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Linguistic And Cultural Diversity Under Attack In Australia

By Jerome Irwin

02 November, 2015

Dean Frenkel – a singer, voice coach and public speaking-communication lecturer at Melbourne Australia’s Victoria University – is on the hot seat for a controversial theory he recently put forth (“Australia, we need to talk about the way we speak”, The Age, October 26th, 2015).

The gist of Frenkel’s theory is that the by now infamous “G’Day Mate” drawl, that has come to embody the essence of Australian culture, is actually nothing more than a ‘lazy’ accent caused by the ‘alcoholic state’ of Australia’s heavy rum-drinking early settlers who regularly got drunk together on their new-found Down Under continent. According to Frenkel’s laments, this original drunk-induced linguistic trait has since been passed down from generation to generation by all those descendants who, whether drunk or sober, have unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to the fact that they only use two-thirds of their mouth to speak and hence has become part of the Aussie national speech pattern.

His contention is that consequent sweeping effects have occurred as a result: poor communications is evident among all sectors of Australian society; a gaping hole in rhetorical training has been created in the Australian educational system; a subsequent diminishment has occurred in critical thought-processes, problem-solving, judgment and poor speech skills that have led to a lack of confidence and the internalization of emotions and thoughts that have contributed to difficulties in relationships, loneliness and stalled development. In short, Frenkel’s theories hold that Australia’s linguistic accents, moulded by booze, have led to a general inarticulateness among the people as a result.

By contrast, Frenkel holds up the example of the ancient history of Australia’s aboriginal peoples spoken word and storytelling abilities that otherwise artfully uses rhetoric as an integral part of the recounting of the Australian Dreamtime to pass on to each generation their special spiritual and survival knowledge. Frenkel contends that Australia’s western-centric civilization has instead created a “dumbing down” of speech in Australia that has “created holes in our education system that reflects holes in our culture.” “Australia”, he declares, “It is time to take our beer goggles off. It’s no longer acceptable to be smarter than we sound.”

Yet whether essentially a singer and voice coach is eminently qualified to theorize on such sweeping historical-sociological-psychological matters is a bone of contention. In 2011, Aidan Wilson, a PHD graduate honor student in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, challenged Frenkel’s then qualifications to assess Australian politician’s qualities based upon their accents (“Beware of speech experts bearing science”, Crikey, Nov 2, 2011 & Oct 29th, 2015). At the time, a brief language blog debate ensued between the two. (“A Reply from Dean Frenkel”, Crikey, Nov 7th, 2011).

However, a far more important question to pose regarding such professed theories Is what is behind the ultimate objective in Australia, or wherever else in the world, to goad the world’s populace to speak in some uniform, standardized, sanitized “General Australian”, “General American”, “General Whatever” way? The obvious continuing mass disappearances of regional accents worldwide, and the negative attitudes of lower social class status and inferior traits that are often attributed to regional accents, symbolize what is a constant attempt by certain controlling forces in the world who are intent upon constantly reducing or utterly eliminating all such cultural human uniqueness or biological diversity upon the planet.

During the 19th & 20th centuries, in Australia in particular, the attempt was made by still others to perpetuate an inferior cultural mentality in the people in relationship to their original British origins. Those who ever attempted to excel in whatever endeavour were shown resentment or ridicule with such pejorative terms as, “Don’t be a tall poppy” or “Stop acting like a Plastic Brit.” From the very beginning of Australia’s literary arts, native writers were decried as mere plagiarists if they wrote with the same original power and elegance of, say, a Rudyard Kipling or Robbie Burns. In 1950, A.A. Phillips, the Melbourne critic and social commentator, coined the term “cultural cringe” to describe the post-colonial literary arts in Australia as being deficient when compared to the work of their British and European counterparts.

Back then, Australia was being made out to be synonymous with failure, just as language theorists like Frenkel now attempt to reduce Australian’s speech patterns down to the level of the hard-drinking drunkards of Australia’s early colonial days. Apparently, as some would have us believe, the only way that Australian’s now can build themselves up in the eyes of the world, and especially in the ears of whatever elocution experts who speak the British mother tongue, is to learn to pronounce proper “King’s English”. Is the intended net effect to encourage Australian’s to once again redefine their cultural heritage or to somehow otherwise demean them not only as convict stained but now as drunken stained?

The linguistic argument that now has been raised once again threatens the character and identity of what it means to be an Australian. Frenkel has obviously touched upon something that does bear closer scrutiny. It will be informative to see how much serious self-reflection the average Australian brings to bear about the whole discussion about the way Aussie’s speak.

To paraphrase an old proverb, whenever considering the truth or veracity behind any given controversy it’s not a bad idea to always remind one’s self of the fact that, “Wherever there’s a lot of smoke there’s always some fire somewhere.”

Jerome Irwin, North Vancouver, B.C. Canada Email: jerome_irwin@yahoo.com



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