, and swirling, and arranged on white canvas tiles, Black Cloud is strongly structured and architectural, and arranged on black canvas tiles. In the Peter McLeavey Gallery, where Black Cloud was first exhibited, the decorative white Victorian ceiling frieze and scotia patterns contrasted with the black wharenui structure, unconsciously symbolising the cultural difference that overlays our society and yet cements it together. There is no doubt about the strength of bicultural meaning in this work. Black Cloud is clearly illustrative of the Treaty of Waitangi, the treaty with the Crown that allowed colonisation, giving us two legitimate groups, tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, who together foster kiwitanga (a term for which citations have only been gathered since 2005). The pare that names the work reinforces the idea of kiwitanga. 

Containing more than just definitions and origins of words, a national lexicon encompasses wide culture. The placement of the opening or ‘door’ in Black Cloud shows that language is an entry into another culture, another world, and that language is such that it can be entered and exited by each culture at will. A viewer of this work in the Peter McLeavey Gallery commented that there will be other viewers who will see this work and these words who would never sit down and read a dictionary — how else would they know of the existence and significance of a term such as Wairarapa death? Reynolds’ work therefore raises a variety of questions of specific cultural significance. What was the Wairarapa death? What was its significance? When was the term used? And by whom? It is clever, generous, and not without purpose that Reynolds should place a decorated boxed copy of the dictionary at the base of the wharenui for viewers to access definitions and citations. 

National dictionaries occupy a specific category within reference science. Most, if not all, are based on historical principles. That is, they not only define terms within a specific variety of language, providing word class and etymology for each term, but they also cite examples of the usage of the term in chronological order of use. The aim is to provide the earliest recorded use, with subsequent listed citations being drawn from as wide a variety of sources and contexts as possible. In this way, both length and breadth of use are provided, and the biography of a word or phrase and its use can be traced. Furthermore, attitudes and values that are associated with the use of words are recorded in citations. Orsman collected lexical data which reflected New Zealand usage, terms that were coined in New Zealand and, in addition, words that might have a use elsewhere in the English-speaking world, but had particular significance or a specific meaning or sense to New Zealanders. 

Te reo Maori was the only official language of New Zealand from 1987 until 2006, when New Zealand Sign Language was also awarded the status. English is a de facto official language.

buist: to brand stock. 

David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995 and The Fight for English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

In linguistic terms, what really is the status of a national dictionary, such as The Dictionary of New Zealand English? It has only been since the 1980s that New Zealand English has been widely and legitimately accepted as a distinctive variety of World English. Earlier than that, it was generally and paternalistically known as an Australasian variety, with Australian lexicographers using citations from New Zealand texts in national Australian dictionaries. Scholars of World English claim that it is only when codification of a language variety in the form of a national dictionary has occurred and with it a positive attitude to its uniqueness, that a distinctive variety can be said to exist. Before the 1980s, when New Zealanders still looked to Mother Britain, revered the Queen’s or BBC English, and spoke of ‘going home’, the cultural cringe in relation to vocabulary and pronunciation was alive and well. The Dictionary of New Zealand English played a significant role in overcoming the cringe attitude to New Zealand language use. National dictionaries are, essentially, monuments to national history. Each language community develops a distinctive means of depicting the world, and happily, post-colonial New Zealand English is now internationally well recognised as having a distinctive quality, primarily a lexis influenced by te reo. Ironically, it is only since the 1980s that te reo has been given the status of an official language of New Zealand, a status that English does not have, despite its mother tongue situation.1 National dictionaries which include citations not only illustrate linguistic variety, they also enhance identity. Whereas in the past our culture was regarded as a compilation of imported cultural patchworks, we now, along with Orsman, can show that our language variety was generated from within New Zealand shores, and that its development is unique. Orsman took care not to include terms such as ‘buist’,2 which we imported in the 19th century with Scots colonist shepherds, but which we discarded here before the 20th century. All of this invariably leads to questions about the influence of dictionaries upon culture and identity. Whose culture? What identity? The cultural myths of the pastoral paradise, clean green-ness, or egalitarianism are shown in Orsman’s lexicon, and in Reynolds’ work, for what they are — part of our history, that came and went. It is the cultural encoding aspect of lexicography that differentiates it from the work of grammar, phonology, and other linguistic traditions, for lexicography as a discipline was developed by scholars from literary backgrounds and by those interested in social history. Orsman was no different. The historical aspect of the adoption of terms from te reo is evident here, of course. Orsman’s sources included the journals of Cook and early whaling journals where te reo borrowings were first recorded within English. Although compounded terms such as couch kumara, Maori car, and Maori day off are included in The Dictionary of New Zealand English and in Reynolds’ work, the aim is to reflect historical usage, rather than to disparage, make political statements, or entertain. Mark Amery, writing a review of Black Cloud in the Dominion Post July 18, 2007 claims ‘Reynolds’ work is as politically charged as it is irreverent’. But is it? If Amery is suggesting that this is a politically provocative work or an illustration of linguistic imperialism, we would beg to differ. The words included by Orsman and used by Reynolds in this work are what international linguist David Crystal would call fragments of socially embalmed language — words placed on a pedestal and provided with historical significance.3 Reynolds claims that it is the viewer who must engage with the work and negotiate its meaning for him or herself, and that his own intention in Black Cloud lacked any political motivation, but a mere desire to re-present the language without idiosyncratic bias. 

