As She is Spoke

My father was a fuss-budget where language was concerned, and I probably follow his lead somewhat. In the early 1950s I would come home from school with vocabulary lists in French and Latin, and he would take me carefully through the correct pronunciation of the French, without actually casting aspersions on Sister Mary Sebastian’s efforts, and in the case of Latin, which I only had the opportunity to study for about six months, through the declensions, conjugations and history until my eyes glazed over. Dad was keen on all languages, and even if he only picked up a few phrases, would make every effort to pronounce them correctly.

We were migrants who arrived on Melbourne Cup Day in 1950, at the peak of the postwar wave of European immigration. Dad had a good handle on English—he had at one time been involved in international banking in Switzerland—and gave lessons on the migrant ship as well as the camps we spent a few weeks in on our arrival. At that time, however, there was a strong resistance to the overwhelming migrant presence, and the general attitude was that we needed putting in our place. School playgrounds were loud with cries of “nazi” and “bloody reffo”. Wog wasn’t used much in the southern suburbs of Sydney yet. Even adults were the butt of disdain from the overwhelmed Aussies. For children especially there was a strong incentive to blend into the community as soon as possible. Both my brother and I achieved 100 per cent in English and Spelling a year after our arrival, and were extremely frustrated if we couldn’t think of the correct English expression for something we wanted to say or write.

In those days not much effort was put into pronouncing “foreign” words or names correctly, not even on the ABC. It took about twenty years for the media to make any real effort, and even then they got it horribly wrong. Imagine my absolute delight, a few weeks ago, when I heard the presenter of the Classic FM jazz program, Mal Stanley, pronounce with fantastic accuracy the name of a Hungarian wind instrument, the taragató, and when I rang up the station, he personally explained to me what the instrument was. The word is not in my little Hungarian dictionary. We have come a long way from the early days, when I heard a radio announcer in Canberra tell the listeners about the latest movies showing locally, including “Nights of Eye Goanna” (The Night of the Iguana).

More effort was always put into pronouncing French acceptably well than any other language, although we reffos couldn’t help but smile wryly at words such as bouquet (bokay) and lingerie (longeray). We did soon come to realise that certain words had their own English versions which were universally respected. French probably had more authority because of cultural and culinary history. It had, after all, long been the diplomatic language, which even Her Majesty still speaks faultlessly. Not so Italian, despite its long traditions. The Italians have been, after all, confident enough in their cultural advantage to laugh off the clumsy mistakes of the less privileged. How things have subtly changed. A couple of months ago I asked for a bruschetta in a café. The young waitress said archly, “Oh, you mean a brooshetta.” That was a salutary lesson in not knowing better.

About twenty years ago, after the Berlin Wall came down, there was a fair amount of news about the German parliament (the Bundestag), which the BBC pronunciation guide, strongly followed by our own ABC in those days, got wrong. I had the temerity to ring up the ABC to try to set them right. The cheeky young thing on the phone said, “How do you know?” I suppose I didn’t sound convincingly German enough to know it was not pronounced “Bundeshtag”.

In the seventies we were even given pronunciation guides for the names of certain products, such as the newly introduced Coty perfume, Imprévu. I still squirm at the memory of that guide in glossy magazines as well as on television: “Om-pray­voo”! More recently a fast-food chain has been touting a burger with roshti, a Swiss style of fried potatoes, which the Swiss themselves pronounce with an “ö”. At least the ad doesn’t give you a lesson in how to say the word.

As a teacher of English as a Second Language in the seventies and eighties I got many an interesting insight into the cultural differences between us Aussies and the mainly Asian and Middle Eastern boys at my high school. Often, if a teacher pronounced their name a certain way, his or her authority had to be respected, and henceforward that became their name. Names are important, especially in Asian communities. Some students approached me to consult me on certain Anglo names that they may have liked to be known by. They had to be socially acceptable names with a good meaning and not likely to be abbreviated to something undignified or ridiculous.

In the fifties a friend of ours on a Teachers College Scholarship in Brisbane was appointed to a government school after graduating. His name was John Quinlem. Sounds Irish, doesn’t it? He was born in Australia, but his father’s name was Chong Quin Lam, and Chong was probably the surname. The school where John turned up could not deal with his Chinese appearance and turned him away. In fact, the Queensland Education Department in those days did not accept Chinese or Aboriginal staff. John told his story to the Brisbane Courier-Mail and all hell broke loose.

Most country towns have a long history of a non-European presence in their community. Interaction was based on commerce. In our local town of Taree there were, from the 1920s, what were known as Syrians (actually Christian Lebanese), who owned clothing and shoe stores and at least one café. There were also itinerant Indian hawkers, who travelled around with horse-drawn wagons, and later, with well-equipped motor vans. My father-in-law, Cecil, would communicate with these people in a simplified English, enhanced with gestures. He soon learned how to haggle. As a child he was sometimes entertained and fed by a traveller he knew as Charlie Shirt Strings
(we think, Sher Singh). Other towns had a long history of a Chinese presence, which has since spread to all areas. Where there were Greeks, Italians or Maltese they were referred to as Dagoes.

With the new wave of postwar chain migration the local community began to feel overwhelmed. There was a general sentiment of resistance. These newcomers were not going to be allowed to outclass the locals, even if they included many respected professionals of world standing such as the conductor Tibor Paul and the business magnate Peter Abeles. Many second-generation migrants rose to prominence, but by then attitudes had changed somewhat. They were now deemed to be “one of us”. Their parents, however, had to wait five years, and up to fifteen years in the case of East Asians, to attain citizenship and were often treated with disdain and told to go back where they came from if they couldn’t express themselves clearly.

