Earlier this week, The Age published some commentary about Australian English and other language matters, introducing to the nation, and subsequently the world, the idea that, among other things, Australians sound like we do because of alcoholism in early colonial Australia.
We tried our best to ignore the story but it’s proven difficult. Shortly after publication, radio picked up on the story. Radio National and 3AW booked the article’s author in for interviews. By Wednesday, Dean Frenkel was doing interviews with news.com.au and the story was breaking internationally. Radio New Zealand interviewed him and British print media picked up on the story, including the Telegraph, The Independent and Daily Mail. The BBC started calling and he spoke to various BBC services, including the World service which broadcasts to 20 million people.
Very impressive reach. And fantastic to see language issues get so much traction in the media. We’ve come across the article’s author, Dean Frenkel, before and he’s managed to pique our interest once again. And when we read the latest article, it smelt funny.
We wondered what other language commentators around Australia might have to say about some of its prominent claims. We ran them by a bunch of other university lecturers (and threw in a few students for good measure) to see if The Age really was on to something.
One of the main points of the original article is reasonable – that we could be better communicators or public speakers. So we wondered, is it true that “poor communication is evident across all sections of Australian society and the annual cost to Australia may amount to billions of dollars”:
Louisa Willoughby, who lectures in linguistics at Monash University, didn’t dismiss the claim out of hand, explaining that:
As a teacher and scholar of discourse analysis, I would stress that communication needs to be appropriate to context. Tailoring communication to context is genuinely challenging and may cost our economy money.
However, she didn’t quite buy what the article was selling: “we don’t solve these problems by learning more about classical rhetoric or elocution lessons”.
Ilana Mushin, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Queensland, struggled to engage with the claim at all:
“I don’t even know what poor communication means. Who decides? Is it about understanding each other? Using appropriate registers? Speaking grammatical English? Carrying an argument? Projecting one’s voice to be heard above others in a crowd? What about people whose first language is not English and have ‘foreign’ accents. Are they also poor communicators?
Associate Professor in linguistics at the University of Melbourne, Rachel Nordlinger, found the statement to be “completely unfounded and outrageous”, pointing out that:
Essentially language is determined by communication outcomes. If Australians were not able to communicate with each other effectively, we would change our practices to ensure communicative success. The fact that this isn’t happening (according to the claims made by the author) suggests that we are communicating with each other just fine.
Not wanting to simply feed those already in ‘ivory towers’, we also asked students of linguistics. In particular, we wondered how The Age’s claim that “a recent trend in linguistics teaches that poor speech doesn’t matter at all” stacks up:
3rd year linguistics student, David, like others we interviewed, wasn’t clear on what ‘poor speech’ meant, but thought that this might be a ‘fair thing to say’: “I remember one of the first things [the linguistics department] told us was the difference between descriptivism and prescriptivism.”
1st year student, Annabelle laughed: “It’s not even really mentioned – it’s a first introductory linguistics lecture and then no-one really touches on it”. Her classmate, Hamish, thought more about it and said “I’d say the opposite. I’d say it [poor speech] does matter, because we analyse it.”
Rachel Nordlinger was understandably a little more forthright:
Linguistics as a discipline is interested in studying what people say and how they use language, and is not interested in telling people what they should be doing. It is no coincidence that articles such as this one are not written by linguists. It’s not that linguistics teaches that poor speech doesn’t matter at all, but rather that linguistics teaches that there is no poor speech in the first place. Instead, each speech variety provides another interesting exemplar of what human beings are linguistically and cognitively capable of, and how they conceptualise and talk about the world around them.
The label ‘poor’ remained an opaque one for Ilana Mushin: “I think he probably means that linguists don’t judge language as good or bad. Calling speech “poor” from a linguist perspective is like a chemist calling a molecule “poor” because it doesn’t fit some aesthetic standard of the observer”.
We turned to some of the article’s more provocative claims and wondered if there was any truth to argument that: not articulating ‘t’ in ‘important’ or the ‘l’ in ‘Australia’ reflects a national speech impediment and is a symptom of inferior brain functioning.
PhD student, Joshua Clothier, pointed out that pronouncing the ‘t’ like a ‘d’ in ‘important’ (called t-flapping) is not restricted to Australian English and occurs commonly in North American Englishes too. In Joshua’s training, he was shown how “speech sounds are not beads on a string”:
When we speak, we don’t pronounce each individual sound separately – rather, through connected speech processes, each sound will have an effect on that which occurs next, and vice versa.
