Aidan Wilson writes:

File photo: Julia Gillard (AAP: Dave Hunt)

We wouldn’t be a very good Crikey blog if we didn’t comment on Julia Gillard’s ascension to the rank of Prime Minister – so it’s lucky for us that the political gods the NSW Labor Party’s Right-wing faction have gifted us with a new PM whose voice serves as a linguistic discussion point.

Despite my thoughts that it’d be a hot topic, I’ve only found a few snippets of reports relating to the new Prime Minister’s accent. One of which is an article from 2009 in which it was claimed that Julia Gillard was asked by American school kids  – apparently baffled by her accent – whether they speak English in Australia. There are also a couple of comments on Peter Hartcher’s recent opinion piece, that deride her ‘horrible’ voice. One commenter pleads with her to ‘drop the manufactured Aussie accent’, adding that ‘it’s excruciating’.

By far the most in-depth coverage of Gillard’s accent was an interview on Newsradio last Friday morning with Lucy Cornell, director of Voice Coach, an aptly named voice coaching firm in Sydney. The full recording of the interview is here (if you can be bothered listening to the uninspired musings of Cornell about gender politics and her gushing over the wonderful Australian accent). The quotes below are from my own transcription. So if it takes you a couple of attempts to read some of the clunky sentences, just imagine a giant (sic) after the whole thing.

Interviewer: So you’d encourage Julia Gillard to show us more of her, of her warmth, her humanity, her personality through her voice? How do you do that?

Lucy Cornell: Well that’s technical, literally what’s going on for her is that she – I won’t get too technical on you – is that not much breath is going into her body, which – a lot of people don’t breathe very much these days, so for her if there’s no breath going in she can’t tap into her natural resonance. So what that means is you miss out on the ring, you miss out on the deeper notes of her voice and what you get is mostly her sharp intellect, you know and the muscling of sounds rather than the – I was talking to someone yesterday saying that imagine if you had Julia Gillard’s intellect and Cate Blanchett’s voice underneath that. That would be quite powerful.

Doesn’t sound too technical to me.

The interview goes on to discuss whether Gillard has had any voice coaching, and if not, whether she should have any.

Interviewer: I know that Julia Gillard has said that she’s never had any voice coaching and that probably people would know that by listening to her; she’s often joked about that. Do you think she’d benefit from it, do you think she should do it or do you think that would then would open her up to more criticism that she’s succumbed to the pressure and the superficiality of it all?

Lucy Cornell: Yeah, it’s a tough gig being a politician because you are absolutely in the public’s eye, you’re scrutinised by that and also you’re open to if you do reveal yourself then the fear is that you’re open to immediate criticism by the opposition, and you’re also playing all the policies and the agendas of the people behind you, so it’s a really tough gig to be brave enough to reveal yourself in your voice. I think she can certainly do with warming into her voice more but whether she – it’s a really tough, tough call to do that.

There are a number of points to consider in this whole issue. The first is whether Gillard’s accent is put on; whether she has had coaching to sound more Australian. I used to think it was genuine, but now I can’t tell. The few colleagues I’ve spoken to about this think that it’s completely fake. They argue that since she was born in South Wales and raised in Adelaide, she must feel the need to up the Australianness to fit into parliament. This could be true to some degree, but I still think it would take quite some linguistic prowess to maintain a fake accent for such a prolonged period.

A broader issue brought up in this is that of politicians being judged by their accents. US-born NSW Premier Kristina Keneally copped a fair amount of flak for sounding increasingly Australian when she was elected elevated to the job, and Barack Obama was widely carpeted for blacking it up when addressing predominantly black audiences but keeping it white otherwise. A quick Google search finds a blog entry containing the following:

There is a black dialect. Barack Obama deliberately employs it sometimes when talking to black audiences. He almost never employs it when speaking to white audiences. If Barack Obama spoke to white audiences with a negro dialect, he would not be elected president of the United States.

That’s the key issue here: To what extent does one’s accent affect their political chances. Are these politicians shifting the way they speak as a function of their audience? Probably – but it’s hard to tell the difference between deliberate shifts in accent, and natural, subconscious variation in one’s own speech depending on the audience – a phenomenon linguists call accommodation.

If it is deliberate – and this brings me to the next point – then it’s symptomatic of a political reality in which individuals are elected primarily on the basis of their personality, voice and any other factors as opposed to a party being elected on the basis of policy. I don’t think Gillard, or anyone for that matter, should have to do anything to change their accent just because a couple of people think it’s too coarse or ‘excruciating’. Surely the only measure of a politician’s worth is their policies (in an ideal world). Any other factors then, are totally irrelevant – and in this I include gender, hair colour, marital status, sexual orientation, religion or even one’s abilities in cricket (although ripping on John Howard’s bowling action sure was fun, wasn’t it?).

Lastly, Gillard’s accent isn’t especially extraordinary. I haven’t exactly done a phonetic analysis, but a quick review of some key phrases tells me that she sits somewhere at the broader end of general, while many politicians (and most female politicians) are closer to the cultivated side. If you don’t what I mean when I use terms like ‘broad’, ‘general’ and ‘cultivated’, don’t worry – these are terms that were used very early to describe the sociolects of Sydney (see Wikipedia for a brief explanation). More recently, research has shown that the situation is more complicated. Instead, we all use features of all three sociolects, but in varying measures. So Gillard simply uses broad features more frequently than other females.

All in all, the paucity of comments in the mainstream media on Julia Gillard’s accent – which cause some difficulties in researching for this post – is encouraging; clearly the public care less about her voice than her politics. Somewhat less encouraging was this opinion piece in Tuesday’s Herald by Bettina Arndt about her lifestyle choices.

And before anyone mentions it, I’m fully aware of the irony of claiming Gillard’s accent as a non-issue yet at the same time publishing over 1000 words about it.