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Australians don't need to speak proper English

  • 08 August 2014

Back in the day, Australians were schooled on manipulating their speech to emulate the upper classes. ‘Correct’ pronunciation was akin to an acceptable level of education and socialisation, and any deviation from what was considered ‘correct’ was marked a ‘speech problem’. 

By ‘back in the day,’ I mean back on Monday this week, when Fairfax published a column by vocal teacher Dean Frenkel on class anxiety and the Australian vernacular entitled ‘The great Australian speech impediment’. It argued that 'most people' in Australia, 'including the Prime Minister, still have poor speech skills.' The author and vocal teacher Dean Frenkel wrote that our 'standards of communication are unacceptably low.' How so? Strayans are getting away with saying things that sound like ‘probly’ and ‘gumment’ and ‘communidy’. It is very distressing. Why can’t people just stop being so confusing all the time? I can’t understand anything anymore.

Instead of keeping pace with spoken trends like the intelligent, relevant citizens we are, Frenkel suggests that we opt for wiping out linguistic differences that arise from region, class, gender, and educational institutionalisation, and police language according to the arbitrary values ascribed to equally arbitrary changes in word use and pronunciation. 

Earlier this week, I said something to a colleague about him being a bit like the salt of the earth. He didn’t know that phrase, so I tried to describe what I meant. ‘As in, you seem honest,’ I said. ‘Like you could make things? Not neurotic?’ My own words failed me, so I looked it up when we got back to the office. I laughed when the internet elaborated its official meaning: apparently ‘salt of the earth’ means ‘an individual or group considered as representative of the best or noblest elements of society.’ I had gone from offhandedly telling my colleague that he seemed pretty chill to describing him as the best and noblest human in the world. 

My point? Dictionaries necessarily struggle to keep up with how words are used in the real world – I was using the phrase in one way; someone will capture another meaning with the same phrase. Words change. Pronunciation changes. Language is not value-free; it’s contextual, and context is constantly shifting. Miscommunication is the essence of comedy in any case, which points to the fact of how different regions, cultures, and genders use words impact how they operate in the world. 

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