Way back in the 1950s I was addicted to the cartoons of Emile Mercier, who drew Australian urban life like no other. Many of his scenes, even those with his favourite trams, seemed to be set on a floor held up on coil springs. He had fun with the letters on the linotype machine, so ‘ETAOIN now on sale!’ could be shown in an ad., or a boxer could be seen in the SHRDLU Gym. My favourite, and it is apposite to this little essay, was a tent scene, the owner plainly on holidays at the beach. He is beer-bellied and half asleep in his deck chair. A portable radio is blaring out: ‘This is the Air Beer Seer, and here is the Neeorz!’
We went to a lot of trouble to speak correctly, whatever that was, and there were people who taught elocution, so that we spoke proper. When I went to England I could quickly tell the cause of the difference between English and Australian: the English — well, the educated ones — pronounced their consonants, and we didn’t. A friend of mine in Oxford, who was a teller of terrible tall tales, once explained to his female audience that we spoke like that because we hardly opened our mouths, and had adopted that mode to keep the flies out. ‘How awful for you!’ was the reply.
The BBC has for quite a long time now allowed regional accents on radio and television, and the ABC is also more permissive than it was. But neither broadcaster can do much with those it interviews. The headline of this article is something I heard. Not only is it OK now for speakers to regard consonants as a matter of taste, but running words together is just as common.
The Leader of the Opposition is either Mr Rabbit or Ms Trabbett, as above. The ABC’s excellent Graham Abbott, no relation so far as I know, is most commonly referred to on air by his colleagues as ‘Gray Mabbott’. One of the senior staff at the University of Canberra in my time there was the widely respected Graham Eadie. Someone at UC in a sea of trouble, advised to go and see ‘Miss Treadie’, who would be very helpful, was astonished to discover a male.
And you would think that most of us would know how to pronounce the name of our own country. But it won’t be long before all the signs will need to be changed to accommodate the new pronunciation: STRAYER it is. It wouldn’t suprise me at all to discover that there were young people who think that the words of our national anthem begin with the couplet: ‘Strayens all let us ring Joyce , for she is young and free’.
Other examples that come to mind are those nasty people called ‘terriss’, who blow things up, themselves often included. There are also much more welcome people, called ‘touriss’, who come from other countries and spend money here. The second month in the year in Strayer is ‘Febuary’.
The NSW Department of Main Roads seems to have decided that apostrophes are useless and cost money, so no road signs now have them. I have some sympathy for this decision, as I am the self-appointed President of the Australian Society for the Extirpation of the Apostrophe (ASEA), and my small committee believes that few Strayens know where to put them anyway, and get it wrong if they guess. They’d be much better leaving them out everywhere.
Maybe it was also the DMR that led the way with intriguing road signs, like ‘Falling Rocks Dont Stop’ (which is true, until they reach flat ground anyway), and my favourite of favourites: ‘Koalas Cross Here’. Is this a command, and if it is, who taught the koalas to read? Or is it a warning that in this vicinity koalas are very often angry? The same genius was probably responsible for ‘Disabled Toilet’, which you might infer to be one that is out of operation.
I saw signs the other day for ‘Female Ambulant Toilet’ and its male equivalent, which I take to be a response to complaints on the part of mobility-impaired people that they shouldn’t be categorised as those who have to use these out-of-service toilets.
Life is full of complication, and our only hope is that the Macquarie Dictionary will in time get round to welcoming these new forms into the dictionary.