Friday, October 15, 2010

Graeme Lay on New Zealand English

A guest post by North Shore writer Graeme Lay, author of, most recently, the novel Alice and Luigi and the non-fiction books In Search of Paradise: artists and writers in the colonial South Pacific and Whangapoua: a history.

A sacred New Zealand institution is in peril. It’s not Richie McCaw, Margaret Mahy or the seabed and foreshore, it’s something much more precious. I’m referring to the English language, with which most New Zealanders communicate, in speech or writing, every day of our lives. The abuse of our Mother Tongue has become extreme: obfuscation abounds, mispronunciation is rife, jargon proliferates, clichés thrive. Our use of language is similar to our driving habits – careless, thoughtless and potentially hazardous.

Having to listen to or read the words of those who show no regard for the proper use of English is infuriating. Language should be used as an instrument which is as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, and to see that instrument chipped and blunted is sickening.

How do the abuses of English happen? How did the word ‘feedback’ replace ‘reaction’ and a ‘result’ become an ‘outcome’? Why did a simple ‘problem’ transmute into an ‘issue’? Why did ‘medicine’ expand into ‘medication’? Why were the ghastly ‘appropriate’, and its even ghastlier antonym, ‘inappropriate’, allowed take root and flourish? Why is everyone now saying ‘absolutely’ instead of ‘yes’? Why do they keep referring to that cliché, ‘The elephant in the room’?

I saw a notice in downtown Auckland this week. It read: ‘Can you help those who have been impacted by the Christchurch earthquake?’ Impacted? It could have been worse: they could have used ‘effected’ for impacted instead of the proper word, ‘affected’. The fact that nouns can so readily be converted to verbs (‘impacted’,’ marginalise’, ‘prioritise’ ‘verbalise’) is both a strength and weakness of English, the strength being its flexibility, the weakness being the creation of verbs of abiding ugliness.

A dangerous linguistic development is the recurring use of the expression ‘of course’. Prefacing a sentence or phrase with ‘of course’ is to ascribe to it a presumption which is seldom really there. For example, the sentence, ‘Of course we all know where that policy will lead us’ is an attempt to clump everyone into having the same opinion of the speaker, when in reality we well may not know, or agree, where the policy is leading us. Such presumptions can be dangerous.

Of the current crop of carelessly used words, one in particular incurs my ire. That is the word ‘basically’. ‘Basically’ has come to mean absolutely nothing: it provides only meaningless padding whose sole function is to gain time for the speaker. ‘Basically’, I believe, came from the United States, and like a viral infection it has spread throughout the English-speaking world.

Another parroted phrase which originated in England, where I heard it for the first time, is the silly phrase, ‘To be honest’. It too has spread to New Zealand where it has replaced the perfectly good adverb, ‘frankly’. ‘To be honest’ has been snapped up by Kiwis with enthusiasm, even though beginning a sentence with the words ‘To be honest’ is an unconscious form of self-condemnation, carrying as it does the inference that everything else the speaker utters is dishonest, which may not always be the case.

Another example is ‘going forward’. This expression has become a catch-cry and an obfuscation, a cover-up for those who wish to con us into thinking they are actually concerned about our future. Going forward, we have the solutions to welfare abuse. Yeah, right.

Of those who consistently debase our language, it is advertisers, PR people and politicians who are the worst offenders. Academics, art critics, educationalists and literary theoreticians also employ language which can be fully comprehended by no one except other academics, art critics, educationalists and literary theoreticians. It was also probably inevitable but still regrettable that we now have on National Radio reporters who pronounce Maori words impeccably but are frequently imperfect in their pronunciation of English.

Our political leaders set a poor example to the nation. Like one of his predecessors, ‘Stumble-Tongue’ Bolger, our current Prime Minister is a regular gabbler and mangler of English. Why hasn’t John Key learnt that the plural of ‘woman’, ‘women’, is pronounced so that it rhymes with ‘swimmin’? Why does he talk about meeting with something he calls his ‘kebnit’? Why does he keep saying that, ‘The people of Can’bree are virry resill-yinn?’ (Probably the only thing that former Prime Ministers Robert Muldoon and Helen Clark had in common was their crisp command of language. Or at least Muldoon’s was crisp when he was sober).

