Since the 1940s, the ABC has had an advisory body to help journalists deal with tricky matters of English usage. The Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) has released regular reports giving advice on all kinds of Australian English issues: from the correct pronunciation of town names (e.g. the local pronunciation of Cairns is /æ/ as in can and not /e:/ as in care) to whether it’s OK to use the word shonky in a news report (it is!). Many of their old reports can be found online in editions of Australian Style.
In December of last year, it looked like SCOSE may have become a victim of the government’s recent funding cuts to the ABC. We were assured at the time that SCOSE would live on, but many worried that language was on its way out at Aunty (especially as Lingua Franca has been off the airways for quite a while). Fortunately, it has officially been reborn, rising from the ashes in the form of ‘ABC Language’. Language researcher Tiger Webb has taken over the reins from SCOSE’s Irene Poinkin.
While it may at first seem to outsiders to be a prescriptive exercise (An article on Crikey last week declared that pedants would be rejoicing at its return), ABC Language reflects the language of our community just like dictionaries do, rather than being some kind of arbiter of correctness. Its most recent report can largely be categorised as an attempt to benefit the wider community by avoiding confusing or offending people. It doesn’t simply nitpick at supposed errors. For example, July’s report included advice to journalists about sensitive reporting on mental health issues. It used recommendations from appropriate clinicians to suggest the best language to use. Prescriptive grammar was nowhere to be seen. “A key concern for ABC Language is consistency across outputs, and that really comes back to a concern for our audience,” Webb told Fully Sic. “We don’t want to become a source for confusion through conflicting pronunciations. Nor do we wish to alienate audiences with outdated or otherwise jarring usage”.
This has always been the role of ABC’s language advisory body. Pam Peters, SCOSE’s external commentator on usage research since 1996 and emeritus professor at Macquarie University, says that “Through SCOSE discussion, it was/is possible to stimulate better awareness of the social aspects of language, and more intelligent discussion about usage, especially written v. spoken … So often community criticism of the language of ABC broadcasters is based on conservative written norms, without appreciation of how much broadcasting is off the cuff”. ABC staff go to great efforts to get things right. Along with names and places, the pronunciation database even has an entry for princess – presumably someone’s pronunciation was once too similar to that of princes!
Greater communication with the public about ABC Language may help to ease this pressure. “A great hope of mine – and one, I think, shared by many in ABC Language – is for greater openness and transparency in our workings. I’d like to see our reports and database available publicly”, says Webb. If ABC Language’s materials do become publically available, you can rest assured we’ll be letting you know. I for one will hardly be able to contain my excitement!