Whanganui Midweek - 2021-06-09


We need to care for language


Listening to paid communicators on radio and television and wondering what happened to basic voice, vocabulary and diction training and where modern language is headed. Linguistics. A slippery slope of cliche´ s. Sliding down the rabbit hole of narratives and conversations going forward, hashtag LOL and it is what it is, literally. Perpetuating mispronunciations, picking up on short-lived language trends and letting Americanisms colonise English, like dropping the “and” in numbers over 100, specifically over 1000. We don’t want our radio and television presenters stuck in the bad old days of received pronunciation copied from the BBC: we want genuine Kiwis and their accents to fill our airwaves, except our Kiwis speak American or parrot trendy Cockney glottal stops in place of consonants and let “l’s” slip off the ends of words. And what happened to the correct pronunciation of words like distribute, constable and accomplish? At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, there does not seem to be an easily accessible resource for spoken English, a role model for vowels and consonants to follow. We used to have wellspoken radio announcers and news readers of renown to unconsciously emulate, but now, alas, the airwaves are a loaded lexicon of slang and poor diction, of social media vernacular, nasal delivery and linguistic ignorance. Role models are good singers (occasionally) but poor speakers. Now, we have so many people with English as a second language and nothing as a first. And no one seems to care. Correct speech is unimportant or worse, undesirable. To pronounce other languages correctly is commendable and, in most cases, necessary. To do the same with English is somehow neither necessary nor proper, and therefore wrong. English is made to mangle, to distort, to treat as irrelevant. We have three official languages in New Zealand, of equal importance. To treat the other two the way we treat English would cause outcry. So why do we do it? Is it a form of reverse snobbery? An attempt to show how relaxed and insouciant we can be about the language most of us share, and in which we do business and communicate across a broad societal spectrum? Or because we’re too thick to realise the damage we are doing to our primary form of spoken connection? The ability to communicate with anybody, regardless of their origins, is almost as important as breathing, but we carry on mangling the language, expecting the rest of the world to conform to our view of distorted speech. Oh well, if they can’t understand, that’s their problem. And this is nothing to do with accents. There will always be peculiar words and the odd pronunciation idiosyncrasy that may flummox the listener, but if the rest is clear, intelligible and spoken with the intention of being understood, what can go wrong? Yes, we can all understand cliche´ s, but why should we be forced to listen to someone’s lazy communication? We don’t have to be members of Toastmasters, but we can put a little effort into the spoken word, surely. Now that linguistic role models are few and far between, we have to rely on ourselves and our own need to be heard and understood. Or, we can carry on mangling the language and steadily devolve it through ignorance and lack of will. Our choice. Why would China listen? What happens when cultures collide and compromise is impossible? The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand have “expressed deep concern” over China’s handling of Hong Kong, developments in the South China Sea, and the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China has called comments by Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern “irresponsible” and “interference”. The prime ministers’ concerns are not irresponsible, but they are certainly “interference” in the way that right-thinking people interfere in the ways of authoritarianism and anti-democracy, hoping for a better outcome and an awakening of conscience in the minds of those perceived to be doing wrong. The trouble is, it’s never going to work that way. Trying to get China to respect human rights and freedom of speech is asking their Government to change completely, and all the criticism in the world is not going to make a jot of difference. All that happens is an escalation of antagonism and a rejection of what they see as the weakness of Western culture. Chinese leaders are never going to listen to Pacific democracies. If they don’t allow their own people a say in their political processes, why would they let outsiders interfere? So why do our leaders criticise Chinese policy? Because they have to; because it is right that they do so. To allow such breaches of human rights go unchallenged is anathema, but is a statement in protest enough? While New Zealanders continue to shop online from Chinese providers and boost the Chinese economy with every purchase, political criticisms seem weak indeed. We talk the talk, but can’t or won’t walk the walk. And they will take our money but refuse our political input. Our leaders can say all they like, but nothing will change.


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