Friday, June 11, 2010

Where's Professor Higgins when we need him?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 8.)

SOMEWHERE in New Zealand – Auckland, it’s rumoured – there’s a speech academy that teaches young women to mangle the pronunciation of English. All Air New Zealand cabin crew are sent there for training before being allowed to make in-flight announcements.

Female television and radio journalists also take the course, their employers having negotiated a generous bulk discount.

This secret academy has refined to perfection the grotesque distortion of vowel sounds and the adoption of an infantile, sing-song mode of speech similar to that used by little girls addressing their favourite dolls.

Trainees are also instructed in the art of speaking as if they have just inhaled helium, so that what emerges resembles a shrill squeak rather than human speech.

A popular optional course provides expert tuition in the placing of emphasis on words such as “to”, “will”, “of”, “for”, “in” and “is” (as in, “please remain in your seats until the aircraft is outside the terminal building”, or “police will be widening the search for the missing man”).

On completion of training, graduates are guaranteed to speak a hackle-raising form of English that triggers an immediate, involuntary cringe from anyone who values euphonious speech and clear pronunciation.

Fascinated language scholars are tracking the development of this new form of New Zealand English and confidently predict that within a generation, it will be incomprehensible to anyone born before 1960. Already, overseas tourists boarding Air New Zealand flights expecting to hear English spoken have been known to panic on hearing the in-flight announcements and wonder whether they are on the right airline.

* * *

IT WAS encouraging to see Northland Maori MPs Kelvin Davis and Shane Jones pulling no punches – sorry, probably not the best figure of speech – in their condemnation of the Maori criminals who assaulted and robbed three French tourists in the Far North.

Branding them as “scum”, “mongrels” and “brainless bums”, Mr Davis said he was sickened and ashamed by the way some of his people treated visitors.

Fellow Labour MP Mr Jones called for the attackers’ relatives and friends to dob them in, saying they had tarnished Northland’s reputation.

What made their ringing condemnation all the more forceful is that it’s rare for Maori leaders to be so blunt in holding their own people to account. We are accustomed to them directing their rhetoric the other way – at the Pakeha majority that is supposedly the cause of all Maori problems. This conveniently puts the onus for all the ills suffered by Maori on someone else.

Rarely if ever do you hear Maori leaders rebuking their people for their high crime rate, drug use, mistreatment of children or neglect of education.

We could do with a resurgence of the inspirational Maori leadership of past generations – leadership that challenges Maori to take greater responsibility for themselves and gets away from the relentless focus on compensation that too often benefits only a tribal elite.

* * *

A RECENT caller to Justin du Fresne’s radio talkback show suggested that drunks who clog hospital emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights, seeking treatment for injuries caused in fights or accidents, should be presented with a bill for the trouble they cause. If they refuse to pay, or don’t have the money, the caller suggested arrangements could be made to have their pay or benefit docked at source.

It sounded like an idea worth pursuing. The practical implementation would take some working out, but it would help drive home the message that people who drink to excess should be made to take responsibility for the consequences. Far better that than reintroducing wowserish restrictions that would make responsible drinkers pay for the bad behaviour of the minority.

As it happens, the talkback caller’s idea wasn’t entirely original, though he probably thought it was. Buried deep in the Law Commission’s mammoth report on the liquor laws (at page 392) is a suggestion that police be given the power to impose a financial charge on drunks who have to be driven home or placed in custody for their own safety.

The commission comments: “We think there should be some means of recovering from these individuals some of the expense to which their behaviour puts the state.”

It suggested a sum of about $250 in each case. Given that more than 21,000 intoxicated people in 2007-08 were nannied by the police, it could be a nice little earner.

The commission doesn’t appear to have considered extending the idea to hospitals, but it did quote Wellington Hospital emergency department doctor Paul Quigley as saying it was unacceptable for drunks to use resources such as ambulances to the detriment of worthier users.

Well, make them pay. If it’s feasible for the police, why not hospitals too?


JC said...

I must admit I used to look nervously at the sky when the weather person told me to expect "shau-wers".


Christina Smith said...

Karl du Fresne is so right about mangled speech!Alas,women do not have the agreeable tone for radio or T.V.though Alison Mau is best of the bunch.But the squealy high pitched flat vowels are difficult to listen to ,no matter how nice the people are.When is someone going to address the awful upward inflection!!?It spreads like rust and never sleeps!C.Smith