‘There is nothing wrong with Australian speech’

These debates were heightened even further in 1942, when the question of Australian speech aroused the interest of ABC listeners and was debated in the ABC Weekly. After the advent of radio, the debate about the correct way of speaking on the radio was a source of much discussion. As Ken Inglis has shown, the BBC radio voice was favoured on Australian radio for much of the 1930s and 1940s.[45]

In 1942, A. G. Mitchell, an academic in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, who would later be first Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, wrote two articles in the ABC Weekly that discussed the merits of Australian speech. He was strident in his view that an Australian voice should be broadcast on the ABC: ‘We should use an Australian speech, without apology and without any sense of a need for self-justification. There is nothing wrong with the Australian voice or speech. It is as acceptable, as pleasant, as good English as any speech to be heard anywhere in the English-speaking commonwealth.’[46]

He opposed Australians trying to imitate the English manner, which would result in producing ‘a speech that was neither good Australian nor good English…We should give the pronunciation that is commonest in Australia, not slavishly imitate the English pronunciation’.[47] Judgements are never too far away from these discussions. ‘Few prejudices,’ observes Mitchell, ‘are more easily aroused than those that concern variations in speech.’ The conflation between speech and morality is drawn out in Mitchell’s article:

Question a man’s pronunciation of a word and you may touch him as nearly as if you doubted his moral integrity. Differences in political opinion are often more readily tolerated than differences in pronunciation. We are prepared to believe that a man who differs from us in politics may still be a quite reasonable person. But many of us go through life in the comfortable faith that any man who speaks differently from the way in which we speak must be a knave or a fop or a chump.[48]

Mitchell argued for tolerance when confronted with differences of language and accent. ‘The tolerance we should feel towards people of other English-speaking countries we might reasonably claim for ourselves. Visiting critics, whatever their qualifications or interests, have a constant habit of condemning Australian speech, often by invitation from interviewers.’[49] To ‘read their opinions one would think that Australians had a monopoly of everything deplorable, careless and corrupt in pronunciation’.[50] In defending Australian speech, Mitchell was questioning the practice of the ABC at that time and presenting a challenge to the policy of the national broadcaster, which was to promote a middle-class, educated English voice.

The ABC Weekly editorialised that it ‘embraces the problem of whether broadcasting is to exert its proper influence over listeners by sounding natural and attractive to them or whether it is to be discounted by them as aloof and superior’.[51] The magazine was definite that the voice that was broadcast should, however, be Australian. One of the ‘depressing’ tendencies about broadcasting was that there was a tendency to ‘standardise’ speech. ‘We have suffered from the imitation of the so-called BBC voice in this country, just as the BBC has suffered from imitation in its own ranks.’ It was important to resist the ‘suburban fear’ that somehow the concern about being considered ‘“uncultured” shall trick us into imitation of something which can never be anything but imitation and therefore of little value’.[52] On another occasion, it was argued that the selection of broadcasters should be made on the basis of how well they spoke ‘the Australian brand of English well’, but ‘not those who merely imitate something foreign to our environment’. They would then make the speech ‘more pleasant to the ear’. A separation from the speech of ‘ordinary’ people ‘merely alienates the people and sets up a natural resentment’.[53]

Not all listeners agreed. Some argued that there were many Australian voices and accents. ‘Another Australian’ believed that ‘most Australian voices have a nasal intonation which does not come through the microphone at all well, some words being quite unintelligible’. While it was important to have Australian broadcasters, they needed to be taught ‘to speak the King’s English’.[54] The Australian voice obviously had a number of variations. ‘After listening to the Australian voices heard round me all day,’ wrote one correspondent, ‘I find the delivery and accents of the ABC announcers heard at night quite refreshing and pleasing to the ear.’[55]

These articles generated considerable debate and discussion. Some argued that there was no such thing as an Australian accent, while others argued that if Australians insisted on speaking like they did, then ‘we must and will do so, but we can hardly expect respect for a language bred of carelessness out of ignorance—still less to find it considered “as acceptable, as pleasant, as good English”’.[56] The slovenly nature of Australian speech remained a source of considerable concern throughout the 1940s. ‘As a mother of five young hopefuls,’ wrote ‘Speech’ from Toowoomba, ‘I find there is a tendency to slur the vowels—a fault which shows up when they are asked to spell the word in question. This makes for slovenly speech and needs watching.’[57] Others were appalled at the suggestion that Australian speech was preferable to what was understood as standard English: ‘National arrogance and conceit can go no further than to claim that an untrained Australian voice is superior to that which results from study and hard work…Please do not degrade the cultural level of ABC announcers.’[58]

Some saw it as a choice between buying ‘a shoddy, second-class material product if it was within his financial possibility to buy a first quality article’. Why should the cultivation ‘of the best mental or educational production of a language…be despised?’.[59]

Prominent Australian commentators were asked to contribute to a debate about whether it was desirable to imitate the English or to develop and encourage a distinctly Australian accent. R. G. Menzies, a royalist and devotee of the British, did not object to an Australian speech, with ‘local colour’, but he detested the ‘widespread slovenliness of speech’. ‘I am all against encouraging carelessness and indifference on these matters. We will be none the less good Australians by being a little fastidious in our expression and using words as if we really knew what they meant.’[60] Vance Palmer, a radical nationalist, was more strident in his insistence that there be an Australian voice adopted and celebrated. It is beyond argument, he maintained,

that the standard we ought to aim at is good Australian speech, not any other kind. It may not have the richness of good Irish, the rhythm of good American, or the tonal variety of good southern English; but it has its own quality. Anyhow, it is native to us: that ought to clinch the matter. Any effort to substitute something else would lead to the enthronement…ringing emptily like a vessel with nothing inside.[61]

In an article entitled ‘There is No Australian Accent’, Dal Stivens identified various characteristics as quintessentially Australian in our speech. Citing a Sydney teacher of voice production, Stivens argues that much of the ‘slovenliness in Australian speech is a psychological inhibition’. He argued that: ‘The Australian hates to be conspicuous or “different”. He has a horror of “side”. Every teacher finds himself opposed, sooner or later, by what has been termed “a sturdy reluctance to vary from what is considered ‘natural speech’”.’

Historically, Australia had also been a ruggedly masculine country: conquering the bush meant there was ‘a distrust of ideas and the things of the mind’, although this was changing gradually. With urbanisation and increased communication, this has changed. Quoting the voice teacher, Stivens notes the way in which this teacher argues that the

so-called Australian accent is the product of a highly strung and nervous race. The Anglo-Saxon is the most repressed of all races. The Australian…[bears] the shame of his convict beginnings: he is subservient to England and to English customs. He had what the popular psychology calls an ‘inferiority complex’.

This state was apparently reflected in speech: all pupils spoke with tight lips, did not open their mouths, were diffident and inclined to bluster.[62]

Discussion about the sound of accents invariably led to considerations of the Australian national character. Reflections on what this constituted drew out various stereotypes and clichés, but the label of laziness and slovenly speech consistently informed such discussions. Debates about received English compared with the local variant and questions relating to the cultural politics of moral self-improvement are central themes in these debates. The most significant shift during the inter-war years was, however, the perception and promotion of a cultivated Australian accent as opposed to one that was considered rough and slovenly. By this time, it was agreed that the English accent should not simply be copied or replicated; the challenge ahead was how a respectable and distinctive Australian sound should be spoken.