Such titles include Buzo’s Kiwese: a guide, a ductionary, a shearing of unsights; McGills’s A Dictionary of Kiwi Slang: Up the Boohai Shooting Pukaka; A Dictionary of Kiwi Slang, Catchphrases, Characters and Kiwiosities; The Dinkum Kiwi Dictionary: Shooting Pipis with a Hayrake; Orsman and Hurley’s Beaut Little Book of New Zealand Slang, and Plowman’s Great Kiwi Slang

So do dictionaries ‘tell it as it is’? As principled standard reference texts, they do, of course. But there is always space in the citations of historical dictionaries, in the quest for balance and data source variety, for romance or an informal cited usage. (Take, for example, a citation under the DNZE headword entry for rua — defined as ‘a main-crop domestic variety of potato’ — ‘A chap growing spuds near Opua Sent a ton to a lady, to woo’er, Of ancient King Edwards, But what got her bedwards, Were newer, and fewer, and Rua’. But The Dictionary of New Zealand English is in no way comparable to the ‘Kiwiana’ of some of our smaller glossaries of slang with their cute illustrations of smiling blokes in black singlets and gumboots, their covers warning of ‘rude, crude and politically incorrect’, along with the nonce words and ephemera in their contents.4 The humour that is evident in Black Cloud is not particularly that of Reynolds or of Orsman, but of the language use of the New Zealand general public. Orsman, and subsequently Reynolds, listed tikkitak, Pakehas, and Pakehasn’t in his lexicon. Although viewers of the work are confronted with aspects of our history that we no longer recognise or find accessible and acceptable in the treatment of each other and each other’s culture, they are nonetheless significant to this work and to New Zealand’s post-colonial coming of age.

Whim Wham (Allen Curnow) ‘Unpakeharliamentary’(1960) in, Terry Sturm, editor, Whim Wham’s New Zealand: The Best of Whim Wham 1937-1988. Auckland: Vintage, 2005.

Lingua franca: a language used to allow routine communication between groups of people who speak different native languages (the principal lingua franca being English).

Allen Curnow, ‘Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water’, Sport 12 (Autumn 1994): 63-65.