Joshua also says that ‘l’ pronunciation varies geographically in Australia, pointing out that South Australians are more likely to pronounce ‘l’ in the way that The Age article objects to: “Are we to demonise the speakers of a whole state because of the way they say their ‘l’s?”.
Jean Mulder, an expert on Australian English from the University of Melbourne, was an advisor on the Australian National English Curriculum and similarly points out that “it’s just a natural language process that’s seen across the globe. There’s no evidence that I’m aware of (and he [Frenkel] doesn’t provide any) linking it to inferior brain functioning”. Nordlinger also debunks the idea of a “national speech impediment” and says there is no evidence at all to claim “inferior brain functioning”:
The claims the author makes about certain articulations using only two-thirds of the articulatory muscles make no sense, and show a limited understanding of articulatory phonetics. For example, it is no ‘lazier’ to pronounce an ‘e’ rather than an ‘a’ in a word like ‘standing’.
And the students? 3rd year David laughed and said “It’s f*cking ridiculous”. And 1st year Annabelle didn’t respond much better: “Oh that’s hilarious. That is hilarious. No. Oh, wow.”
Finally, there’s the claim that has captured international headlines: that Australian English is the result of intergenerational transmission of alcohol-influenced speech.
David, our 3rd year student, didn’t mind this one so much: “I work in a pub so this rings true to me. It sounds good, but there’s nothing to back it up”.
Others, like Jean Mulder, who spends less time around drunk people found the claim “disturbing” and “offensive” and that it had “absolutely no evidence”. Her colleagues at the University of Melbourne also had some interesting insights. One, Debbie Loakes (a fellow at The ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language) points out the obvious corollary:
I would argue Australian English is the result of intergenerational transmission of Australian English (and perhaps some other influences, depending on location). There have been many studies of alcohol speech, but none that I am aware of showing that people aspire to talk like drunk people, or that alcohol affects a person’s accent over an extended period of time.
Linguist and lecturer in Indigenous education at University of Sydney, John Hobson was less kind in his appraisal of the drunkenness argument and other points:
Deriding differences in how some folk speak Australian English as “speech impediments” is absurd and to suggest they are indicative of “inferior brain functioning” belies a breath-taking level of cultural self-hatred, as does the absolutely astonishing claim that alcohol consumption, historical or otherwise, is somehow implicated.
Even first-year students dismissed the drunkenness argument with ease:
Yes we have a very strong drinking culture in Australia. No I do not believe that it is responsible for our sober English. I mean, if everyone around you when you were 0-5 was just permanently drunk… you just can’t be drunk all the time.
So the conclusions of our panel basically find the article’s claims objectionable and baseless (“extremely questionable claims”, “infuriated”, “no words”), matching what other experts who have been contacted have said. Even the article’s core and reasonable sounding conclusion – that our education system should be doing more to make Australians better communicators – was debunked:
“It’s covered in the curriculum already… both oral and written [communication]” says Jean Mulder. “Just because there isn’t a separate subject doesn’t mean it’s not covered”.
If anyone has lingering doubts that The Age’s piece consisted of anything other than baseless ideas about language in Australia, we are happy to share further responses.
But if the article can be so readily debunked, why is it even worth responding to? Probably because many of us retain faith (or at least hope) that what media presents to us has some basis in fact. Newspapers are not talkback radio. They are, by name, meant to disseminate “news”. Unfortunately, The Age has irresponsibly published an article with numerous untruths.
More unfortunately, it did not stop there. The article’s more ridiculous and obviously unfounded claim that the Australian accent is attributable to alcoholism was given oxygen by other national print and radio outlets, ultimately propelling it to fleetingly become international “news”.
But how accountable is The Age (and others) for the spread of misinformation? Of course, it’s in the media’s interest to provide audiences with entertaining content. But is it okay to do so when that content contains fiction dressed up as fact and numerous spurious claims – claims that are readily debunked by anyone who has studied linguistics (even undergrads laugh at some of the claims)? The Age has sparked the dissemination of, well, bullsh*t, essentially, that undermines a hard-working and internationally-reputable field of research in Australia.
Of course, we have right of reply and linguists can easily point out where bad linguistic arguments go wrong. But it’s an unfair cycle: newspaper gets content from attention-seeking non-expert. Non-news goes mildly viral. Field of expertise becomes infuriated and responds. Newspaper gets more content (for free) from infuriated field of expertise. On top of that, any rebuttal will be read and remembered less widely than the original.
So 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 its ludicrousness. It is not fun reading and dealing with “the worst article we’ve ever read”.