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Preview: Lingua Franca

Lingua Franca - Program podcast

Lingua Franca, presented by Maria Zijlstra, looks at all aspects of language: language old, modern, and even invented. Through interviews and prepared talks, the program features experts who analyse a single topic of interest to users and lovers of langua

Copyright: Copyright 2018, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

RN summer series, part 5: Why can't you un-hear this!

Sat, 26 Jan 2013 15:45:00 +1100

This week's Lingua Franca was triggered by the words of the popsong, 'Unbreak my Heart'. The reknowned grammarian and former keyboard player in the soul group the Ram Jam Band, Geoff Pullum, uncovered the reversing 'un'-cryptotype while visiting Australia.Broken Heart Chalk 1 (ArtByRetta,, Creative Commons)

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RN summer series, part 4: Ulimaroa - a misnomer for Australia

Sat, 19 Jan 2013 15:45:00 +1100

A number of maps made in north-eastern Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries featured the name 'Ulimaroa' for the continent of Australia. How that came about is a wonderfully complex story that has now been unravelled, and in which a pivotal part is played by Polynesian pigs.(Image source page, on the ANU Pacific Institute blog:

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RN summer series, part 3: Elephants talk low down

Sat, 12 Jan 2013 15:45:00 +1100

Elephant communication consists of a much wider repertoire than previously known, with significant vocalisations expressed at such low frequencies they are inaudible to the human ear.African elephants (Arno & Louise Wildlife, Flickr, Creative Commons)

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RN summer series, part 2: The Space between Words...

Sat, 05 Jan 2013 15:45:00 +1100

For most of the history of Western civilisation, reading was not a silent activity. Indeed, according to Professor Paul Saenger, Curator of Rare Books at the Newberry Library, Chicago, all the evidence indicates that silent reading really only became possible around the 7th century AD. What stopped silent reading before that, he says, was the lack of word separation in texts: the use of continuous script.Reading during lunch (Linda Giddens,, Creative Commons)

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RN summer series, part 1: Me & other languages

Sat, 29 Dec 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Language plays a huge part in the complex of our individual and communal identities, like for the distinguished linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald, who tells her life story with many of them.

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Chinglish toastmasters

Sat, 22 Dec 2012 15:45:00 +1100

“Chinglish” is what the often weirdly amusing results of the direct translation of words and phrases into English, by Chinese speakers, is called. But it is also the name of a bilingual – Mandarin and English – toastmasters’ club operating in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood.Toastmasters (Julie70,, Creative Commons)

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How Sherpa children learn their language

Sat, 15 Dec 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The Sherpa people – famous for their assistance to climbers of Mount Everest – speak to their children using short, sharp commands, rather than the ‘motherese’ or child-directed baby talk that is so common among native speakers of European languages. Current research in this remote Himalayan community may debunk the notion that such baby talk is a universal component of child language acquisition.Sara Ciesielski recording the vocal interactions of Sherpa children in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal. (Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa)

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The voice

Sat, 08 Dec 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The human voice is an amazing instrument. Capable of strenuous activity, with our tiny vocal chords often travelling more than two kilometres a day, we use it to express so much more than words.Lectures and pontification (larryvincent,, Creative Commons)

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Movable type

Sat, 01 Dec 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Our easy facility with text-based modes of communicating globally began long before the digital revolution—in fact some 600 years ago—with the invention of the movable-type printing press. Contrived in Renaissance Europe by Johannes Gutenberg—a goldsmith who understood metals as well as an entrepreneurial Christian who saw a market for the Bible—he enabled the mass production of text for the broad public.(By nastiki,, Creative Commons)

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Script loss

Sat, 24 Nov 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Our contemporary lives are full of script, with much of it spelled out as digital ephemera, read once before being discarded. By contrast though, someone is carving text into wood – for international exhibition – in order to draw attention to how about a third of the world’s alphabets are currently in danger of extinction.Work in progress: one of the carvings of the original Endangered Alphabets exhibition. (carved and photographed by Tim Brookes)

