Australians all let us slur

Dean Frenkel writes: Re. “Go home, beat-up media, you’re drunk” (Friday). I have been an admirer of Crikey since Stephen Mayne pioneered it. I maintain that Australians are well served by this credible independent e-publication. But a particular piece of unaccountable sloppy journalism published in Crikey hides under the protective cover of darkness and requires my response. The author has capitalised on anonymity to cowardly launch into emotional attacks. No name is attributed to the writing.

Here’s a bit of history. In 2011 at the end of the university year one drinker from a band of linguists heard me interviewed on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live, reported it to their linguists’ drinking club and decided to target me and any media agency that published me; they continued to troll me for a time. They also got themselves published on Crikey, The Age and 3RRR radio. In 2015 this same group has called on its networks to attack me again. Why? Because I have spoken about matters they think should be exclusive to linguists and I have made unconventional observations. The crux of my article in The Age was inspired by my concern about a nationwide deficit in communication skills and I called on our schools to train all students in expression, communication and speech.

Crikey’s anonymous scribe Fullysic managed to persuade linguistics professor Rachel Nordlinger to say there is no communication problem in Australia. Yet poor expression and communication skills may be a contributor to some domestic and public violence and indeed physical and mental illness. One campaign encourages middle-aged men to speak about their health, others deal with domestic violence and others encourage mentally ill people to learn effective ways of expressing themselves. These examples provide a sample of evidence of a wider expression and communication skills problem.

But the anonymous writer of Fullysic lacked the wit to understand my position:

“We don’t solve these problems by learning more about classical rhetoric or elocution lessons”.

I never advocated that classical rhetoric or elocution be taught. I am actually highly critical of classical elocution. I acknowledge considerable merit to linguistics and especially appreciate its contribution to recording and analyzing endangered languages. But it is not a science!

As a field of study linguistics remains in its early stages of evolution and is about as young as Dianetics. Indeed linguistics does exhibit some unfortunate traits of Scientology, sans Tom Cruise and the shiny teeth. It has devised its own special system of interpreting language, it indoctrinates students to their way of thinking and its networks work together in bands, usually anonymously to denigrate and intimidate. This indoctrination is exemplified by Professor Nordlinger:

“Linguistics teaches that there is no poor speech in the first place. Instead, each speech variety provides another interesting exemplar of what human beings are linguistically and cognitively capable of, and how they conceptualise and talk about the world around them.”

What inter-planetary nonsense. If the same approach was applied to driving there would be road carnage. This bizarre approach undervalues our oldest communication skill and pays little heed to the many skills of speech and its evolutionary processes. How do they justify assessment and analysis of writing with one set of values but suspend those values to speech? True to form linguists have created their own sub-language and a special nasty word to throw at people who disagree, “prescriptivists”.

Fullysic uses the basic and dishonest flaw of cutting selective quotes and pasting them out of context. The anonymous author has falsely accused me of saying that some articulation failures are a result of “inferior brain functioning”. In truth I posed the issue in one sentence then followed up with another to refute it:

“Given that articulation is a functional product of our neuro-muscular network, it is possible that our national speech impediment is a symptom of inferior brain functioning. But this argument is countered by a significant set of cerebral people who think brilliantly but express poorly. Many scientists, for example, still struggle to communicate effectively. But thanks to a few key science communicators and contemporary initiatives such as 3MT, it is improving.”

Fullysic disingenuously pretends to be bothered dealing with this and gets very emotional through the use of overblown words and phrases, such as “spread of misinformation”, “ridiculous”, “infuriated”, “ludicrousness”, “the worst article we’ve ever read”. These inflatable charges reveal just how excited and irrational the anonymous author is. Little wonder he didn’t put his name to it. My point that links the Australian accent to our alcoholic heritage was a diversion from the real issue of my article. Though most people have maintained their perspective, some linguists have lost the plot over it.

It is actually possible for a nation to unknowingly develop alcoholic patterns in the national speech manner; colonial Australia provided many of suitable conditions. Alcohol brings people together and generally speaking, when people drink alcohol their guards are let down, the subconscious becomes prone to absorbing other stimuli including accents, and simultaneously they release emotions that usually remain inhibited. There is also the un-coordination factor leading to the lack of dexterity between the jaw and other articulators. When the jaw provides limited room, one of our main articulators, the glossus becomes less functional and articulation is inhibited.

This is a classic case of the powers-that-be working in a pack to intimidate an unconventional voice. Through my work I can identify the many skills of speech, have observed how humans are affected by it and how they pick up habits. I see speech and communication issues from a different angle to these linguists. While I have every right to publically explore issues relevant to my work, the key to the criticism leveled at me is that some in the linguistic community want to deny me this right. There is no place for such censorious behaviour in our democracy.

Thatcher and Abbott

Glen Frost writes: Re. “Abbott gets green light from red tops, but refugee speech sinks in UK press” (Thursday).  What Thatcher and Abbott have in common is that they were both thrown out of the PM’s job by their own party, albeit Thatcher had won three elections and Abbott just one. Interestingly, both Thatcher and Abbott were challenged and toppled by wealthy, photogenic, and charismatic moderates; namely Heseltine and Turnbull. Heseltine challenged Thatcher but then didn’t win the party vote; that went to John Major, whereas Turnbull challenged and won the party vote. A weak UK Labor opposition meant Major won the election after toppling Thatcher and went on to be PM for seven years. Will history repeat in Australia for Turnbull? In the UK, it wasn’t until Tony Blair won the Labor leadership that Labor won office (after moving to the centre ground and benefitting from a very tired and scandal-ridden Conservative Party).

Thatcher campaigned in 1979 for radical change and she won office with a huge mandate for that change. Abbott didn’t run for office with anything like Thatcher’s bold agenda; mind you Britain in 1978 was in the “winter of discontent”, the rubbish was piling up in the streets and the dead remained unburied; whereas Abbott’s 2013 election campaign was in an economy that had 15+ years of economic growth — history will not be kind to Rudd and Gillard.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey