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The disappearance of New Zealand pronunciation standards

The late Arnold Wall.

Standards for New Zealand pronunciation did once exist.

Standards of pronunciation and language usage in broadcasting – yes, there was a time when we had them. New Zealand’s first broadcasters, as a quick sampling of any audio archive will attest, spoke in a way that would have them laughed off the airwaves today. It was a colonial facsimile of British Broadcasting Corporation pronunciation plus Māori place names, never mind your “Ko Guyon Espiner ahau”.

The attitude that where Britain’s vowels went, our vowels would follow, reached perhaps its most perfect incarnation in a slim volume titled New Zealand English: How It Should Be Spoken by Arnold Wall, published in 1939, and I can’t imagine there was ever better entertainment to be had for the sum of one shilling and ninepence.

Warning bells start ringing when we see the foreword is by James Shelley, who became the first director of the National Broadcasting Service in 1936 and effectively set the bar high here. If care and study, he wrote, were given to “this matter of good speech, New Zealand could have as high a standard of spoken language as any other part of the Empire”.

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Wall himself could most kindly be described as a traditionalist, although he was not totally intractable. “I would not have it thought that I lay too much stress on this detail of ‘good speech’ as a part of the make-up of the New Zealander… I remember how, at the outbreak of the war in 1914, seeing that young students whose speech left much to be desired yet died gloriously on Gallipoli, I told myself that I must never criticise New Zealand speech unkindly.”

Yes, the most lazily spoken individual could be taken down by gunfire as readily as one who met Professor Wall’s higher standards, and their sacrifice was not in vain.

His definition of “good” or “standard” English had nothing to do with New Zealand. He defined it as English “spoken by the best speakers in the old land; it is not intended for those who wish to develop a new dialect of English for their country”. Fortunately, that new dialect, acting according to the subterranean laws of linguistic evolution, went ahead and developed all by itself.

Wall attempts to make allowances for our special circumstances (ie, to our disadvantage we’re not English speakers from the south of England) and talks of wanting to “make clear what are the special difficulties confronting those who desire, as many persons passionately do, to keep their speech as closely as possible in conformity with that of the ‘best’ speakers at Home”. He was also punctilious in his concern for correct Māori pronunciation, possibly because it couldn’t be compared to the south of England version.

He concludes, in what may be his most surprising opinion, that 80% of New Zealanders speak English with a “more or less… London or ‘Cockney’ accent”.

The bulk of the book consists of a List of Words of Doubtful Pronunciation and here, if it wasn’t already clear, Wall’s biases are evident. Among the very few words he feels necessary to include are Baden-Powell, Bilbao, billet-doux, Birmingham from the Bs, and down in the Gs, Glamis, Godiva, Goethe and Greenwich.

But Wall took a gentler view of our speech than some other earlier commentators. Language expert Elizabeth Gordon quotes research by Australian linguist Margaret Batterham, who turned up descriptions of the way we talked as “an incurable disease” and said New Zealanders had “the blood of the language on their hands”.

Any attempt to impose standards started to come crashing down in the 1960s, when a social revolution that began with movements for free love and communal property settled for being allowed to listen to New Zealand’s first private radio station, Radio Hauraki, whose announcers were infected with a predilection for faux-American delivery, which has since become the norm.

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.