The Australian accent does not indicate laziness, stupidity or a liking for alcohol, writes Thomas Batchelor.
This past week an article initially published in The Age on Australian English has been picked up by the wider media in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Whilst at a first, uninitiated glance it appears to be an interesting and humorous linguistic quirk in our Australian accent, the article reveals certain archaic and often racist attitudes towards the languages and dialects of the world, as well as simply being fairly wrong in its conclusions.
Dean Frenkel, a lecturer and tutor in public speaking and communications – not linguistics, the first warning sign of a poorly constructed assessment of language change and sociolinguistics – starts his article by writing that Australian English was born out of alcoholism and laziness.
The arguments he uses to back this apparent laziness are a variety of sound changes that have occurred in Australian English.
These include what we call ‘intervocalic tapping’ – where a t sound is pronounced similarly to a d in between vowel sounds, like when people say budder instead of butter – and transformation of l into w and y sounds, as in the famous ‘straya.
In addition, several vowel changes are cited, including the a in standing becoming more like an e (so it sounds like stending, and the changing of the vowel sound in night to sound more like noight.
For someone unfamiliar with the field of linguistics, these sounds seem to be fairly ‘lazy’, but really they are not; and besides, sound change in languages all over the world is often in part pushed by the constant desire for ease of articulation and communication.
These changes mentioned are in fact quite common in the world’s languages, and are not reflective of some unique alcohol driven laziness in Australian English speakers.
For example, the process called l vocalisation – through which l becomes pronounced like a w or y sound – is an accepted, modern standard in languages such as Croatian, French and Polish. It is accepted to such an extent that the l often doesn’t even appear in the written language any more. For example, Latin bellum became Old French bel, and then eventually Modern French beau, yet French is rarely considered a lazy language in the same way Frenkel accuses Australian English of being.
More concerning is where Frenkel accuses Australians of talking “at two thirds capacity of our articulatory ability”. If this is a way of measuring the intelligence and ability to communicate of a speaker, it is a shockingly archaic method.
Languages vary wildly in the number of sounds they possess (termed a phonetic inventory). There are just 11 sounds in the East Papuan language of Rotokas. The !Xóõ language of southern Africa has about 107 (plus two tones). English sits somewhere in the middle, with a fairly average number of consonants, but more vowels than average – about 5 vowels is average out of surveyed languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures, whereas we in English possess 16 to 23.
Measuring the laziness of people by the number of sounds they utilise in their speech thus has implications that the range of sounds used in a language is a signifier of their speakers’ intellectual ability. This is demonstrably false, and languages of all kinds manage to articulate complex ideas and communicate in wide varieties of contexts effectively and efficiently – a key motivator of language itself, and what makes humans unique among species thus far studied.
Sure, sometimes there are communication problems between groups and individuals, but this is more an issue with individual speakers not using appropriate language for a particular context, for example using the wrong kind of terminology or being vague in instructions, rather than an issue with the language itself.
Frenkel’s assertion that rhetoric and elocution are necessary additions to the curriculum to rectify this so called “problem” furthers an idea both racist and classist in nature, and rooted in what is termed “prestige” varieties of language.
A prestige variety of a language is a variety which has become, through social power or a multitude of other ways, a variety considered to be “the” correct variety of a language, and thus the superior way to speak.
Generally, the prestige variety of a language is associated with a wealthy upper class, one with social and political power, such as the metropolitan French of Paris or Received Pronunciation, aka the ‘Queen’s English’ of the English upper classes.
These varieties dominate in media and are constantly spread by the desire for individuals to act and speak like those with more social power; as a means to rise up through society.
Enforcing this on people, and looking down on speakers of varieties that are not part of this prestige, is a problematic thought. Working class speech is demonised in the process, and forced to separate further as they are labelled and thought of as unintelligent simply for the way they speak.
An extreme parallel can be seen in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect spoken largely in working class African-American communities, which – whilst being its own deep and fascinating dialect, complete with tenses and aspects Standard American English does not possess, such as one termed the habitual aspect – is regarded by society as a dialect only spoken by unintelligent individuals.
This is an attitude driven by both racism – that African-Americans cannot have their own fully fledged dialect – and this omnipresent concept of prestige in the white, upper class spoken variety of English.
Whilst prestige itself is something that may never disappear, being a fairly automatic process regardless of social structure, acceptance of non-standard varieties is vital to combating racism and classism in society.
Language is an ever-changing thing, both incredibly influential on and influenced by society and its attitudes.
Attempts such as Frenkel’s to enforce archaic ideas of articulation reflecting intelligence are futile in the face of the ever marching process of language change, and reflect deeper bigotry based on the way people speak.
Don’t stress about how you’re speaking, you’re doing just fine, Frenkel’s the one who’s wrong.
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