Poor speech or just poor journalism?

Issue 
Dean Frenkel argues the Australian accent developed when our forefathers regularly got drunk together.

The Age published a comment piece on October 26, called “Australia, we need to talk about the way we speak”. Author Dean Frenkel, lecturer in public speaking and communications, argued the Australian accent developed when “our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns”.

Mainstream media outlets around the globe jumped on the story, and with it the opportunity for some fun headlines. CNN asked: “Is the accent due to booze, mate?” and Britain's Telegraph shouted “G'day mate: 'Lazy' Australian accent caused by 'alcoholic slur' of heavy-drinking early settlers”.

It's unclear whether Frenkel's editors checked any of his claims with linguists, or whether they just thought about the sensational headline and predictably high online hits and shares his article provided.

For example, Frenkel claims that the “average Australian speaks to just two-thirds capacity — with one-third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch”. What is the scientific basis for this claim? Our articulator muscles are the parts of our mouth that make sounds — our tongue, teeth, lips, etc. Every language has a different sound system and will require different articulators to be used in different ways, and every sound will engage some of these parts of the mouth and leave others “lying on the couch”, so to speak.

The “laziness” argument just doesn't cut it when you consider the fact English has between 16 and 23 vowel sounds, compared to a global average of about five.

Frenkel assures us that “the problem is not related to class”. However, in an interview with Channel 9's Today program on October 28, when describing the speech he finds so offensive, Frenkel (who himself speaks with an Australian accent) adopted a crude caricature of a broad Australian accent which would be most associated with working class and rural white Australians. Clearly some Australian voices are more offensive than others.

Frenkel moves from this brief and rather baseless analysis of Australian English sounds to the issue of rhetoric and public speaking, without explaining the connection between these two vastly different areas of communication and linguistics (the connection seems to be that we fail in both).

To Frenkel's credit, he celebrates the strong oral and storytelling skills of Australia's diverse original languages — but what would he make of the creative ways that Aboriginal people started using English when it was thrust upon them?

Here we get to the claim that most angered, bemused or entertained linguists: “[A] recent trend in linguistics teaches that poor speech doesn't matter at all.” Frenkel doesn't really define “poor speech”, but does suggest it involves a “dumbing down”.

Might we guess that “poor speech” is spoken by people for whom English is a second language? People with a disability or illness that affects their pronunciation? People who finished high school early because they needed to get a job? Communications lecturers?

Frenkel may be referring to a welcome shift (not that recent) in linguistics away from a “prescriptive” approach, which tended to see the dialect spoken by privileged elites as the “proper” standard, to which others should aspire. Accents from more working class or ethnically diverse areas were seen to be corrupting the standard, a sign of lower intelligence.

Such prescriptivism tends to be stronger outside of the field of linguistics than within. For example, earlier this year, the US National Public Radio show This American Life started receiving complaints from listeners about its young women reporters, who were apparently displaying “vocal fry” — they had a slight croak in the voice — and didn't sound authoritative or learned enough for public radio. Vocal fry is also heard in men's voices, but somehow it was only seen as a problem in women.

In contrast to prescriptivism, many linguists now describe themselves as “descriptivists”: they see language as a social phenomenon, a tool that people use to meet their needs. “Language” is whatever we happen to speak. If Australian English speakers really didn't understand each other — if we were as bad communicators as Frenkel fears — we would change how we spoke. And, indeed, many of us do change how we speak, on a daily basis, depending on the context.

Describing the many varied ways that people use and change language can tell us a lot more about the human mind, and how different groups of people engage with the world around them, than decrying the “laziness” or “inferior intelligence” of a particular community of speakers.

Crikey's Fully (sic) blog collected responses to Frenkel from linguists around the country. Ilana Mushin, from University of Queensland, said: “I don't even know what poor communication means. Who decides?”

Rachel Nordlinger from Melbourne University said Frenkel's claims were “completely unfounded and outrageous”.

Obviously, Frenkel is as entitled to his opinion about Australian English as the next person. But why does the mainstream media publish such things? Is it accountable to facts? Who decides that it is ok to spread such misinformation? Will the many linguists who have written reasoned and scientifically sound responses to Frenkel, in more trustworthy news sources such as the Guardian, New Matilda and Crikey, enjoy the global attention Frenkel's claims did?

As Fully (sic) concluded: “It's a resounding thumbs down from the linguistics community to The Age and every other media outlet who got drunk off the fumes of [the article's] ludicrousness. It is not fun reading and dealing with 'the worst article we've ever read'.”

[Emma Murphy is a linguist who works with Aboriginal communities reclaiming and reviving their languages. She is also a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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