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Vanuatu sand drawing

Sat, 17 Nov 2012 15:45:00 +1100

There seems no limit to the variety of ways that humans communicate; an example being the messages and stories traced by finger in the cooled ash of cooking fires, over the black soil of the volcanic islands of Vanuatu. An art form as well as a cultural treasure, the skill of ‘sandroing’ is currently being revived, though the great local knowledge that once informed them is lost to the past.Vanuatu 'sandroing' (By Michael Franjieh)

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Your 'real' name

Sat, 10 Nov 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Our names are an essential part of our personal, as well as social, identity. Then along come the complications that occur with migration—when the language environment changes—after which, there may be some confusion about what your ‘real’ name is.(By number657, Creative Commons)

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Hunting for words

Sat, 03 Nov 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The first in a trilogy of books for kids, Word Hunters, is a thriller featuring the girl/boy twins Al and Lexi Hunter – along with their pet rat, Doug – in a fast-paced, time-travelling search for their way home as well as for a missing family member along the way.water abstract (By NapaneeGal,, Creative Commons)

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Everybody's story

Sat, 27 Oct 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Not just the domain of linguists and other kinds of wordnerds, when it comes to language, everybody’s got a story to tell – including Tiger Webb, who plays the ultimate kind of frisbee, as well as Irina Dunn, who coined the aphorism, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’.This photo was taken on August 24, 2012, in Karlsruhe, Germany. (Craxler,, Creative Commons)

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Native tongue title

Sat, 20 Oct 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The vast majority of Australia’s Indigenous languages — some 250 are estimated to have existed at the time British colonisation — are no longer in use.Names and regions as used in The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (D. Horton, general editor), published in 1994 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (IATSIS), Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, ACT, Australia. Please not that this map is just one representation of other map sources that are available for describing Aboriginal Australia. This map indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. Boundaries are not intended to be exact. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not those of AIATSIS. For more information about the groups of people in a particular region contact the relevant Land Councils. (David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996. View full high resolution map.)

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Names for where we're from

Sat, 13 Oct 2012 15:45:00 +1100

People can be named according to where they're from and so might be Sydneysiders, Melburnians, Canberrans or Darwinites. But what are you called if you’re from the Alice? And, is someone from Wangaratta a ‘Ratter’ or a ‘Wanger’?Australia map (By Scalino, Nicolas Mirguet;

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Speaking gay

Sat, 06 Oct 2012 15:45:00 +1000

The once secret gay language, Polari, has a motley history. Outed by a pair of camp characters — Julian, played by Hugh Paddick, and Sandy, played by Kenneth Williams — in the hugely-popular 1960s BBC radio series, Round the Horne, it fell out of favour for a time since then, but is now making something of a comeback.(l-r: Hugh Paddick, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden and Douglas Smith) (Image Source Page:

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Back to the beginning, naturally

Sat, 29 Sep 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Described as a ‘mystical idiom’ said to be found universally in nature, the secret society of Rosicrucians elaborated an old idea of a primal language that was the language of nature itself, through which we could know the real world and our true selves.rose cross (wire), seeds (By stefan.klocek;, creative commons)

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Indigenous song language

Sat, 22 Sep 2012 15:45:00 +1000

The Indigenous songs of Australia are regarded as the crown jewels of Aboriginal oral cultures, being a melding of different forms of language – some archaic and some ghostly – as well as of melody, rhythm and myriad other performative elements.Aboriginal song text explanation, Alekarenge, 1996 (Linda Barwick)

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How writing began

Sat, 15 Sep 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Writing would have to be one of the greatest legacies of ancient Mesopotamia, where the earliest-known system of writing was invented some 5000 years ago. First formed out of, then written in the abundant alluvia of the river valleys, hear how archaeologists figured out just what brought this communication system into being.A letter of complaint between brothers (Reproduced with the permission of the trustees of The British Museum.)

