Friday 30 October 2015

On a one-word reaction to reports about drunken Aussie accents

So the phone rings and it's a journalist from the Daily Mirror, wanting me to comment on the story circulating in the press this week, 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, though described as a 'speech expert', doesn't seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics (one web site 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 Liverpudilian accent is the result of fog in the Mersey, or 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), 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 Frankel 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.


  1. Thanks for this. I knew it was bollocks, but it's good to be clear about exactly why it is bollocks.

  2. Jayarava,
    It’s bollocks because bollocks excites, pleases and nurtures the reptilian layer of our brains, and some specimens seem to be unable to perform any kind of mental activity outside the limits of the aforementioned sector.

  3. My sympathies. Your only error was in giving so much time to a journalist who obviously abides by the guiding principle of the British press that one mustn't ever let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
    Recalls Humbert Wolfe's (pre-feminist era) verse:

    "You cannot hope
    to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the
    British journalist.
    But, seeing what
    the man will do
    unbribed, there's
    no occasion to."

  4. My theory is that Australian drunkenness proceeds from their accents. (It's at least as plausible as the converse.)

  5. Thanks for that piece of verse! You're right. I shouldn't have. But I always live in (naive) hope...

  6. There is nothing wrong with a healthy debate that explores the contagiousness of language and speech, how patterns of articulation form and more. I stand by my assertion that alcohol is ingrained in the Australian accent and there is evidence including a number of parallels between the drunken and the heavy Aussie accent, less use of the muscles of the tongue in articulation, smaller generalised vocabulary and slurring of words to start. Re the alleged claim on brain function, I explored then debunked the notion, but was selectively quoted. Where Linguistics is very knowledgable it is still a young study and there it doesn't explain everything. There are other unconventional perspectives that deserve a hearing also.

    1. This isn't a healthy debate because there is no debate. No, linguistics doesn't explain anything, but outside perspectives should take into established linguistic principles and then if need be show where they fall short. They shouldn't just build off of tired old stereotypes.

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  8. Thank you for this. I feel your pain.

  9. Dean: Thanks for reacting. As a fellow sufferer, point taken re selective quotation. But factually, your points about musculature simply don't stand up. For instance, the more open artic of Aussie 'day' demands considerable muscular activity, as the diphthong moves from open to close, far more than in RP 'day', for instance. One could go through each of your examples and show their normality in a wide range of accents where any drunkenness hypothesis would be absurd. And you can't simply ignore the huge amount of research on Australian historical phonology by writing off linguistics as a young subject. Next year sees the centennial of Ferdinand de Saussure. 100 years young, therefore. I'm not opposed to unconventional approaches, as long as they respect established facts. And these facts come from not just historical sociolinguistics, and articulatory phonetics, but from psycholinguistics and child language acquisition, where you would have to demonstrate the effect of drunkenness on intergenerational transmission. Have you actually ever done any research on the phonetics of inebriation? If you had, you would have noted the huge differences between the kind of 'slurring' that takes place there and what happens in any regional accent. The typical sibilance effects, for example, are not a feature of any normal accent that I know of.

    The big pity of all this is that, by making such a wild claim, you have distracted everyone from the other big point you made, of wanting rhetoric back into the classroom. I couldn't agree more about that, and have often made the argument myself. What I now fear is that many people who might have been thinking positively about that will now write it off because they will associate it with the drunkenness claim. There's far more to rhetoric than articulatory efficiency, and - as I say in the post - you've made the educational linguistic job harder for those of us who are trying to get the value of rhetoric across.

  10. DC. I thank you for your response and have been a great admirer of your work for some time. Firstly I do not dismiss linguistics, I have much respect for it and I love the English language. On the other hand I have experienced nasty trolling from a band of boozy linguists going back to 2011, including that one who selectively misquoted me. Their mistakes and misbehaviour confirm for me that linguistics remains in the early stages of evolution as a study. But I do think your observation that psycholinguistics and language acquisition is a constructive area to explore. As someone who has professionally trained an autistic adult to speak functionally, I had to identify all the relevant speech skills, create exercises to break the bad habits and develop new good ones. My collection of clients and students includes current politicians, actors, people suffering from anxiety and more. I see a number of speech and communication issues from a different angle. I have observed how humans are affected by speech and pick up speech habits. Indeed the psychology of people under the influence of alcohol is intriguing. To start, I'd raise that it is possible for a nation to unknowingly develop alcoholic patterns in the national speech manner and colonial Australia provided many conditions that make this possible. Generally speaking, when people drink alcohol their guards are let down, the subconscious becomes more prone to absorbing other stimuli including accents, and simultaneously they release emotions that usually remain inhibited revealing a cycle of communication full of fodder. There is also the un-coordination factor under the influence and I have noticed that the glossus becomes less functional in both drunken people and speakers of the Aussie accent and that the limited room provided by the jaw and the lack of dexterity between the jaw and the other articulators does inhibit articulation. There is much more to elaborate on but as you mention the drunken thesis was far from my main point of my article which tried to address a need for speech and communications training in Australia. With respect I don't think my point has even begun to be considered here so no damage is done there. I will mention that I have arrived at another conclusion that is more challenging than the drunken Aussie idea that I will share with you when this controversy dies down. Thank you again for your work and tolerance.

