Last week a piece in The Age set out a simple enough proposition. Rhetoric should be a component of Australian schools and clear communication, including pronunciation, is an important part of rhetorical training.
Yet the admirable goal of this piece and its author was undone by a dizzying array of half- to not true statements. Most notably, the original point of the piece (e.g. rhetoric/pronunciation) has been lost in the wake of its most contentious point.
This point centred on a tangential observation that the Aussie accent could be linked to the drunkenness of earlier settlers. This drunkenness thing is a great yarn and the national and international media have been eating it up.
But many scholars have been left varyingly seething or scratching their heads. First and foremost, where is the evidence? Second, at what point does a wildly speculative idea become worthy of national and international press coverage?
This one doesn’t pass the sniff test at the outset.
The most popular account links the accent to how Australians kept their mouths shut to keep out the blowies. Dutch explorers as far back as the 17th century cited the need to keep one’s mouth and eyes half shut to stymie the deluge of flies in Australia.
A popular early 20th-century schoolyard chant cautioned:
Ask no questions,
Tell no lies,
Open your mouth
And catch the flies.
Another popular account links the Australia accent to climate. In 1939, Hector Dinning wrote in Australian Scene:
“The slovenly speech of Australians is no doubt bound up also with the physical lassitude induced by their climate […] their speech gives an impression of tiredness.”
In a similar vein, a Dr Halliday Sutherland in 1940 linked the accent to types of pollen particular to Australia.
Many of these accounts, like the drunkenness story currently being spread, are inextricably linked to cultural cringe.
For instance, Valerie Desmond, in her book The Awful Australian (1911), laments that even the uneducated American accent manages to be “harmonious”. Desmond derisively links the “discords” and “surprises” of the Australian accent to Chinese influence.
Speculative claims like these are easy to make but more difficult to prove. Consequently, many language and speech scholars exercise a degree of caution in setting them out.
To these ends, speculative links between alcohol and the Australian accent seemingly don’t match up with existing research on alcohol and speech production.
The German Alcohol Language Project, in its study of 162 speakers in varying states of sobriety and intoxication, has not been able to establish reliable and consistent correlations between speech production and alcohol use.
Yes, we do know that alcohol impairs the central nervous system and impacts speech production. And yes some studies have noted links between specific sounds and intoxication. However, these notably aren’t the sounds flagged by The Age piece.
For instance, a series of well-known studies (e.g. this one) in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s investigated the sober/drunk speech of university students and police officers among others. These studies noted that intoxicated individuals were prone to lengthen certain consonants and consonant clusters (e.g. /s/, /sh/, /ts/) and use others interchangeably (e.g. /l/, /r/).
These studies also noted that intoxicated speakers tend to pronounce some sounds (voiced obstruents) differently (devoiced) at the end of words. So, for instance, words like “tab”, “pad”, and “save” might respectively be pronounced “tap”, “pat” and “safe” when you’re drunk.
In contrast, the sounds flagged as problematic by The Age piece can be linked to wider phonological and social processes in English. For instance, the “disappearance” of /l/ in words like “Australia” and “castle” is a fairly common phenomenon in English known as vocalization. Also widespread is the “mispronounced” /t/ in words like “important” or “butter” flagged in the piece.
Some studies have actually noted a positive social links between alcohol and language production. English learners of Thai in one well cited 1970s study fared much better at pronouncing the language drunk than sober colleagues.
In sum, it would be an uphill slog to prove links between alcohol and the emergence of the Australian accent. There are many existing and systematically based accounts for its emergence like this one and this one and so on.
Consequently, the academic community has been keen to see some sort of evidence for the assertions being made in the national and international press.
The Age piece’s original premise was certainly a noble one. Rhetoric is important and pronunciation may impact how you and/or your message are viewed. This is rather uncontroversial as far as language or speech scholars are concerned.
However, many of The Age piece’s claims have been rubbished by the academic community. Some academics have meticulously critiqued these claims whereas others have provided opposing viewpoints in the press.
Scholars would certainly be interested in seeing explicit evidence linking the Australian accent to drunk settlers. This assertion would compete with heaps of existing, empirically grounded work.
In the meantime, scholars are left to wonder when a highly speculative idea becomes worthy of widespread national and international dissemination. I’ve got one linking the influx of hipsters in my neighbourhood to dog poo left on the sidewalks.