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Interior worlds of landscape and language

Wed, 12 Sep 2012 21:45:00 +1000

The novels and stories of the famously stop-at-home Australian writer Gerald Murnane are typically set in interiorised worlds of mind and memory. And though he has spent his life within a circumscribed area in the state of Victoria, Australia, his writing tells of an intimacy with the landscape of Hungary, without ever having been there or seen it. Then, after retirement, he taught himself the Hungarian language, just so that he could read the original language version of a particular book that had deeply impressed him when he had read its translation into English, many years ago.Mekszikópuszta (By Nuuuuuuuuuuul;

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Never too late to learn to read

Sat, 01 Sep 2012 15:45:00 +1000

The winning finalists—on the state and territory level in Australia—of the 'It's never too late to learn to read' short-story competition, have now been announced so the voting is open for the overall winner in the people's choice.It's never too late to learn to read (By Billie Hara, CC BY-NC-ND)

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'Fully (sic)' = totally awesome!

Sat, 25 Aug 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Fully (sic) is Crikey’s language blog, set up by Piers Kelly as a forum for ‘discerning word nerds’. With a focus on language issues in the political life of Australia, it also comments on shifts in Aussie vernacular, such as the use of ‘ass’ rather than ‘arse’.Ass's arse (By Magnus Franklin;, CC BY-NC-2.0)

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Lingua Franca: The notebooks of William Dawes

Sat, 18 Aug 2012 15:45:00 +1000

William Dawes's two notebooks on the language of the Aboriginal people with whom he conversed during his stay in Sydney in 1788, provide ample indication of the 'puzzlement and wonder that circulated after the indigenous and the incursive cultures collided'From the first page of the first of Dawes's notebooks, a sketch of what is now called Dawes Point, jutting into Sydney Harbour. (Image courtesy The Endangered Languages Archive, © SOAS University of London)

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Multilingual English

Sat, 11 Aug 2012 15:45:00 +1000

English is not a single language anymore but a packet of inter-related tongues, according to the Sri Lankan-born past president of the American Association of Applied Linguistics, Suresh Canagarajah, who recommends giving up notions of having standardised norms of grammar and vocabulary, in favour of practices that take real account of the communication needs of all the people with their vast range of multilingual backgrounds now using English in the global context.As the LASC distinguished visiting professor, delivering the fifth annual Language and Society Centre Lecture, 2012, at Monash University. (Farzad Sharifian)

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Our girls in Slovenia

Sat, 04 Aug 2012 15:45:00 +1000

*** STOP PRESS!!! *** Congratulations to one of the team members – Kai-Xing Goh – awarded an honourable mention in the individual competition.Kai-Xing Goh, Anthea Tang, Lily Wang and Catherine Perry of Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne - the winning team of OzCLO (the Australian Computational and Linguistics Olympiad) 2012, who represented Australia at this year's International Olympiad in Linguistics in Ljublana, Slovenia. (Jill Vaughan, courtesy OzCLO)

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Social inclusion in many languages

Sat, 28 Jul 2012 15:45:00 +1000

MyLanguage is a partnership project between the public libraries of all the mainland states and territories of Australia, facilitating social inclusion by making these local hubs of information and communications technology multilingual, via a web portal that gives access to aggregated data in over 60 different languages. This online service provides links to information such as news, digital storytelling, as well as a calendar of events and activities.From the MyLanguage website, a national partnership project providing public library users with access to multilingual electronic resources via a readily available web portal. (courtesy MyLanguage)

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Intergenerational language encounters

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 15:45:00 +1000

A project that pairs older bilingual migrants as conversation partners with senior-secondary students studying either Chinese, German or Spanish turns out to have fantastically beneficial social effects for the seniors, quite apart from being useful for the language students as well.Having retired and with German as his mother tongue, Horst Retschko acted as a conversation partner to Rick Whitehead, while Rick studied the language in his final year of secondary schooling. (Teepee media)

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Extra pay-offs for learning languages

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 15:45:00 +1000

A particular method of teaching a foreign language is achieving bonus consequences, other than just gaining another tongue in which to communicate.(Jun Ohashi)

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Aleph, bet, gimmel...

