So the phone rings and it’s a journalist from the Daily Mirror, wanting me to comment on the story circulating in the press, which claims that the origin of the Australian accent lies in the drunken speech of the first convicts. I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it’s complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully.
That wasn’t enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, although described as a “speech expert”, doesn’t seem to have any background in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics (one website describes him as a “left field artist” among other things); (b) that it wasn’t especially new – it turns up regularly, along with similar myths from other parts of the world (such as that the Liverpudlian accent is the result of fog in the Mersey, or that the Welsh rising lilt is because they lived in the mountains, or that the Birmingham accent arose because people didn’t open their mouths very much to avoid the dirty air), which are all equally rubbish; (c) that there isn’t actually any evidence to show that convicts 200 years ago spoke drunkenly to their children on a regular basis; (d) that drunken speech actually has very little in common with the examples cited of the Australian accent; and (e) that if she examined those examples, she’d soon see that they don’t support the case at all.
For instance, standing pronounced as stending is described as “lazy”; but “e” is higher up in the mouth than “a”, and actually takes more muscular energy to produce; it’s the very opposite of lazy.
The characteristic “ai” in words like day is similarly said to be the result of lazy drunkenness – in which case all Cockneys are drunk, for this diphthong is found in that accent too (among many others). Cockney, along with some other British accents, is actually one of the real influencers of Australian pronunciation.
To call the accent a “speech impediment” or the result of “inferior brain functioning”, as he’s reported to have said, is absolutely extraordinary. On that basis every accent is an impediment – apart, of course, from the one Dean Frenkel holds in his mind as some sort of speech ideal. It’s the kind of thinking that was common in the early days of prescriptivism, and it’s surprising to see it surfacing again now. And appalling that the media should so readily believe it.
Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. “So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?” The word “rubbish” didn’t appear at all. Nor the other word.
It’s yet another example of how the tabloid media masquerades fiction as fact, in the interests of what they think is a good story. The Guardian, for example, ran a piece debunking the myth, but that will hardly have an impact on the many readers of the Mirror and the Daily Mail (which also ran the story prominently) who will have read it, believed it, and repeated it. It’s really depressing.
This kind of journalism makes the job of a linguist so much harder.