It is significant, surely, that Reynolds has selected the title of his work from a poem by Allen Curnow, whose verse, from ‘House and Land’ and subsequent work, gave us New Zealand ‘as it is’. As Whim Wham, of course, Curnow debunked cultural myths and told it as it was, and he played with te reo and English as he worked. In ‘Unpakeharliamentary’, for example, he takes politician Ron Algie to task for resisting use of the term ‘pakeha’.5 Reynolds’ work is also reflective of the line of Curnow’s poem from which it is derived: ‘looking west, late afternoon, low tide’. Phrases using verb and adverb, adjective and noun, adjective and noun. There is a time, a context, an opportunity. But the pun of looking west is unmistakable in its message, and the extension of that message. We can look west, but we can also prepare to go west, especially at the close of day and when the tide is right. And that is the global message of English as a lingua franca6 today. Like a tide, the spread of English globally has a pull, be it for commerce and commodity, or communicative enrichment. In the poem the words 
After dark, said
the tables of high water and sunset
pasted on the wall, which don’t deceive.7

We could easily suggest that it is ‘after dark’ for te reo since 1987, and Reynolds has clearly shown it on a wall without deceit! For the words stand for what they are, whether of historical or contemporary usage. 

Walls and words have long had a relationship, from the days of cave-dwelling to the blackboard of the school room. While viewers are used to seeing writing on a wall, this is writing on a wall with a difference, writing that is telling us something in handwritten text, writing that relates word to word, but not in the overt message of graffiti or the syntactical structure of a poster or advertisement. This is more of the script of music or mathematics. And although there is a pattern, its function is not merely decorative. Reynolds’ use of upper case letters with straight lined script, rather than a rounded cursive flow, isolates and treats each single word as significant in addition to it forming part of the whole. There is not just one but many messages.

Lauris Edmond, ‘The Kynges Englishe’ in Harry Ricketts and Hugh Roberts, editors, How You Doing? A Selection of New Zealand Comic and Satiric Verse Christchurch: Lincoln University Press & Daphne Brasell Associates, 1988.

The compounds and collocations which make up this work illustrate the looseness or promiscuity of the lexicon. Words like to mate, and here they are seen mating across cultures. In fact, Lauris Edmond, personifying the English language as a ‘blowsy slut’, begins her villanelle ‘The Kynges Englishe’ with:
This language is the world’s, the world has saidAnd indeed it falls in love with all it sees:The blowsy slut takes the universe to bed.
It never minds how much it’s in the red,Pinching from other tongues, not paying fees;This language is the world’s, the world has said.8

And that is how the New Zealand variety of English has behaved, borrowing ­consistently from te reo since early settlement, often without thought to spell or ­pronounce correctly or in a standard way, the fruits of the loan process. For ­example, consider the spellings associated with kauri (cawdi, coudie, courie, cowdee, ­cowdi, cowree, cowrie, kaudi, kaurie, kawdie, koude, koudi, kouri, kowree, kowri) and Maori (Mowree, Mowrit, Mowry). While we know that it is the borrowings from te reo that make New Zealand English a unique variety, how often and widely are the compound terms Karitane nurse, Tiki Tour, or Wahine Day, intrinsic parts of New Zealand culture or history, used without conscious thought of their borrowing and blending? The strongest compounding unit in Black Cloud of course is the word Maori itself with 169 terms and since 1997, the ten years since Orsman’s work was published, the compounding and blending of English with the term ‘Maori’ has naturally continued. (The example Maorioke also shows that te reo is now being blended and com­pounded with borrowed terms from other languages.) The inclusion of compounded Maori-English terms suggest that language builds bridges, can mutate, can transmute, transform, permeate, and can enhance specificity — with golden tainui, paua-shell, urban marae, and wiwi swamp adding obvious specificity to tainui, shell, marae, and swamp. Geographical significance is accorded to certain compounds involving toponymic terms, such as Onehunga weed, Tapanui flu, Takapuna surprise, and Taranaki gate, again without a consciousness of origin from te reo.

We regard words from a new perspective in this work. Each word has its own shape — some have to be broken into three to fit the tile (rangatiratanga), some are diminutive (ti) and entirely autonomous, while others (ngutu-parore) reach out for support with a base or root word. Words placed in this visual context have more than ever the power to surprise and dazzle. Consider the placement of the silver-scripted terms pohutukawa honey and poi on their identically-sized black tiles, where their proximity to each other is brow-wrinkling — they are related in a novel way. The charm of the music of te reo, presented in this way, will certainly bewitch the guarding serpents.

