Speak Up.

‘Where are you from, then? Originally, I mean,’ asked the woman behind the counter in the cafe, where the Handsome Sidekick and I regularly go to draw and write.

I mentioned the town where I grew up, and then said I’d been in Perth for several years.

‘But your accent…’

‘Ah, but he–‘ I gestured to the Handsome Sidekick, ‘–is from the UK. And I am an accent chameleon!’

It’s true that I lose my accent quite easily. Not completely–there is still a lot of Australianness to it, and I’m very capable of slipping into deep ‘Strine‘ if the situation requires. If anything, like other Australians who’ve spent a little time overseas, I’m hyper-aware of my accent and how hard it can be for others to understand it. I’m almost apologetic when others can’t get what I say. I notice the hard edges falling off it. I try to tone down my ‘–ays’ to make them sound less like ‘–eyes’. I realise that our accent, while probably more recognisable overseas than it was a couple of decades ago, is still very foreign to many, so I try very hard to speak in a way to make it easier to comprehend.

And I suppose I’ve also believed that for many, it’s not a particularly pleasant accent. It’s not the clipped, upper class English tones with which people associate educated good breeding. It’s not an attractive Southern drawl or a lovable Irish brogue. So in some way, I guess I’m embarrassed by my accent. All accents are ridiculed from time to time, but I feel as if the Australian one is associated with backwardness. A lack of subtlety, class, or culture.

A recent article which claims that our accent originated from the drunken slurs of our forebears lends weight to this idea. According to lecturer Dean Frenkel, ‘[o]ur forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns.’  He goes on to talk about how we drop and change certain letters and sounds, in a fairly lazy fashion, which means we’re speaking at ‘two thirds’ of capacity.

Now, I’m certainly not at all versed in the history of linguistics, and I can agree with his descriptions of our pronunciation (except for ‘yesh’–who says ‘yesh’? Unless they are, in fact, drunk), but surely there is more to our heritage than just the fact that our distant relatives used to get drunk all the time? Given the waves of immigration to this country from such different parts of the globe, from China and Vietnam, from Greece and Italy, as well as from the British Isles and Germany, surely there are more influences than just alcohol on our native tongue?

Well, there are. Many other linguistics experts disagree with Frenkel, arguing that our current accent, as varied as it is even today, is a result of many different inputs and influences, and that it’s doubtful that alcohol consumption is a major contributor. Frenkel argues that our way of speaking is holding us back and potentially be an indicator for poor brain function. Well, thanks! Oh, he goes on to admit that this can’t always be the case, because of evidence to the contrary (no, really?) in those who are seemingly quite intelligent, and still speak with an Australian accent.

When I read his article, it sounded as if Frenkel belongs to a school of thought which believes that if you don’t use language in a certain way, then you’re either limited in intelligence, or you’re limiting your intelligence. It’s snobbery, plain and simple, and I know, because I’m guilty of it too. I know that my first impressions of someone are affected by the way they talk or write, even if I try to suppress any prejudice which comes along with that. I value eloquent expression, and I should–it’s how I earn a living, and using language beautifully and effectively is one of my great loves, and something I strive to do, whenever I write. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to dismiss others’ expression based on how well they pronounce their ‘l’s or whether they can use apostrophes correctly. Not only would that make me a complete git, it also means I would miss out on a range of diverse and colourful voices. What Frenkel fails to understand is that good communication means both parties engaging in dialogue. It means that people are putting in effort to explain themselves and to understand what the other is saying. That doesn’t mean we all have to talk with plums in our mouths. It just means we need to be able to express what we want to say, and that we need to ensure we’re listening to the other side, too.

As much as I’m aware of how I sound to others, and want to ensure I’m understood, I also love the Australian accent. Of course, I love accents in general. I think it provides a rich diversity to our language; it is a sound picture of our own personal cultural history. What’s not to love about that? And when I’m not in Australia, and I hear an Australian accent, I feel a rush of recognition and joy. It helps me to feel less alone, less homesick. And that’s something that Frenkel overlooks. Accents have a cultural connection. They are an identity. Our Australian accent is a dialect of the English which was brought over on the ships all those years ago, as well as a melting pot for all the other languages which were already here and which have arrived since. It will change and develop further, as our culture and our country do. And that’s something of which we shouldn’t be ashamed. If anything, we should celebrate and embrace it.


9 thoughts on “Speak Up.

  1. Pingback: Speak Up. | ugiridharaprasad

  2. Thing is though, Frenkel’s ‘thoughts’ sold a lot more papers than more sensible explanations! Drives me bonkers so can’t imagine how it makes you feel!!! I love all accents. we all have one. He has to get over himself. And I reckon you should lay that accent on thick x

    • Yes they do! So sensationalist, so of course everyone loves it. And many of his detractors were saying that it’s just another case of ‘cultural cringe’ where Australians supposedly should feel bad about how we talk or other aspects of our culture. I know it’s not a culture without its problems, but it’s still an identity!

      Cheers, mate! 😀

  3. I saw the Frenkel headlines but refused to read further, guessing it was all a load of codswallup! I love accents and I love the rich and varied dialects we all have and the words we use that are specific to our place and time. People often think I’m American, which I find really weird, because I have such a strong Irish accent. Yes, like you, I temper it at times to be understood, and I am conscious of specific elements of the Irish accent that are difficult for others to understand – the glottal ‘t’, for instance. Also, depending on company, I have to alter my dialect. ‘Press’ becomes ‘cupboard’, ‘I’m after my tea’ becomes ‘I’ve had my tea’, and my liberal and joyful use of swearing has to be reined in. But my British husband and more British than Irish children are getting the full Irish treatment from me. The way I talk is my heritage. If I spoke a completely different language I would want my children to grow up bilingual. I want them to learn my hiberno-English dialect and accent in the same way.

    I had to smile when you wrote ‘lovable Irish brogue’, because as someone who is proud of her Irish accent, I’ve so often been teased and outright insulted because of the way I speak. People think it’s ok to put on ‘begosh and begorrah’ accents around me and then make some comments about ‘stupid drunk Paddies’.

    • If you revel in words, like I do, then the rich diversity of accents is something to be celebrated and enjoyed. And hey, who says the Australian accent isn’t lovely? I wouldn’t throw Hugh Jackman out of bed for the way he speaks!!

    • I *love* the Irish accent. I guess I can understand why some might think it’s American on first listening, since there are a couple of similarities with the American accent but it doesn’t take long to be able to work out which is which. A bit like some Australian accents sounding like southern English ones, if you’re not used to hearing them, you know? But the ridicule of others’ accents is always a bit of a strange thing. Especially when it comes to other racist or cultural stereotypes. Sigh.

  4. I understand how you feel with our accent, because I’ve felt like that too. It doesn’t sound especially attractive to me, though it’s refreshing to hear another Australian accent when I’m not in Australia. A few weeks ago I heard one and immediately connected with the first other person from Perth I’ve met since moving to California (I’ve met other Australians here, but they were from other cities). I’m glad I’m from the West where we don’t have such a thick accent like NSW & Qld. But at the same time, I’ve willingly put on a thicker accent for performance purposes.

    I was actually surprised moving here and discovering that there are people who find my accent very attractive. But then… people from this part of the world don’t hold the same attitudes towards the world as, say, the UK. And a number of them think we sound British anyway.

    • I find it hard to believe that people find our accent attractive, too! I mean, I don’t hate it, but I think there are others which sound better 😉 But also it’s what you’re used to, isn’t it? People who’ve not come across many Aussie accents might find it endearing, simply because they’re interesting and different to their ear.

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