  11. It's such a pity that such crazy ideas get peddled as Mr Frenkel's. It's a pity, because by and large the British press isn't too bad when it comes to reporting what linguists say. This is my personal experience: I've have several articles published in the Sun, on Multicultural London English and the accent of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE), for instance. Earlier this year I did a questionnaire among fellow sociolinguists: like me, they had had almost entirely good experiences, in all sorts of outlets, with accurate and sympathetic reporting. Now THAT surprised me a lot! Unfortunately the occasional rogue story like this one does immeasurable harm.

  12. Dean: For your thesis to even begin to be plausible, you would need to show, in a proper phonetic study, that the kind of uncoordination you mention in drunken speech is the same as what is encountered in any accent. General impressions aren't enough. To my ear, there is nothing in common. Apart from anything else, the prosodic deviations, especially rhythm and rate, place drunken speech at some distance from a normal accent. You would also have to show that children readily attune to features of drunken speech and manifest them in their own output. No evidence in language acquisition studies for this. And as it's inconceivable to demonstrate historically, and hardly practicable as a research methodology today, your conclusion remains implausible.

    Sad to hear of your bad experiences. Stuff happens, in any subject. But this has no bearing on the stage of development linguistics has reached.

    Paul: Thanks for that. It's good to hear of some positive experiences, and I have had the occasional one myself. Nor is it just a tabloidy thing. Some of my most bizarre reports has been for the quality press and BBC Online.

  13. Thank you for your advice DC. As said I greatly respect your work. As you know my main concern was to encourage Australian authorities to include speech and communication training in the curriculum to raise standards in Australia; the drunken Aussie observation was a minor part of the article. It is unfortunate that was the focus of attention. I have too many important things to do to devote years to trying to prove my idea. I only hope that someone else will feel inspired to.

  14. Just a note on Dean Frenkel's repeated assertions (here and elsewhere) that somehow drunken Australian linguists are or were out to get him: I can only deduce that this is a reference to the completely innocuous "Linguistics in the Pub" (aka LIP) events that are held monthly in Melbourne (now elsewhere, including London) as an informal forum for discussing current topics in linguistics.

    See e.g. the Endangered Languages and Cultures blog which posts monthly summaries of these events:

  15. Didn't know about that. Great idea.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. I'm glad you responded the way you did. I do have one "devil's advocate" comment if you don't mind though, about standing as stending. Between two alveolars (/st/ and /n/), pronouncing the high vowel is more economical than producing it as a low vowel since the tongue has to return to where it started. That being said, I don't believe whole varieties can be described as lazy, just certain individuals (like the people who would believe such myths).


  18. Please note the request at the bottom of my blog about people identifying themselves and not calling themselves Anonymous.

    The point isn't restricted to the word 'standing'. That just happened to be the example chosen in the newspaper report.

  19. When I first saw this debate I thought it amusing, but it's developing well. As a 5th generation Australian, one who dislikes the appellation Aussie, I'm often asked to comment on the diversity of accents; why Canberra, Adelaide and Hobart accents are different from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane ones, why the northern Queensland accent? etc. But I'm surprised the debate hasn't bifurcated into the educated/uneducated gap - simply, the difference between Barry Humphries and all his characters. I think that both Dean and David are unearthing good theories, counter-theories and evidence. Regarding the (longstanding) diphthong debate, I'm currently getting on top of conversational Portuguese, a sort of diphthong-triphthong stew with olive oil elision, and have noticed the exaggeration of diphthongs when talking to an "Aussie", which is less than when talking to an "educated" Australian. I look forward to further disagreements

  20. Dean hasn't provided any evidence, not could he. So I would most strongly deny that it is a 'good' theory.

  21. Chips Mackinolty7 November 2015 at 04:58

    My sympathies, David, with having to put up with someone from the Mirror for an hour: but welcome back to your blog which I enjoy! Your posting here has been re-posted all over the world, so at least we don't have to rely entirely on journalistic Frenkelphones.
    One thing that I haven't picked up within the debate is the notion that the Australian accent has "stending" as the standard (or should that be "stendard"?). Both standing and stending co-exist in Australian accents (plural).

  22. Yes, this was another thing… no mention of the fact that there is accent diversity in Aus Eng.

  23. One simple question that Dean Frenkel has failed to provide an answer for:
    If Australian English can be traced back to drunken speech - why, then, do drunken Australians have a different pronunciation from sober Australians?
    This would imply that "drunk English" from colonial times has remained stable and continues to exist as "Australian English" whereas "modern drunk Australian English" would have somehow evolved in order to be different from "present-day sober & colonial-day drunk English".
    (Jean-Pierre Teitinger, Berlin)

  24. Quite so - which is why I asked him if he'd ever actually analysed drunk speech. Clearly, he hasn't, nor, judging by his last post, has he got any intention to do so.