27/09/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Learn our kids to talk good

27/09/2005 - 22:00


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By now, most politicians will have marked their favourite Mark Latham diary quotation. Mine was his remark about Labor’s Kevin Rudd: “If he grew up in poverty in rural Queensland where did the posh accent come from?”

By now, most politicians will have marked their favourite Mark Latham diary quotation.

Mine was his remark about Labor’s Kevin Rudd: “If he grew up in poverty in rural Queensland where did the posh accent come from?”

It’s a strange criticism, largely because I had difficulty perceiving significant differences between Mr Rudd’s and Mr Latham’s enunciation of words and the extent of their vocabularies.

Neither could be said to be exaggerated Paul Hogan-style Ockers.

True, Mr Latham expresses himself assertively; too assertively many believe.

But once one erases that, the differences are quite minimal.

A pleasing aspect of Australia is the fact that it’s generally difficult to pick people’s geographical, financial or social origins by their speech.

Generally speaking most Aussies speak in a way that’s alike no matter what their background.

Or they have until recently. Unfortunately, however, many in the current generation of school leavers seem to be increasingly slothful in their diction.

That said, Australia has been without the equivalent of the UK’s ‘BBC English’, which only a tiny stratum of society utilises.

But even in post-war Britain it wasn’t the BBC, but rather a 1950s pop star, who had the biggest impact on the enunciation of English.

It was, Cliff Richard (real name, Harry Rodger Webb), born in Lucknow, India, who is said to have most influenced Britain’s baby-boom generation in the way they spoke.

Interestingly, whenever I’ve heard him speaking on radio or TV it has been difficult not to believe he’s someone who is being interviewed on St Georges Terrace.

Cliff, in fact, speaks very much like Kevin Rudd, and most Australians.

I’ve dealt with tens of thousands of Australians, from multi-millionaires to men working as navvies.

I’ve met people hailing from what’s called the middle class to those from something resembling a European-style upper class.

I’ve dealt with people from Wialki to Toorak; from Wyalkatchem to Charters Towers; and generally speaking, it’s not possible to pick them by speech.

Australian accents and vocabularies are generally similar across our huge continent.

I must stress the generally, because when discussing a subject of this nature, one so broad, there are always exceptions.

My experience has been that the few Australians with pukka accents were those who were associated with the British military or colonial police forces. In other words a vanished minority.

My dealings with those from the bush, from WA’s north, south and east, from, to use Mr Latham’s word, ‘posh suburbs’, by and large, had clearly shown that language and accents were roughly on a par.

WA, indeed Australia, is a truly egalitarian nation in language and accent.

And that’s something I like very much, since one immediately feels at home, at ease, whenever and wherever meeting and dealing with strangers.

Australians tend to distinguish themselves not by accent but by the size, style and location of the house they own or build.

Returning, however, to Mr Rudd.

Unlike Mr Latham, I’ve not regarded him as someone with a posh accent.

He’s undoubtedly a precise enunciator, someone who doesn’t slur his words, someone who seems careful about what he says and the way he expresses it.

These are excellent characteristics.

There’s nothing worse than having to listen to someone who doesn’t show a high regard for the truly wonderful English language. For instance, whenever encountering someone who says: “I done this …” rather than “I did this …” I find myself somewhat ill at ease because it’s simply ungrammatical.

The irregular English language, like all others, has rules and conventions and there’s nothing pompous or posh about abiding by them, which I’m sure most would agree with.

As much as I enjoy sometimes hearing colourful expressions, even slang, there’s a limit to having to endure it day in and day out.

I had a friend, deceased now, who often resorted to Aussie slang and rhyme, which was colourful and entertaining.

“He’s a doer, not a don’ter – he’s a willer, not a won’ter”, was how he’d express approval when hearing or reading about someone who’d achieved something worthwhile. Envy wasn’t his favourite vice.

But eventually I preferred hearing English spoken clearly, simply, with all words well enunciated.

Even the great unmistakable Australian poems use simple English words.

Take, for instance, a lifelong favourite – Father John O’Brien’s (real name, Patrick Joseph Hartigan) ‘The Old Bush School’ - which is melodious and colourful, and can’t be faulted for its English.

As I recall, its opening lines are: “’Tis a queer old battered landmark that belongs to other years.

“With a dogleg fence around it, and its hat about its ear.

“With a cowbell in the gumtree, and bucket on the stool.

“There’s a motley host of memories about that Old Bush School.”

There’s no erroneous grammar in those few wonderful lines.

Father O’Brien’s many Old Boree Log poems were and continue to be loved by tens of thousand of Australians, and understandably so.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that Catholic teaching nuns and brothers, who were generally Irish, had a love of English and conveyed this to students in bush and poorer suburban schools they taught in right across Australia.

Perhaps it’s because I was educated by such people that their high regard for language remains with me.

Many teachers of other denominations and state schools were undoubtedly similarly committed.

And, I suspect, Mr Rudd’s commitment to speaking precisely is due, if not to his late mother about whom Mr Latham has made such an unnecessary fuss in his bitter and twisted diary, then to one or more of his rural Queensland teachers.

But, back to the current politics of this issue.

At next weekend’s State Liberal Conference a State Women’s Council education motion is to be debated.

It reads: “That a finishing style course be provided to school girls from year eight to include walking, talking, beauty and etiquette in the Education and Training Curriculum.”

Now, quite predictably, Labor Education Minister Ljiljanna Ravlich promptly pooh-poohed this.

But there’s a great deal to be said for what these Liberal ladies are driving at.

How do I know this? Simple.

I often drive into McDonald’s, Hungry Jack’s, KFC or other fast food outlets.

And the one thing I dread when arriving there is having to fathom what the girls who speak through those megaphones are actually saying.

They so often speak like machine guns – “Rat-ta-tat-ta-tat, sir!”

My normal first comment, spoken in Kevin Rudd English of course, is: “Could you please repeat that, slowly?”

Sometimes they do. For others it’s back again to “Rat-ta-tat-ta-tat, sir!”

Now, look. We can’t have a nation of people who either won’t or can’t speak clearly. We simply must all communicate.

With the Education Department not to be directed to ensuring instruction in clarity of speech, it’s time WA’s fast food franchisees combined and established a jointly-owned training centre where all hired adolescents undertake a week-long course of instruction in clear expression and enunciation of their language.


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