Australians have been accused of a lot of things in their time, but the latest claim is that the population is walking around talking with a sloshed accent.
Sure, we love a cask of wine here and there, but to say we talk like flamin’ drunk galahs all the time is total bloody garbage.
An opinion piece on The Age by Dean Frenkel, a public speaking and communication lecturer at Melbourne’s Victoria University, has incited a fierce debate on the origins of the Australian drawl.
Not since Winston Churchill described the Aussie accent as “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations,” has someone swung so low.
Frenkel claimed “the Australian alphabet cocktail was spiked by alcohol” in the early days of colonial settlement. It is the newest claim in a long-line of possible reasons for why ‘Strayans speak funny. The main belief is the drawl comes from a cocktail of English, Irish, Aboriginal and German accents or that early settlers were simply trying to keep flies out of their mouths.
Frenkel wrote that these educated theories are a load of rubbish, and said the slow accent is actually due to the influence of alcohol.
“Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns. For the past two centuries, from generation to generation, drunken Aussie-speak continues to be taught by sober parents to their children,” he wrote.
Drunkenness appears in the Australian vernacular via some interesting amendments to words, Frenkel claimed. He said the only way to move forward to become a “clever” nation is with proper training in schools.
“The average Australian speaks to just two thirds capacity -– with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch; and that’s just concerning articulation,” he wrote. “Missing consonants can include missing “t”s (Impordant), “l”s (Austraya) and “s”s (yesh), while many of our vowels are lazily transformed into other vowels, especially “a”s to “e”s (stending) and “i”s (New South Wyles) and “i”s to “oi”s (noight).”
The opinion of Frenkel doesn’t stop there, he believes a lot of cultural and social problems are tied to a lack of education around proper speech. “It is self-evident that poor speech skills lead to lack of confidence and a tendency to internalise emotions and thoughts. It can also contribute to difficulties in relationships, poor decision-making, loneliness, stress retention and stalled development,” he wrote.
To really drill it in, he added: “It may also be a contributor to Australia’s lack of cultural substance.” Ouch.
Frenkel called on Australians to take off their beer goggles and examine the situation with clear eyes. Many Australians instead consumed another tinny and told Frenkel what they thought of his remarks.
The recent claims were also shot down by experts and commentators, who scoffed into their chardy and declared the science shonky. Frenkel’s opinions regarding linguistics have been debunked before, resulting in a fiery response from Frenkel himself.
Linguist Aidan Wilson, who has previously challenged the accuracy of the work of Frenkel, told Mashable Australia he “completely and without reservation” rejects the claim that drunk forefathers influenced our accent, calling the theory “baseless” and bordering on offensive.
“I can’t entertain the notion that early Australians were more intoxicated that anyone else. To cause sound changes in a language, you need to be affecting the way you talk at every moment of every day,” Wilson said. “I personally find it laughable that Frenkel thinks that there was a critical mass of constantly drunk people — new mothers included — that would enable children to essentially learn inebriated English.”
He said the idea that our early settlers partied the night and days away was also impossible to imagine, and called for hard evidence that children of parents who drink acquire a different dialect.
“I’m trying to imagine the early colonies in Sydney and Hobart, with the free settlers stumbling in the vomit-filled streets, convicts being locked up in the Barracks at night, partying with rum rather than being chained to their hammocks, and farmers spending their hard-earned money on beer rather than expensive and important supplies. I just can’t. It’s nonsense,” he said.
Wilson also dismissed a myriad of other claims in Frenkel’s article, such as our articulator muscles being sedentary and that Australians have a national speech impediment, poor communications skills and inferior brain functionality.
“I don’t even know how this could be measured, but Australians surely use as many articulator muscles as anyone else. In fact, we have more vowels that American English,” he said.
“We learn English by the age of three, and master it by the age of six. There is no problem with our natural method of language acquisition. This was the case before there was education in the world and it will continue to be the case for as long as there are humans.”
Aussie author Kathy Lette wrote for the Telegraph UK that Frenkel is clearly a drunk fool and “a few sausages short of a barbecue.”
“As anyone who has lived in Australia knows, the reason we mumble is because if you open your mouth too wide, a fly or mosquito will buzz right in and bite you. Plus it’s just too hot to say whole words,” she joked.
University of Queensland linguistics expert Dr Rob Pensalfini told the ABC that Frenkel’s theory was “absolute rubbish” and “cultural cringe.” He also said that drunks often over-articulate their speech, rather than slur, due to awareness of their impairment.
“They say New Yorkers have nasal voices because they have to cut through the noise of the traffic,” he said. “The original one for Australia was we speak in a slurred and closed-lip way to keep the flies out of their mouths.
“They’re all completely baseless … I want to see the evidence, I want to see the instrumental valuations.”
Wilson explained the accepted theory behind the formation of Australia English is that it formed gradually and has continued to do so during the last 230 years. It originated from a time when there were several distinct languages present in Australia including English, Cockney English, Irish English, northern English and Scots.
In the colony, settlers and convicts spoke their own varieties of English but could still communicate with each other, and their children, who were born in Australia, undertook a process known as phonological levelling, Wilson explained, that saw their accents scraped back to leave only the common attributes.
“After that initial levelling period, further migrations of settlers into Australia brought people who spoke the earlier varieties again, but their children quickly picked up the local variety irrespective of what their parents spoke,” Wilson said.
During this early period in Australia, UK English was changing itself — and the pronunciations associated today with British accents were created.
“While this was happening in Australia, the prestige dialect of UK English was undergoing some shifts, most notably in the pronunciation of the /a/ vowel in words like ‘dance’ and ‘graph’ … Colonies that were well-established prior to this shift retained the earlier vowel, whereas colonies that were established later took the later pronunciation,” Wilson said.
“The continual variation of Australian English is continuing today, and we’re now seeing the various regional accents pull apart from each other as people continue to assert regional identity.”
He used the Melbourne accent as an example. “The mid-front vowel ɛ, as in ‘bet’, is gradually moving downwards to become a low-front vowel æ, as in ‘bat’. Crucially, this only occurs before ‘l’. So ‘celery’ sounds like ‘salary’, ‘Ellen’ like ‘Alan’, and ‘Melbourne’ like ‘Malbourne’.”
The truth, Wilson adds, is that Australia essentially had a rapid influx of mutually intelligible accents come into Australia in small pockets before a new accent was formed when distinctive features were stripped from the original accents of the settlers and convicts.
“We’re seeing the various regions of Australia move away from each other again as we return to the normal situation of linguistic diversity,” Wilson said. “This story is as old as language itself, and much more interesting than a fairytale of drunken convicts.”
UPDATED: Thursday, Oct. 29, 5:30 p.m.: Aidan Wilson’s comments have been added.