[Editor: This article by Dr. A. G. Mitchell was published in The ABC Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 5 September 1942. This was the first of two articles written by Dr. A. G. Mitchell on the subject for The ABC Weekly; the second article, “There is nothing wrong with Australian speech”, was published on 12 September 1942.]
Australian speech is here to stay
By Dr. A. G. Mitchell
Lecturer in the English language at the University of Sydney and an authority on speech.
Fowler, discussing the use of the split infinitive, divides the writers of English, in their attitudes to this matter, into five classes. Among these are those who don’t know and don’t care, those who don’t know but who care greatly, those who know but care little.
The first group, he says, are among the happiest of mortals; the second are the pedants — the sticklers for form who would rather be shot against a wall than be caught using a split infinitive; the third are those for whom a knowledge of the English language and a sense of responsibility towards it do not exclude tolerance, and a respect for the freedom and variety of English.
Australian listeners might be similarly classified in their attitudes to the kinds of English speech that they hear broadcast from national and commercial stations, but with a difference.
The number of those, with or without knowledge, who don’t care, would be much smaller. Few prejudices are more easily aroused than those that concern variations in speech.
Question a man’s pronunciation of a word and you may touch him as nearly as if you doubted his moral integrity. Differences in political opinion are often more readily tolerated than differences in pronunciation.
We are prepared to believe that a man who differs from us in politics may still be a quite reasonable person. But many of us go through life in the comfortable faith that any man who speaks differently from the way in which we speak must be a knave or a fop or a chump.
A few of us learn that our own pronunciation may sound just as peculiar to other speakers of English as their’s does to us, and are shaken in our belief. Perhaps now, when we are in constant touch with men who speak a different kind of English from ours, that experience will be more common.
The occasional Englishman, American or Scotsman is easily laughed off as the possessor of a barbarous or comical speech in a land whose inhabitants can at least talk straight. Not so a whole army of Americans.
To witness an American’s quiet amusement at our pronunciation of auburn, while all our lives we have large-heartedly tolerated but smiled at his outlandish ah-ber-rn may give furiously to think.
The tolerance we should feel towards people of other English-speaking countries we might reasonably claim for ourselves. Visiting critics, whatever their qualifications or interests, have a constant habit of condemning Australian speech, often by invitation from interviewers.
It is becoming a little tiresome. To read their opinions one would think that Australians had a monopoly of everything deplorable, careless and corrupt in pronunciation.
A surprising number of Australians take such criticisms earnestly to heart, and seem content to agree that English speech in Australia has suffered an unparalleled degradation. A few are stung into some sort of defence, not sure on what grounds a defence can be made out, and often driven back on the Britisher’s claim to speak just as he pleases.
Defence on that ground is nearer to sufficient than many people realise. In any case one is inclined to ask whether carelessness and slovenliness in speech are commoner in Australia than in other English-speaking countries. Is it just to attribute to the whole national speech characteristics of the pronunciation of individuals?
Some would blame our climate for the alleged deplorable state of Australian speech, some our origins, others would infer some defect in the structure of the Australian’s vocal organs. But the facts of the matter are clear to anyone who will take the trouble to observe them carefully.
The outstanding characteristics of English are its variety and its freedom, in pronunciation, vocabulary and idiom.
Its pronunciation varies from one English-speaking country to another, just as the national ways of life differ. Language is always changing. If we observe carefully we can see English changing before our very eyes.
It follows naturally that when two peoples lead independent but related national lives for a century and a half, their pronunciation of the language will follow slightly different lines of development in each. So we have national variations in the English spoken by Americans, Australians, South Africans and Canadians.
The Australian pronunciation of English takes its place among the national forms of English, as much entitled to respectful consideration as any other. It has its own history and is not a corrupt derivative of anything. Development does not of necessity imply degeneration.
The development is inevitable. It is the result of a combination of social, psychological, physiological and acoustic influences, and it cannot be stopped. It is very doubtful, indeed, to what extent it can be modified. We could no more rid ourselves of our Australian way of speech than we could help being native to it. And there is no reason why we should try to be rid of it.
Many people speak of a standard English pronunciation, as if the pronunciation of English was as rigidly fixed as its spelling. But there is really no such thing as a standard pronunciation of English. The trouble is that everyone tends to have his own standard, usually the speech to which he is native, used with a certain care and deliberation.
Standards are not much good unless we can agree about them and unless the thing to which we want to apply them is capable of standardisation. Language is not so capable, as long as it is a living, developing thing, in touch with the life of its users. Vance Palmer once remarked that you can preserve a thing pure only when it is dead, and there is much sound truth in that, when we apply the idea to language.
When we speak too confidently about standard pronunciation, we tend too easily to take development for degeneration, difference for corruption, variety for disintegration.
The critic is apt to assert unblushingly that almost every known form of English pronunciation is faulty by comparison with an imaginary and non-existing standard, to try to persuade us that what ninety per cent. of Australians say is grievously wrong. Is there any sense in it?
We have to do, not with a standard pronunciation ordained by an exalted authority, but with a great many ways of speaking English: national, local, dialectal, social, educated and uneducated. These possess varying degrees of currency and prestige, and on such grounds one may be preferable to another.
But each is a legitimate form of speech, good, pleasant and useful in its own place and for its own purposes. Among these we make our choice, and we must be sure that our choice is rational, not merely a matter of prejudice or unthinking acceptance of the verdict of self-constituted judges.
Most of us do not make any choice. We go on using without much question the form of speech we are native to.
But some people have to choose, and their problem is not easy. Among these are the chief purveyors of the spoken word, the broadcasting authorities. What are they — in particular the broadcasting authorities in Australia — to do?
[A further article by Dr. Mitchell on this subject will be published in our next issue.]
The ABC Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 5 September 1942, pp. 3-4
This was the first of two articles written by Dr. A. G. Mitchell on the subject for The ABC Weekly; the second, “There is nothing wrong with Australian speech”, was published on 12 September 1942.]
chump = a foolish or stupid person, especially one who is easily deceived or fooled
fop = a foolish and conceited man; a vain dandy (a man who places a lot of emphasis on being fashionable and stylish in clothes and manners)
Fowler = Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), an English lexicographer and expert on the English language, known especially for his book A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (an English language style guide; 1926, updated by several later editions) and for his work with the Oxford English Dictionary
per cent. = an abbreviation of “per centum” (Latin, meaning “by a hundred”), i.e. an amount, number, or ratio expressed as a fraction of 100; also rendered as “per cent” (without a full stop), “percent”, “pct”, “pc”, “p/c”, or “%” (per cent sign)
Vance Palmer = Edward Vivian Palmer (1885-1959), known as Vance, an Australian author, poet, and critic
[Editor: Added a full stop after “variety of English”, “moral integrity”, “in our belief”, “invitation from interviewers”, “corrupt in pronunciation”, “an unparalleled degradation”, “Australian’s vocal organs”, “is always changing”, “derivative of anything”. Added a colon after “ways of speaking English”.]