Even in the seventies and eighties at the boys’ high school where I taught ESL, if I heard the raised, strained voice of a teacher, it was often directed at a migrant boy who was treated as slow-witted. Being one of the postwar European migrants myself, I was tickled by the comment on a supposedly confidential teacher’s report I happened to see, which had been forwarded to my new high school: “Achieves far beyond her native capacity.” This opinion was no doubt based on the results of my Year 5 IQ test, done a year after my arrival, and full of cultural bias. How was I supposed to complete sayings such as: “A stitch in time …”?

It has not been unusual for migrant children to accompany their parents to the doctor, the bank or Centrelink to act as interpreters. A child would be called upon to deal with issues that were often of a private nature, maybe health problems for which they would only have the simplest, crudest English terms. “Mum has trouble with her bottom, down there.” They would have had neither the register nor the sophistication to deal with their parents’ needs, but mature behaviour was forced upon them.

Nowadays translation services are available to cater for many needs, with charts in many languages on display in hospitals, airports and reception areas of all kinds. There are undoubtedly still a number of migrants who may not be literate in their own language to take advantage of these, especially among the elderly. When I visited a clinic for an x-ray recently I became fascinated by one such chart in several languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Hindi. The message was: “If there is any chance that you may be pregnant please inform the radiographer or sister before you are x-rayed.” (Twenty words). The Arabic seemed to comprise twenty-six words, the Chinese twenty-one characters and the German twenty-one words. Much to my surprise the Spanish was the longest, with thirty words, and the Italian the shortest, with a mere fifteen, yet the Italian sounded succinct and elegant without appearing to sacrifice politeness. “Potresti essere incinta? Allora avvisa il radiologo o l’infermiera prima di fare i raggi.” We have come a long way from: “Learn to speak English, or go back where you came from.”

I can’t speak too highly of the SBS services both on radio and on television. They give us the opportunity to dip into many different languages, even, in my case, to try and guess what the language might be, and to hear the news from a country where it is happening. It is great to see movies and popular programs from abroad, and keep an eye on the subtitling, which appears to have improved remarkably over the last few years. Now I hardly ever catch myself saying: “No! That’s wrong!” SBS provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in a variety of languages and cultures, even if one doesn’t intend to travel.

We have just watched, again, the great recent Australian movie Beneath Hill 60, set in 1916, which I could hardly fault where period authenticity and language were concerned. Great attention was paid to class distinctions and register of the period, and where German was used for scenes behind the enemy lines in Belgium, it was impeccable, even using accurate idiom for the period. I cannot think of a British or an American production where such meticulous attention was paid to another European language. I’ve often guffawed when watching historical drama or documentaries produced by Americans or the British which were supposed to contain German or French dialogue. Yet movies such as Tora Tora Tora were brilliant and convincing because of their authentic Japanese input. One outstanding Australian movie, Ten Canoes, in a northern Aboriginal language with subtitles, was based on the Aboriginal Dreaming and customs to which it pays tribute. The director, Rolf de Heer, paid close attention to the input of his co-producer, David Gulpilil. Australian media and productions nowadays seem to pay more attention to history, veracity and authenticity than their overseas counterparts.

I spend a lot of time listening to ABC Classic FM. From day to day I am increasingly delighted by the cultural information as well as the exemplary pronunciation of all manner of foreign words and names. I am so glad that the ABC has long since ditched the BBC pronunciation guide, and are doing their own research. Recently we have heard numerous beautiful broadcasts of the BBC Proms. I must confess I smirked when listening to some of the braying, Sloane-voiced announcers still getting it wrong, if only marginally, but how confident they sound! Even in Australia we may still occasionally hear “Giovarni”, or “Barch”, or “Giuseppi”, but then again we get a spot-on Ildebrando d’Archangelo (a well-known base baritone), or, as I mentioned earlier, the taragató. We do see and hear the recurrence of rather irritating words from French such as hommage and genre.

I can usually pick the provenance of a choir from its pronunciation of foreign words, particularly the words of the Latin mass. I recently heard Sanctus nasalised and with a French “u”. A German choir singing amen can make it sound like almond. The principal singers in a performance rarely get the sounds wrong. As early as 1965 I became aware of the attention singers wanted to pay to correct pronunciation. A colleague at a school where I taught asked me to take her through certain classical lyrics in French, German, and even in Italian, where I feel I have no real expertise.

I get quite nostalgic when travelling around by train in Sydney. The recorded announcements when the train arrives at or is about to leave the station, seem to be in the voice of one of my favourite ABC radio announcers of recent years, Charles Southwood. He started his career in Perth in 1978 and retired from the ABC four years ago. I hope his mellifluous voice continues to be heard in other places as well.

There have been some subtle sound shifts at all levels of Australian speech. Fine distinctions can be heard, even in sports presentations, from the more refined upper middle-class diction (for tennis, golf, motor racing, rugby union) to the broader delivery from announcers and participants in rugby league and boxing (“I love yez all!”).

Over the years I have been able to detect the legacy of a Mediterranean background in otherwise Australian accents. The pitch of the “i” or the “e” may be sharper (Italian), or there may be a certain sibilance (Greek). There may be less aspiration in the hard consonants. I first noticed this in the speech of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s many years ago, and wondered whether she had beeen raised in India, where hard consonants are not aspirated. It turned out her background was Belgian.

Another general evolution is the way “l” has retreated to the back of the throat, as in words such as football (“footbaw”), building (“buiwding”), St Kilda (“St Kiwda”), which hints at a subtle East Ender influence, possibly from television programs such as The Bill (“The Biw”). Surprisingly, however, for a country the size of Australia, there appear to be no regional differences in the way she is spoke.

Val Murray wrote about smells (“On the Bugle”) in the July-August issue.

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