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Australians don't need to speak proper English


Mouth speaking letters of the alphabet

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. 

I work as an editor for magazines, and am constantly surrounded by language. I work with authors at all stages of their careers, and from many linguistic backgrounds. Some of the best pieces I’ve worked on were written by authors writing in their second or third language, which at the first draft stage, contained errors like misplaced commas and interesting uses of prepositions. An editor’s job is to gently usher other peoples’ writing into a style and shape that coheres with a given publication, and to make meaning clear. I’m not really interested in thinking people are dumb or lazy because they’re not all over their semicolon usage; I’m interested in what their writing has to say.

There’s bad writing, no doubt, but bad writing is usually about bad taste than more than it is about a misuse of grammar or punctuation (that’s what editors are there for). What makes writing bad is when it doesn’t understand its context; it doesn’t understand what it is really saying. Bad writing usually just betrays a lack of experience or an unwillingness to look outward. 

But speech is different. Speech is managed poorly and quickly. There’s no editor, and rarely an adequate oral sphincter to bridge the divide between thought and communication. It was only when I began recording and transcribing interviews for work that I understood how odd people’s speech was compared with how my brain seamlessly interpreted their meaning. Speech is not value-neutral – it’s contextual. And I’m a bit more concerned with the context than the content of words in the public domain: pronounce ‘gumment’ however you want, just make sure you’re critiquing its mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Frenkel writes that there ought to be some kind of standardised verbal communication skill-level as a 'prerequisite for politicians, educators and advocates.' Why? 'If their skills are deficient, they are letting down their constituents.' I can think of many ways that politicians let down their constituents, and they are never, ever about mispronouncing words that have no static pronunciation in the first place. 

Presumably Frenkel doesn’t want to live in Australia where teachers or politicians have different accents because they were born elsewhere. Or an Australia where people with physical or mental handicaps that affect their pronunciation are taken seriously. Personally, I’m quite content with our vocal particularities, the flexibility of meanings, and the possibility for miscommunications. And as they say, if you don’t like it (diversity), you can leave (to some place where people don’t ever talk out loud). 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Mouth image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, speech, language, writing, speaking, politics, vernacular



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Existing comments

One of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, Joseph Conrad, got it right, I think, when he said: "Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality." Wish I'd written "Heart of Darkness"!

Pam | 07 August 2014  

I looked up Dean Frenkel on YouTube. He speaks clearly and is also obviously Australian, both of which are good things. I think the old days when the Australian middle class ideal was to sound "English" viz R G Menzies; Clive Hale et sim are long gone. However, I don't think there is any excuse for being a verbal slob a la Tony Abbott. Oddly enough, his school prided itself on its Debating prowess. Christopher "Bluebottle" Pyne is another parliamentary verbal malfunctioner who gets my goat. In Queensland it is almost de rigueur for politicians to adopt a matey blokey "Oz" accent to show they are "one of us". Some of the best English I have heard has been spoken with what the Brits used to call a "foreign" accent. I am desperately attempting not to become an Australian Professor Henry Higgins. ROFL. I just wish my countrymen and women would speak clearly.

Edward Fido | 08 August 2014  

Pity author wasn't acquainted with the bible (see salt references therein) as this would probably improve understanding of figures of speech in English usage.

rose drake | 08 August 2014  

When I read the last line of the third paragraph, I read 'police' as a noun. It made no sense until I realised it was actually meant as a verb. Is there an editor in the house? On an equally frivolous note, I am reading "The aitch Factor" by Susan Butler and find on page 2 the following sentence, "In Australia, the haitch pronunciation has been linked with Irish Catholics, the Marist Brothers in particular ..." As a Hearty member of one of those groups and Half a lifetime association with the other, I proudly plead guilty. To your good Health, your 'onour.

Frank | 08 August 2014  

Well, here's a good example of bad writing. "Personally, I'm..." Save us.

Peter Goers | 08 August 2014  

I'm an old boy of the Christian Brothers, and I've never said haitch. I think the ABC (and probably other media) are pushing Americanisation of our language. I have heard ABC commentators use an Australian pronunciation (as documented by the Macquarie Dictionary) and then immediatelly correct it to the American form that you hear all the time now. I am thinking, for example, of what I call the 'airy' words, like saying secretairy instead of secretry. A recent innovation that you hear now even from old fellas llike me is gotten. And don't tell me that that dates from London in the 14th century or something; in the 20th century it was very American.

