Recently, Victorian speech coach Dean Frenkel sparked an international stir when he published an op ed in The Age arguing that the Australian accent was affected by alcohol. It led to widespread reporting – and a bit of condemnation, including here, on New Matilda. We promised Frenkel a right of reply – here it is.
It is indeed possible that the Aussie accent has been affected by the alcohol ways of our forefathers.
But the far more important point raised by my most recent article in The Age expressed that speech, expression and communication training be included in the school curriculum.
The idea is to address problems caused by a hole in our education system; an absence of relevant training to equip Australians with essential emotional and intellectual communication tools.
Generations of Australian men have been stoically trained to ‘take it like a man’, be emotionally retentive and block the communication of essential health matters. Large numbers of mentally ill Australians have not developed tools to cope with or release their stress; many Australians build up their emotions and only allow for tension release after alcohol has been consumed; and many relationships descend to violence partly because communication standards are poor. Indeed our unacceptable rates of domestic violence can partly be attributed to flaws in the education system.
To correct a few misconceptions, I believe there is nothing instrinsically wrong with the Aussie accent, it does not exhibit neurological impairment and doesn’t limit us intellectually.
As a speech coach, tutor and lecturer I regularly work with peoples’ speech patterns; on the one hand helping them break chronic and disabling habits and on the other, weaving new speech patterns, establishing new muscle memory and neuro-muscular connections. I am trained to examine speech, not from the conventional angle of language but through speech. Language is not the only portal and linguistics is not the only training for speech analysis.
Though the article created world news, it was my minor idea that the Aussie accent is embedded with sound-prints of alcohol consumption from early settlers that captured imaginations and the ire of a few critics from the same school of training.
In perspective it was not a scientific paper or PHD, but an op-ed for a respected newspaper whose role is to explore such issues publicly.
For those who seek evidence for the ‘drunken Aussie accent’ idea, there are at least many observable parallels between the general Aussie accent and the general drunken speech manner:
• Mis-articulation and slurring.
• Suspension of the tongue as the main articulator.
• Restricted movement range of the jaw rendering the tongue under-utilised and prompting the lips to compensate.
• Lack of coordination of the articulator muscles.
• Smaller functional vocabulary range and smaller words.
• Compromised expression – generalized and less incisive use of words.
To further explore the idea it is necessary to re-visit some basic notions.
Does alcohol affect speech? Yes. In 2014 scientists tested the impact of alcohol on the vocalisations of zebra finch songbirds. They found that:
“humans are not as strongly affected by alcohol in peripheral motor function as they are in speech, so alcohol may target speech through higher-level motor control pathways rather than through a general effect on the neuromuscular system.” (1)
“listeners can significantly discriminate between speech samples produced under sober and intoxicated conditions.”(2)
There is a precedent for analyzing the impact of alcohol on speech. In 1989 an investigation into the EXXON VALDEZ calamity by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) examined The Master’s speech for alcohol-related effects and compared speech before and after the accident. It found: “four effects associated with alcohol consumption: slowed speech, speech errors, misarticulation of difficult sounds (“slurring”) and audible changes in speech quality.”
It concluded that: “Speech analysis appears to be a useful technique to provide secondary evidence of alcohol impairment.” (3)
Can alcohol can affect speech permanently? Here is just one way.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety.” (4)
I would suggest that alcohol can affect the speech of post-drunken speakers even without the presence of brain damage.
Speech is highly contagious much like the flu. When humans hear speech they are prone to unconsciously absorbing its elemental factors and unknowingly re-recreating them. Though this contagion doesn’t always catch-on, it does in certain conditions and circumstances; one of these is under the influence of alcohol.
All of these factors show that it is possible for alcohol to become part of a national accent, provided that certain conditions are present.
Preconditions would include alcohol being regularly consumed (confirmed), that recreational use of alcohol was geographically widespread (confirmed), that alcohol was present at pivotal times when the culture and accent was being formed (very possible but difficult to confirm).
There is no need to build the case that alcohol has been central to modern Australian culture since its inception. It is clear. The available evidence and a number of pre-conditions indicate a strong possibility that alcohol did indeed sign its audible signature into the Australian accent.
I would suggest that only the irrational would assume that it is impossible for our long-standing alcohol-centric culture to impact on areas like our national speech patterns. And I trust that the general public can cope with this subject matter without the patronising heavy-handed arm of censorship being flexed to protect them.
(1) Drinking Songs: Alcohol Effects on Learned Song of Zebra Finches. C.R. Olsen, D.C. Owen, A.E. Ryabinin, C.V. Mello. (2014) PLoS ONE 9(12):e115427. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115427.
(3) “National Transportation Safety Board”:, Washington, D.C. 20594.
(4) U.S Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcoholic Abuse and Alcoholism, “Alcohol Alert” Number 63 October 2004.
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