The Lieutenant tells the story of Lieutenant Daniel Rooke, who volunteers to go with the First Fleet to the British colony of New South Wales. The First Fleet is tasked with establishing a penal colony and making friendly contact with the Aborigines, the native people of Australia. When a small group of Aborigines begins to visit Rooke at his observatory, Rooke begins to learn their language, Cadigal, and teaches the Aborigines English. As he learns to speak Cadigal, primarily with a young girl named Tagaran, Rooke is forced to reevaluate how he thinks about language. He realizes that language isn't just about identifying verb tenses and naming parts of the body; language is, first and foremost, a way to form a relationship with people.
As a child, Rooke is a lonely and bullied boy. His exceptional intellect comes at the expense of true friends, as he struggles to learn the appropriate language to communicate with his peers. At the Naval Academy, when other boys attempt to make small talk with Rooke about the weather, Rooke doesn't understand that the pleasantries are mostly polite words intended to fill silence. None of the boys really care to hear about, for example, Rooke's rain gauge or the weather patterns of Portsmouth. In this way, though Rooke technically communicates with his peers and classmates, he's unable to harness language to build lasting relationships with any of those boys. Instead, his inability to effectively communicate and carry on normal, everyday conversation isolates him and deprives him of any friendships with people his own age. However, Rooke soon finds that he has a knack for learning languages, and he learns to read five languages by the time he finishes school at the age of fifteen. Through foreign languages, Rooke learns to distill a form of communication down to various formulas of verb conjugation, moods, and tenses. Essentially, he learns to see language as something entirely separate from the people that speak or spoke these languages and instead, thinks of them in mathematical terms. Though the novel mentions that Rooke "made friends" with mathematical and scientific geniuses like Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton and learned to read multiple languages, doing so only improved his happiness with his solitude. Though he learned a form of communication, it doesn't actually help him to communicate.
When Rooke arrives in New South Wales, he's excited by the king's wish that his subjects learn the language of the native people in order to establish friendly relationships with them. However, the settler's methods for acquiring the native language call the true purpose behind learning the language into question. When the natives are unwilling to meet with the white settlers, the Governor of New South Wales, James Gilbert, commands that several natives be "brought in" and forced to both share their language and learn English. Rooke soon learns from the man tasked with "bringing in" the natives, Lieutenant Gardiner, that this was a violent and heartbreaking event. This force betrays that the Governor's words cannot truly be taken at face value, as forcibly capturing natives certainly doesn't fit neatly within the definition of "friendly." This suggests that for the white settlers, language is something that can be taken by force and used for their own agendas. It's not communication so much as a way to gain and maintain power over the native people.
Though Rooke doesn't share the Governor's view regarding the power dynamic at play, he begins his relationship with the women and children who visit his observatory and teach him Cadigal with much the same thought process with which he approached the languages of his teen years. He initially sees Cadigal as simply a collection of nouns, verbs, and tenses that can be easily recorded and predicted. Through his relationship with Tagaran, Rooke learns that though language is something that technically can be distilled down to verb lists and the like, language is first and foremost a means of communication--something he didn't necessarily grasp through his solitary study of Latin and Greek. Tagaran and Rooke share jokes that are understood even with the language barrier, and even begin to appropriate words into their native tongues, thereby creating new uses and meanings for the words. As their grasp of the other's language grows, so does their friendship--Rooke even wonders at one point if the fondness and closeness he feels for Tagaran is the kind of relationship a parent enjoys with their child. More practically, Rooke's grasp of Cadigal means he's able to warn Tagaran about the punitive expedition and the threat to her tribe, something he'd never have dreamed of doing in the other four languages he can read but not speak. Essentially, Rooke learns that language doesn't offer true meaning unless it's used to build bridges, friendships, and understanding. In this way, the novel suggests that a nobler endeavor than power veiled as "friendly discourse" is to use language to build lasting, respectful relationships.
Language, Communication, and Friendship ThemeTracker
Language, Communication, and Friendship Quotes in The Lieutenant
In Euclid's company it was if he had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.
The slaves were utterly strange, their lives unimaginable, but they walked and spoke, just as he did himself. That speech he had heard was made up of no sounds he could give meaning to, but it was language and joined one human to another, just as his own did.
Rooke could see that there was a dangerous ambiguity to the presence of a thousand of His Majesty's subjects in this place. No such understanding was possible without language to convey it, and persons to whom the news could be delivered. And yet it seemed that the silence might continue indefinitely.
But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.
Language went in both directions. Without the benefit of notebooks or pencils repaired with string, the natives not only knew many words of English, but had already made them part of their own tongue, altering them as their grammar required. Bread was now breado, not simply borrowed but possessed.
What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.
He must tell, otherwise what up till now had been simply private would take on the dangerous power of a secret. The task was to tell, but to minimize.
He had written as in despair in order to indicate that her despair was feigned. To him it had obviously been a joke. What native, even a child, would believe that washing would make them white? He had failed to record the joke on the page, in the same way he failed to note that they were breathing, or that their hearts were beating.
They all knew what he had turned his face away from: like it or not, he was Berewalgal. He wore the red coat. He carried the musket when he was told to. He stood by while a man was flogged. He would not confront a white man who had beaten his friends.
But to shoot a piece of metal out of it that could penetrate a shield or a human body and expose the shambles within: that was of another order of experience. Another language. What it said was, I can kill you.
He did not want her to learn that language. Certainly not from him.
But written down like that, with its little full stop, the possibility of doubt was erased. The meaning would never be questioned again. What had felt like science was the worst kind of guesswork, the kind that forgets it is a guess.
What he had not learned from Latin or Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.