One notices much about te reo in this work. The number of terms that begin, for example, with ‘k’ (202) is visually prominent. The dominance of ‘a’ and ‘e’. The length of the words and syllabification.

Just as light was important for the positioning of CLOUD at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, so too is light an important element in the location of Black Cloud. In the Peter McLeavey Gallery, the work was at its most striking in half light, and in a back-lit situation, where viewers appear as silhouettes and therefore participants in the work, suggestive of the active human element in the lexicon and its formation. The words, presented on small blocks, remind us that words are in fact building blocks between individuals, and between individual cultures, while at the same time, the arrangement is systematised and integrated.

It is Reynolds himself, briefly interviewed, who best articulates for us the genesis of this work, and his relationship with the text:

DB: Why take up a new project with the Orsman lexicon so soon after CLOUD, and the success of CLOUD?

JR: Well, I frankly could not leave the dictionary alone — or the process of selection and recreation alone. It had a lunar pull for me. And I had a sense of urgency to do something more — the lexicon controlled me, it wasn’t me controlling it. I was so taken up with the idea of what it means to be a New Zealander through our language that I had to go on. The text had a seductive nature. And interestingly I had to read at least twice, a complete ­dictionary, which I had never done, and which my late father would have applauded. He was a stickler for accurate linguistic usage — to which I had not, hitherto, subscribed.

DB: Did you have an image of the craft of lexicography, of Harry Orsman, sitting at his typewriter, recording these words and
citations over several years, as you in turn worked on the words? 

JR: I certainly did when I was working long hours, solitarily, into the night. That is when the connection came most alive for me. I felt then like a scribe following an act of research — I could sense the solitary aspect, the thoughtfulness of the task, the academic methodology.

DB: Yes, this work is very systematic, sequential, ordered, unlike CLOUD. Why was this?

JR: Well, I wanted it to be ­architectural and more formal, I wanted it to form a pattern that was quite different from the randomness of CLOUD. The black colour played a part in this — I wanted it to be more definite, more strong, more didactic in a sense than CLOUD. And of course, I wanted it to reflect our bicultural identity.

DB: Tell us more about the sense of strength you wanted to convey.

JR: Well, there is a strength in patterning, whereas the CLOUD work does not have that and it is not supposed to. Here, the words have a relationship with each other. They don’t in CLOUD. Here, they are in cohesion, and it is that aspect of building or synthesis where may parts make a whole that I was ­taken up with. Here, it is the wharenui, the building, with an open door. A building that may represent a home, a nation, New Zealand, but it is not closed, exclusive. The way in which a wharenui like this is built also conveys strength — a defence against the elements. The strength of the language of the Maori.

DB: How do you think this work compares or contrasts with the cultural elements in the work of Shane Cotton, for example?

JR: Well, Cotton’s work is pictorial and although it is elemental in terms of Maori, it is different. These words in Black Cloud face the world just as Maori art faces the world. There is something very ­definite about black and the silver script on black. It’s almost the silver fern. And this work is not collage or like collage — it’s made of parts and the sum of the parts.

As a living language, te reo has the power to bewitch, empower, and enlighten, and in its use within English and within Reynolds’ work, such power is retained and enhanced. Black Cloud honours te reo, Orsman’s scholarship, New Zealand English, and New Zealand history, and deserves to be displayed and accessed widely. It is to be hoped that Reynolds’ love affair with Edmond’s ‘blowsy slut’ will continue to spark, with the music playing on — one can only imagine the possibilities of a Reynolds work involving etymologies, citations, or the association of word and chronology. It is perhaps appropriate to suggest that arikiship in New Zealand art could be bestowed on John Reynolds, to further burnish his national status as art laureate.

Dianne Bardsley