Sat, 07 Jul 2012 15:45:00 +1000

A pair of exhibitions currently showing at the Jewish Museum of Australia, called ‘Aleph Bet’, both focus on the Hebrew alphabet. One features a masterful investigation into the alphabet’s mystical connections with the kabbalah, by the French artist Marc Lopez Bernal; the other, playfully instructs children about the names and features of each of the 22 letters.  Exhibition story board for Aleph, the name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Anita Budai, Blackbird Geometrica; courtesy the Jewish Museum of Australia.)

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New proverbs

Sat, 30 Jun 2012 15:45:00 +1000

In every language there are proverbs – little gobs of compressed cultural knowledge – passed along, usually by word of mouth, over time. But the just-published Dictionary of Modern Proverbs shows that such pithy little sayings continue to be invented in order to convey contemporary wisdom, just as they ever were.The second mouse gets the cheese (AlicePopkorn, 2010: Flikr Creative Commons))

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Poetic Dutchlish

Sat, 23 Jun 2012 15:45:00 +1000

A bilingual poet, in both Dutch and English, Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper explains how her poetry works, as a kind of 'Dutchlish'.Marietta with her sister and mother, as well as her foster family, in the first summer after WWII ended in 1945, in Zeist. (courtesy Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper)

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The Marco Polo Project

Sat, 16 Jun 2012 15:45:00 +1000

The Marco Polo Project is a net-platform where people come together online to translate Chinese writing into other languages, collectively.The masthead of the online translation platform where you can find texts translated from Chinese into, not only English, but French and Spanish as well. (Mathieu Vendeville)

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Braided channels

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 15:45:00 +1000

The Channel Country of Queensland is defined by the Georgina and Diamantina Rivers along with Coopers Creek, and their transitory flooding of the land that encompasses them.(Guy Fitzhardinge)

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People speaking with accents are less believable

Sat, 02 Jun 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Speaking in a foreign accent makes people less credible to native speakers, research shows, just as having a name that is hard to pronounce makes one less likeable. However, it might make more sense to think investment strategies through in a language other than your native tongue.(University of Chicago News Office)

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Playing lots makes for good language skills

Sat, 26 May 2012 15:45:00 +1000

In place of Lingua Franca on Saturday, 26 May, RN was broadcasting from TEDx Sydney, including the talk by the lecturer in psychology at the Australian National University, Evan Kidd, explaining how children who have imaginary companions have improved language skills, in comparison with children who don't.Dr Evan Kidd at TEDx Sydney, 26 May, 2012 (David Clare, First Light Photography;; Creative Commons)

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Sat, 19 May 2012 15:45:00 +1000

In place of Lingua Franca on Saturday, 19 May, RN will be broadcasting from the Sydney Writers Festival. For the Wednesday night broadcast of Lingua Franca, 23 May, Robert Dessaix reads his autobiographical piece Incommunicado, telling about the privately-conceived language that he calls K.(Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Gift of Robert Dessaix 2000 Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program)

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Cuneiform in Melbourne

Sat, 12 May 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Since the mid-19th century archeological excavations in Mesopotamia—the land that lies between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq—and the decipherment of cuneiform, it has become apparent that many aspects of Western culture are based on the achievements and knowledge gained there, in ancient times.Quantities of barley allocated to officials listed by rank. The impressed circles and half-circles represent numbers. (Reproduced with the permission of the trustees of The British Museum.)

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Japanese on the move

Sat, 05 May 2012 15:45:00 +1000

‘Japanese on the Move: Life Stories of Transmigration’ is an online project set up jointly by the longtime collaborators Dr Kimie Takahashi and Professor Ingrid Piller, telling about the Japanese-ness of a range of participants living in Australia, hosted on the sociolinguistics research website called ‘Language on the Move'.(Courtesy of Language on the Move.)

