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How to make friends and influence people: Know your audience!

In the wake of the Asian Century white paper, some have complained that our own English language standards are dropping, and that the Prime Minister is getting lax with her Ps and Qs. Are they right? Dr Simon Musgrave looks at some of the complaints.

Dr Simon Musgrave writes…

As mentioned on Fully (sic) a couple of weeks ago, the Asian Century white paper has triggered renewed discussion about the
role of teaching Asian languages in Australian schools. I am not going to add to that discussion here; rather I want to look at how
it inspired some people to comment on our own English standards, usually along the lines that we should improve our English before
we go learning Indonesian. That topic has brought a few interesting phonological observations to the surface, at least in the letters of The Age (which is my breakfast reading).

Owen White of Kew, lamented that ABC presented used to be the epitome of proper English. Now however:

Almost universally, wanna, ganna, particuly, reguly (inter alia) are now used, and commentary and conversation are peppered with superfluous and meaningless ”you knows”.

The ABC wasn’t the only object of criticism. The PM copped some as well. This from Paul Mahoney of Black Rock:

OWEN White makes a good point about the standard of spoken English on the ABC. He could also have mentioned our Prime Minister, who recently spruiked the white paper on the ”opportunidies” that exist through our involvement with Asia.

The examples given from the Prime Minister’s speech (communidies, opportunidies) provide an excellent example to consider the different roles of speakers and hearers in how language is used.

Producing language takes considerable cognitive effort – and while current controversy focuses on use of phones while driving, research suggests that any concurrent language task can have an adverse effect on driving performance. Not surprisingly, speakers take shortcuts when they can, at least to the extent that those shortcuts do not affect communication. To see how the examples given above fit into this picture, we are going to have to get a little technical, but I think it is important.

The difference between the sound [t] and the sound [d] (and correspondingly between [p]/[b] and [k]/[g]) is that the first sound is produced without any vibration in the larynx, while the second one does normally have such vibration (I’m hedging here because something odd happens at the start of words, more technical details here). This vibration is also referred to as ‘voice’: [t] is ‘voiceless’ while [d] is ‘voiced’.

Voicing is part of the production of vowels also, so in the words for which the Prime Minister is criticised, we have a consonant without voicing occurring between two vowels which do have voicing. But in the relevant contexts, it doesn’t make any difference which consonant is produced. In other places, the difference is important (for example, mat v. mad), but in these cases it doesn’t lead to any confusion about meaning. So the speaker can safely minimise their cognitive effort here and not bother issuing an instruction to stop vibration in their larynx, followed very quickly by another instruction to start vibration again. (I haven’t listened to the relevant examples, but it’s possible that what occurred here are examples of a phenomenon known as flapping, but this wouldn’t change my essential point about laryngeal vibration.)

So why would anyone bother to make the distinction between [t] and [d] in these contexts? The letters to the newspaper linked above give us a clear indication of the answer: such variation in speech is subject to very strong social judgments. If the speaker is trying to project themselves in a certain way, then they will have to devote the cognitive resources to ensuring that their timing of articulatory gestures remains precise. And there is excellent evidence available, stretching back several decades, that this is indeed what occurs.

Allan Bell examined the speech of news readers in New Zealand, and found that the same readers reading the same stories in the same studio had up to 20% variation in their occurrence of intervocalic voicing (the technical term for the phenomenon described above) depending on whether they were broadcasting on the national network or on a local station. Nikolas Coupland reported similar results for the staff of a travel agency who varied their pronunciation of the same consonants depending on the social class of their clients. Bell developed a theory of stylistic variation in language use which takes this effect as the primary driver, what he called audience design. As he said in the 1984 article which proposed this model: “Style is essentially speakers’ response to their audience. In audience design, speakers accommodate primarily to their addressee.”

I therefore need to revise my earlier claim that speakers will take any shortcuts they can which do not affect clarity of communication: we have to strike the right balance between taking cognitive shortcuts – like not bothering to stop the larynx vibrating – and how we want to be perceived by our audience. Plus, it is important to keep in mind that these processes take place almost entirely below the level of conscious control. As users of language, we balance the demands on us as speakers with the needs of the hearer all the time in a way that (we hope) maximises our communicative goals but keeps us in tune with the expectations of our interlocutors.

* * *

Aside from the intrinsic interest of these topics, I must confess to an ulterior motive here. I wanted to introduce the name of  Allan Bell because he is a guest at Monash University this month and will deliver a public lecture on the evening of November 22 (details here). The lecture will look at how stereotypical features of Australian and New Zealand English are used in comedy performances, and what such performance tells us about society and nationalism in the two countries. Monash’s own Professor Kate Burridge [and winner of the 2011 Talkley award –Ed.] will contribute to the following discussion. It should be a great evening out for language lovers.

Dr Simon Musgrave is a lecturer in linguistics at Monash University. Besides working on the Southern Sudanese languages spoken in Melbourne, he is also involved in the Australian National Corpus project, which he has previously written about here.

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