Gavan | 08 August 2014  

There are some misrepresentations in Ellena Savage’s piece that need to be corrected. Contrary to her observation, my article in The Age actually celebrated the different regional accents and clearly stated that the Aussie accent is not a problem. I also lauded non-classical speakers Bob Hawke and Steve Irwin as excellent communicators. Yet I am calling for a raising of speaking standards, not because I hate Australia but because I love it. Rather than promoting ‘class anxiety’ I am lamenting mediocrity. There is absolutely no criticism of people whose speech is constrained by disabilities or a non-native English language. But I did identify a teaching fad going around linguistic departments and schools that devalues speech and encourages mediocre delivery. I ask Ellena why is bad speech any different from bad writing? Both are essential communication mediums. Finally does Ellena genuinely think I should leave the country? I've seen that sentiment directed towards immigrants on car stickers before.

Dean Frenkel | 08 August 2014  

Yes I would second Dean's response here. I think your central argument is clearly a straw-man - based upon a misinterpretation. Your argument of classism etc uses a misunderstanding of the relationship between pronunciation and accent, a relationship much has been written about over the last century of linguistics, etc.

Rob | 09 August 2014  

I believe in 2 types of freedom of speech, what you want to say and the way that you say it. You will be judged, included, ignored, exalted, quoted, impersonated, published and spat upon. However someone might just listen to you.

David Bowler | 09 August 2014  

Frank, the word 'police' in that 3rd para couldn't have been a noun if you thought it qualified 'language' - it would have to be an adjective, which is what I first thought it was. Even as a verb, it would have been better balanced with 'wiping out' if it were the present participle 'policing'. Ellena looks young enough to have been through school when teaching grammar was thought to have been a waste of time. But I think it's essential for clear communication and many of us Aussies no longer get it. I'm constantly annoyed by many who don't know how to use the little word 'me' and not 'I', for example, when it follows a verb or a preposition. Grammar is good for you and me (not 'I' when following 'for') and will help you and me (not 'I' following 'will help') to communicate clearly. Don't get me started on the hegemony of Americanisms which are taking over our Australian native speech patterns, or the death of the gerund etc. etc.

John O'D | 11 August 2014  

I enjoy all kinds of commentary on language and how speaking differs - according to say - class or region or profession - and how it differs from writing (depending on the what, for whom and why, etc)! The "airy" vs the "tree" pronunciations - aspiration of the "aitch" - or not - the origins of Aussie English as largely out of mid-latter 18th century London (down to the almost disappeared rhyming slang" - and a general antipathy to the older forms of English as still practised (fossilised forms) in the United States - hence the preservation of some of the past participle forms such as "gotten" which are appearing here due to the subconscious influence of listening to the powerful 'voice' of US media/film/TV - no matter how much one might rail against it. James AH MURRAY editor of the OED was a descriptivist (describing how language was used/pronounced - giving its history) not a proscriptivist (telling the reader the "right" or "correct" way of either structure or pronunciation. Language changes - subtly or not so. It is a marvellous thing. Understanding style helps one to express things appropriately - with poetic or other sensitivity.

Jim KABLE | 22 August 2014  

I was in hospital November 2013 and suffered a bad fall resulting in a severely fractured tibia and ankle still requiring rehab. This all occured due to poor communication with nurses brought in from overseas. Am I as a seventh generation Australian not equitable in communication to more recent migrants? Its not only words, but their comprehension, and the speed of speech that makes a lot of speech incomprehensible today. That Dean Frenkel dares to bring forward what Ita Buttrose did in the attempts to define Australian identity to newcomers whose background mindset envisaged and spoke of tighter cultures and identities then proceeded to impose these on society. Each ghetto of cultures brings about some admiration but also many reactions I notice. Of course we are not permitted to notice these 'negative' reactions because it would damage our multicultural communications - and thence the problem.

Communication | 07 October 2014  

You delivered a much appreciated laugh in the fourth paragraph where you said, "My own words failed me." NO KIDDING! I wish Australians no ill will, but for f***'s sake try a little bit harder. It doesn't take too much effort to speak English.

Jeremy | 12 November 2021