(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, January 8.
If I can make one utterly confident prediction about 2020, it’s that the language we speak will continue to change – both the words we use, and the way we pronounce them.
It’s a cliché to say that language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the pace of change is ramping up, and the strange thing is that it’s often impossible to tell what’s driving it.
The year just passed was notable for the supplanting of the letter T by D in spoken English, so that we got authoridy in place of authority, credibilidy instead of credibility, securidy for security, and so on.
In this instance, it’s possible to pinpoint the source: namely the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. What’s astonishing is the speed with which other people in public life – broadcasters, bureaucrats, academics and fellow politicians – have emulated her.
Many people possibly don’t even realise they’re doing it. Immediately before sitting down to write this column, I heard a radio presenter refer to a hitherto unknown music streaming platform named Spodify. Meanwhile, the TV channel previously known as TV3 has been promoting its news bulletins with the slogan “Because it Madders” (a silly, hollow slogan that could only have been created by an ad agency, but that's another story)..
The T as D trend has spread faster than a midsummer scrub fire. It’s a testament to Ardern’s status as a “key influencer”, to use a ghastly neologism.
Other changes in the pronunciation of New Zealand English are less easy to trace back to their source. Where, for example, did broadcasters – mostly younger ones – acquire the habit of stressing the first syllables in words where traditionally the emphasis has been placed on the second? Obvious examples are fatality, flotilla and prolonged, which are now routinely pronounced as FAYtality, FLOWtilla and PROlonged.
Other lamentable changes in pronunciation have been with us for some time. Health has become “howth”, help has become “howp” and well has become “wow”, as in “are you wow?”. Pronouncing the letter L apparently requires too much effort.
L has also done a disappearing act from vulnerable, so that it has become vunnerable, and has mysteriously dropped off the end of wool. And in another Mystery of the Vanishing Consonant, the letter G is now routinely dropped from recognise.
Some words have magically acquired an extra syllable, so that we get “knowen” and “showen” for known and shown. Before has become “befor-wah” and hour is commonly pronounced as “owah”. I even heard a Radio New Zealand reporter recently say “everythink”. Needless to say, the pronunciation of her sign-off in te reo Maori was flawless.
Some shifts in pronunciation can be attributed to ignorance, others to sheer laziness, such as “munce” for months and “picksher” for picture.
As with Ardern and her hardened Ts, politicians often set a bad example. John Key had few peers when it came to mangling the English language. Infrastruckshuh was a regular Key atrocity, as was Niew Zillund.
Current National Party leader "Soymun" Bridges gets a lot of stick, too, for taking the Kiwi accent to places it has never been before, but seems reluctant to modify his speech and may have decided to turn it to his advantage as a point of difference.
Then there are the changes in language usage, as opposed to pronunciation. Many journalists seem not to grasp the distinctions between “since” and “after”, “less” and “fewer” and “lay” and “lie”.
A more recent shift is the tendency for the word “majority” – which strictly applies only to numbers, as in “a majority of voters” – to be used as an all-purpose synonym for “most”, as in “the majority of the rain fell in July”.
Some words that served perfectly well for generations have been mysteriously dropped and replaced by others (for example, “surgeries” for operations). No harm is done, but we are left with the question: why?
Meanwhile we hear nouns becoming verbs (we recently had bushfires impacting on cricket tests) and verbs morphing into nouns (the big reveal). