ABC language report

Reports of death greatly exaggerated

Tiger Webb

As the ABC’s language research specialist, I am occasionally confronted with the Kafkaesque news that I have ceased to exist. ‘There used to be an organisation called SCOSE’, an audience member recently wrote in an email to me, ‘which allegedly looked after the standards of English on air at the ABC’. Used to be? Ouch.

While it’s true enough that the Standing Committee On Spoken English (or SCOSE) is no longer with us, that doesn’t mean nobody is keeping the usage lights on at Aunty. Since 2016, a roughly identical committee has met monthly to consider questions of English pronunciation, grammar and usage. Our new name, ABC Language, is a touch less imperious than the old one. It also serves as a reminder that, increasingly, the work our committee deals with doesn’t just disappear into the broadcast ether, but sticks around eternally online.

Unlike me, the complaint tradition in English shows no signs of fading. Australians seem particularly convinced there was once some prelapsarian grammatical Eden, and that we should get back to it quick-fast. In the 1960s, letters to the ABC’s pronunciation clerk pined for the halcyon days of our Depression-era broadcasts. Some 30 years later, the punters all wanted Arch McKirdy back on the air.

Pronunciation is a recurrent theme. Probably the most frequent single complaint concerns what linguists call the intervocalic alveolar flap – which happens when the /t/ sound in words like butter or water is realised closer to a /d/ sound. ‘Such ignorance makes it impossible to take any discourse seriously’, writes one complainant, who also calls the flap lazy. Complainants often assume something is new because they have noticed it; directing them to reference works showing Australians likely flapped at Federation never seems to convince them otherwise. Incidentally, ‘laziness’ is arbitrary here: the /t/ and /d/ sounds take roughly equivalent effort to produce. Is English lazy for using pen when German Kugelschrieber would do?

It should be mentioned, though, that many issues reaching my desk aren’t so frivolous. Biopic shouldn’t rhyme with myopic, rain event is surely a poor replacement for rainfall, mistaking ordnance for ordinance can lead to explosive results. Variant pronunciations of Aboriginal Australian terms, or for the names of murdered journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, are rightly seen by many as insensitive. So, too, are unplanned moments of levity, as in a news report that said a man suffers from dementia as well as his family.

Historically, it has suited the interests of language mavens to pretend theirs is a solitary drudge. (Even the apostrophe in Fowler’s modern english usage masks that two brothers commenced that work!) At the ABC, we have the good fortune to work with reporters, subeditors – and, yes, managers – who think about language in a passionate, articulate way. In this, we are assisted at all times by the public, who hold us to a far higher standard than they do the commercial networks. So please: keep the emails coming. We’re not dead yet.