Sunday, April 18, 2010

Accent angst

Growing up in America, I was sometimes unable to understand my fellow citizens when they were speaking. Regional accents are a fact of life in the US, and that makes for endless jokes and the occasional misunderstanding.

My own regional accent was once taught to broadcasters as the most “universal” variant of American English. Of course, once I moved to New Zealand, that changed everything.

Once I arrived here, I was often amused by some Kiwis’ reactions to NZ accents. I’ve heard tut-tutting and been able to almost feel the hand-wringing as worrywarts complained the New Zealand accent was “becoming unintelligible”. And when I say “amused” I really mean that I often laughed out loud at their pompous buffoonery.

I mean, crikey! What’s wrong with people being true to their own culture? There’s no such thing as a “correct” accent or dialect. As long as people can be understood, more or less, particular variations don’t much matter.

Deborah Coddington thinks Kiwis should learn to speak properly, that the standard of on-air speech, diction in particular, is awful. “If they were print journalists and wrote that way, they'd be taken aside by the sub-editors and retrained, so why are they cruelly shoved in front of the cameras by their bosses and allowed to make the same mistakes?”

As far as I can tell, Coddington is a lifelong curmudgeon. In and out of journalism over the years, she was also an unsuccessful candidate for the Libertarianz Party (of course, the phrase “unsuccessful candidate for the Libertarianz Party” is completely self-evident; they’re among the most perpetually deeply also-ran of the also-ran parties). From 2002-2005 she was a list MP for the neoconservative Act Party, which sometimes likes to think of itself as libertarian.

To me, the tone in all her articles has been grumpy. One I didn’t read, "Asian Angst", earned a rebuke from the New Zealand Press Council for her talk of “Asian" crime, a “gathering crime tide” and an “Asian menace”. The magazine that published the article, North & South, was ordered to print an apology, which Coddington called “pathetic.” Yeah, well, she would.

Now she has angst over accents. Her subject this time isn’t just accents: It’s also content, but mixed with so much talk of speaking style that it’s all a muddle. Apparently, it was also an excuse for her to fawn over an ex-Libertarianz colleague.

Still, I actually agree with her that the empty, sometimes saccharin, sometimes tabloid-style reporting of meaningless non-stories is a bad and worrying trend among New Zealand’s broadcast media, television news in particular. However, the problem is with what they’re saying, not so much how they’re saying it.

Deborah Coddington needs to lighten up—a lot. I’ve thought that for some sixteen years, since I first heard of her. I’ve seen her on TV and I frankly didn’t find her accent particularly appealing. I guess I just prefer to hear people who both speak naturally and have something interesting to say.


toujoursdan said...

My understanding is that while British, American and Canadian accents are based on geography*, New Zealand and Australian accents are based on economic class.

*Insert numerous exceptions here. (I remember Aucklanders making fun of rural South Islanders and the way they speak.)

So when people whine about accents it's usually a proxy for race or class wars.

Nik said...

Hah, that's funny, I just read this article 10 minutes ago myself! I too thought she was rather up it -- I remember the same complaints in the US about the mumbling incoherent younger generation. The N Zilland accent isn't particularly worse or better than anywhere else, really, and some folks are easier than others to understand. No worries mate!

Arthur Schenck said...

toujoursdan: Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue" is a good look at how the American accent, in particular, came to be.

I admit that I don't know much about the Australian accent, but the original convict settlers were generally from the lower classes. As an aside, they supposedly invented the word "mate" to describe the fellow male convicts with whom they developed sexual relationships in the absence of women.

New Zealand's accents are largely derived from the places in Britain where the colonists came from. Dunedin, for example, was heavily Scottish, and their influence on the language in the area can still be heard.

And believe me, the rest of New Zealand makes fun of Auckland for everything BUT its accent: It doesn't have one. Auckland has the largest portion of any part of New Zealand who weren't born in New Zealand (it also has a large percent of not born in Auckland, for that matter). That multiculturalism means there are many accents in Auckland.

The New Zealand colonists sought to "build a better Britain", one without the rigid British class system. As a result, people's class was fluid, and so was their accent.

Today, there's a distinct accent among young Polynesians born here to foreign-born parents, and that accent has similarities with that of lower-class people of all races.

But television has caused such a mixing and mingling of accents—including American—that I'm not sure any particular accent will survive.

Nik: Snap! I fully admit that there are people—including on the TV news—that I sometimes have trouble understanding. But more often than nut, the problem isn't accent as much as speaking clearly—enunciation. I encountered the same thing in America.

So, I agree with you that the accent here isn't particularly worse or better than anywhere else.

toujoursdan said...

I LOVED "Mother Tongue" even if there were a few factual errors in it.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yeah, Bill sometimes makes some errors, but none so huge that I dismiss the entire book. I loved "Down Under" (called "Notes from a Sunburned Land" in North America) about Australia, and an about the attack on a lesbian couple he describes in detail in "Walk in the Woods" is completely accurate (I met and spoke with Claudia Brenner).

There's also a documentary series called, if I remember correctly (and I probably don't), "The Story of English" which was also interesting, if a bit dated already.