Mother tongue

30 11 2011

A modern-day Rosetta Stone. photo credit: Andrew Curtis

One of my mother’s favourite sayings as I was growing up, was “I learned my English in England – where did you learn yours?” This was rolled out whenever we had a dispute about pronunciation of words.

As ten pound POMs (a program whereby English immigrants got passage to Australia for ten pounds), my mother was vigilant to ensure that my pronunciation remained unsullied. The thick Brummy accent I had as a five-year old rapidly moderated to a relaxed Australian twang once I started school. Although being South Australian, it is a fairly clipped twang, not a broad Steve Irwin twang. But my pronunciation of certain words meant I stood out as an immigrant. I usually get picked up on “one” (I pronounce it won, not wun) and “year” (I pronounce it yerr, not yee-ar).

Several decades earlier my Irish grandparents had a rougher time in their migration to England. Grandad had to lose his accent in order to get a job. People with Irish accents could not get a job in England. My grandmother had small children and didn’t work in Britain so she never lost her accent, but her children were all brought up to have minimal and somewhat undefined accents. My grandparents were determined that their children would not be discriminated against because of the way they spoke. To this day it is difficult to pick where my mother and her brother and sisters come from – they have indeterminate accents. My grandmother meanwhile continues to have such a delightfully thick brogue that I have to translate her for my step-children. My children seem to have adapted to the brogue quite well – perhaps it is in the genes.

Learning French at school we heard about Alliance Francaise, an organisation dedicated to ensuring the purity of the French language, They were particularly vigilant against American slang creeping into the French language – weekend, hamburger – but it has to be said they are probably fighting a losing battle. Language evolves with each generation. The language of the 1920s, 1950s, 1980s and now is all quite different. As we become more globalised, languages cross borders more easily and become hybridised. And this is as it has always been. The English language is a hybrid, with words reflecting the history of the British Isles. The origins of many words come from Viking, Norman, Anglo, Saxon, Roman invasions, reflecting the stages of societal development and the inventions that each invasion brought to the Island.

Despite understanding the hybrid nature of our language, I have found myself correcting my children recently on their Americanisms (“We are Australian!”). I stress this is not about being anti-American, but it is about resisting cultural imperialism represented in Hollywood movies and television programs in an effort to maintain Australian English. We Australians like to be individuals (despite the fact we haven’t quite managed to become a republic yet.) A few of my favourites….

They are cupcakes, not muffins. (English muffins are an entirely different thing again)
They are biscuits, not cookies.
It’s Father Christmas, not Santa Claus.
It’s zed, not zee (even though it means the alphabet song doesn’t rhyme at the end)
The pronunciation of the letter “h” is aitch, not haitch.
There is no Australian translation for the word turducken, nor should there be.

My obsession has also extended to computer settings – I habitually changed the “z” to “s” in words such as socialise (not socialize). And I object to adding extra syllables to words to turn them into verbs – for instance, the word burglarise (or burglarize). It is just burgle, there is no need for the extra syllables. What does a burglar do? He or she burgles. The latest version of the Microsoft Australian English dictionary is not too bad (note to WordPress!), but occasionally errors creep in and I am vigilant!

Viva la France!