‘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.