There are few voices more appealing than that of an articulate Kiwi. It’s always a pleasure to listen to a Kim Hill or a Maggie Barry or a Max Cryer (or even a Jim Mora when his many ‘I mean... I mean’s’ are disregarded). And language lovers will forever miss the most articulate of them all, David Lange. There was no room in David’s language locker for such hideous expressions as ‘at this point in time’ or clichés such as ‘in a nutshell’.

Yet occasionally the language abusers become a source of amusement, albeit unintentionally. There was the drug squad man who, when questioned about an investigation, replied, ‘What we’re looking for, basically, are the people who are manufacturing P, in a nutshell.’

And I particularly enjoyed the Shortland Street starlet who, seeking to explain the secret of her success to an interviewer, gushed, ‘It’s all due to my dialogue coach. She taught me everything I know about prenounciation.’


Danyl said...

There was no room in David’s language locker for such hideous expressions as ‘at this point in time’ or clichés such as ‘in a nutshell’.

How awful to see the language of Shakespeare cheapened by phrases like 'in a nutshell.'

BookieMonster said...

Personally, I look forward to the day we're all speaking lolcats.
"Oh noes! Mai english iz nut edumacated."

Danyl - I totes LOLd.

Stephen Stratford said...

Danyl, Shakespeare was a shameless user of cliches. The plays are full of them.

Phil said...

I'm amazed at how teenagers are copying the American patois - with 'like' sprinkled wildly into any sentence. Yet - the 'i' sound (e.g. in 'ilke' is becoming more pure as they also imitate USA pronuncialtion - instead of the the old 'oi' sound.
But they still say fush and Nyo Zillund. Hmmm

Anonymous said...

Everything you say is true
Nerver the less it is a sign of old fartism when you start railing against spoken English; it is a living language and is always changing.
Nothing new about that and nothing new about old farts complain that people do not speak like them
Join the club, I am a fully paid up member

Samuel said...

"I'm amazed at how teenagers are copying the American patois - with 'like' sprinkled wildly into any sentence."

I used to notice friends and acquaintances who'd start doing this in their early teens; they generally stopped again by the time they were in seventh form.

'Fully' used to pop up as a form of extra emphasis, sometimes twinned with 'like'. Usage example: "It was, like, fully the best of times, yet kind of like the worst of times too."

Phil said...

Or 'It was soooo totally, like - the worst of times.'

Helen said...

Think "like" is an offense on the English language introduced by Valley Girls in the 1980s? Think again.

Anonymous said...

It's like sometimes hard to y'know understand what some of yous are saying when ya don't talk proper but sometimes it's just showing off that you've like gotten a bettter education than I done.

Samuel said...

On the topic of "like", this excellent post which picks up on Christopher Hitchens' derision of the usage:

Anyway, Hitchens’s diagnosis proceeds:

To report that “he was like, Yeah, whatever” is to struggle to say “He said” while minimizing the risk of commitment.

I don’t think this is, like, right? To say “He was like, Yeah, whatever”, is to give a beautifully economical report of the person’s entire demeanour and attitude. Hitchens has cited some linguists pointing out that the construction “does not require the quote to be of actual speech (as ‘she said’ would, for instance). A shrug, a sigh, or any of a number of expressive sounds as well as speech can follow it”. But even when what sounds like speech does follow, it is not necessarily meant to be understood as more-or-less-accurate reported speech. For he was like, Yeah, whatever, it is entirely possible (or even probable?) that the person did not actually say “Yeah, whatever” — there is a creative ambiguity in play as to whether he was like introduces accurate reported speech or a very rough précis of speech or even merely a verbal description of gesture (he might not have said anything at all) — so that to replace it with Hitchens’s suggestion, the flat “He said”, could well be to commit a falsehood.

In sum, he was like and he said do not actually mean the same thing; and Hitchens is like, I do not approve of this youthspeak that I have not made sufficient efforts to understand?

helenalex said...

Since this kind of post is an invitation to nitpick, I'd like to point out that feedback is not the same as reaction. Say the Dom Post prints a crap article. If I write to them and tell them so, that is both feedback and a reaction. If I just stop buying the paper, or throw it across the room in rage, those are reactions, but the Dom Post gets no feedback. Similarly, wanting feedback is very different from wanting a reaction.

Of course, part of the problem is people saying feedback when they mean reaction, but that doesn't meant there's anything wrong with the word feedback.