A cacophony of accents

One way for an Aussie to show his antipathy towards us was to try and make us feel that our command of the English language was inadequate, our accents unclear, our pronunciation of common words incorrect; yet, on some occasions, we would be asked why we used so many big words (which apparently were clear to the listener).

Initially, I found two levels of Australian accents. The products of the British-influenced grammar schools, where presumably the students copied or reflected the speech of their teachers – often well-educated Englishmen, and news readers on the national radio station had good speech, sometimes exaggerated to a ridiculously nasal level. The rest of the Australian community spoke in a flat inimitable voice which marks one as a colonial subject, in the antipodes. There were some exceptions.

These were the products of ‘good’ Catholic schools. They too affected a nasal accent, but in a half-hearted manner. In a dry climate, the affected nasal accent was quite weird. But then, the old Aussie was said to suffer from a cultural cringe. He was also known to be a good copycat. And he does that well even today, especially with Americanisms.

Quite a few years later, the pseudo-English sounds went by the wayside (perhaps the grammar schools ran out of teachers from Britain). Employees of the foreign service agency, academics, and radio announcers led the way down to cruder sounds (reflecting perhaps their origins), followed by the products of good schools. As the nation grew in size, I suspect that more working class Aussies rose to replace the English. As the nation matured, the urge to copy the British was diminished (Britain was not the nation to emulate anymore – too many Pakis and blacks there? We are now more American).

Later still, radio and TV announcers tried hard to say foreign names correctly, except once when there was a glorious disaster. The Indian epic, The Mahabharatha, was offered, as entertainment, to Australia in the late Eighties on TV. The announcers, however, continually told us about the maha-brata instead – initially, I thought that it was a play about the great loaf (perhaps about the Australian work ethic) or a giant roti. Surely, it would have been so easy to check with the Indian High Commission or an appropriate university. And such mishaps continue, especially with Asian names (even on ethnic TV). Is it arrogance or stupidity?

There was also the Aussie, with his quaint accent, putting on what I call a Peter Sellers accent. It sounds Welsh, but is clearly meant to make fun of the accents displayed by Indians and other brownskins. It has always seemed to me to be rather pathetic for someone of British origins to make fun of someone’s speech sounds when there is so much variety among his own peoples. This pathetic Aussie is still around. Some educated Englishmen (including Shakespearean actors) also seem to swallow parts of some words and phrases. Pronunciation does not always match the spelling in some cases, e.g., Edinburgh. Scholars have their own traditions, e.g. Der-eye-us for Darius (of Persian fame).

(This extract from my 1997 memoir ‘Destiny Will Out’ reflects a more historical Australia than the present day one. We have now joined the Family of Man. Yet, in spite of copying Americanisms, we retain that unique Aussie accent)