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Tangsa song language

Sat, 28 Apr 2012 15:45:00 +1000

A traditional song language, used by Tangsa people in the far north-east of India as well as across the border in Burma, is different and distinct from spoken Tangsa language forms.Community leaders from several different Tangsa subtribes taking a meal together in the traditional way - more or less - seated on the ground, during the Wihu Kuh festival held in Phulbari, Assam. Seated in the foreground, from left to right, are: Kamthoy Mungray, Stephen Morey, Lukam Cholim (Tonglum), Sentum Ronrang and Tehon Hakhun. (Dr. Jürgen Schöpf)

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Palindrome champion of the world

Sat, 21 Apr 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Creating meaning out of words, while running them backwards—called palindromes—is one way of creating patterned order while playing with language. The first-ever World Palindrome Championship, held in New York last month, was won by Mark Saltveit.The winner of the World Palindrome Championship, Mark Saltveit, being handed the unfolding palindromic trophy by Will Shortz (left), the organiser of the event, while the other contestants look on. (Jack Rosenthal)

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Language Connection

Sat, 14 Apr 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Language exchanges exist all around the world, where people with different languages meet up to learn from each other. One such, in Melbourne, aims to give international students the tools they need to make friends and love their time in Australia.Exchanging Mandarin and English at the Unimelb Chinese Language Exchange (Courtesy Language Connection Australia Ltd.)

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Sat, 07 Apr 2012 15:45:00 +1000

Spoken by a tribe of nomadic warriors on horseback in the television series Game of Thrones, Dothraki is the latest new language constructed for screen-based sci-fi and fantasy entertainment, designed to infuse content with a increased credibility and to stimulate greater audience involvement.Image from series 1 (provided courtesy showtime Australia)

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The Australian National Corpus: a big inventory of language in Australia

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 15:45:00 +1100

A great collection of language data, text-based as well as digital, has been launched online, so that documentation of Australia's linguistic landscape is now available for all. Kate Burridge launched the AustNC at Griffith University in Brisbane on March 26, 2012.Kate Burridge speaking at the launch of the Australian National Corpus (Stefanie Jacobs, Griffith University)

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The Rosetta Project

Sat, 24 Mar 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The vast majority of the world's human languages are slated for extinction within a century. But the Long Now Foundation has devised a key for people living ten millennia in the future to rediscover them.

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English in Sweden

Sat, 17 Mar 2012 15:45:00 +1100

The long-term Swedish love affair with the English language continues unabated, so much so that Swedish—as well as five other national minority languages—have been given a legislative boost, to encourage and increase their standing at home.Shopping in Sweden (Catrin Norrby)

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Sat, 10 Mar 2012 15:45:00 +1100

How participants address each other—using either du, a familiar kind of 'you', or using Sie to indicate greater social distance—is a point of some debate in German internet forums.Ways of saying 'you', in German. (Josie Favasuli)

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The cultural backdrop of English

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Once upon a time, English was intimately connected with Englishness and when non-English speakers learned the language, they did so with cultural reference to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, rose gardens and cups of tea. Now that most of the people in the world who use English have it as their second language, its cultural context has changed. This should be reflected in how English is taught, according to Professor Sandra McKay.Zebra crossing (JoFo2010; Flickr Creative Commons)

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English in Taiwan

Sat, 25 Feb 2012 15:45:00 +1100

Rather than being a foreign language for its users all over the world, English is increasingly used not just as an international lingua franca, but as a standard feature of the linguistic landscape everywhere—like in Taiwan.Banner outside an English-language school in Taipei, Taiwan.

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Versions of Dickens

Sat, 18 Feb 2012 15:45:00 +1100

In his own time, Charles Dickens became known for a certain style, a certain type of writing, described as 'Dickensy'. We call it Dickensian now, a word that is synonymous with the Victorian age that he so vividly described. But he wrote under many other names, such as 'Boz', 'Revolver', 'W', 'The Sparkler of Albion' and, even privately, as 'The Inimitable'.Cover of the biography, Becoming Dickens.

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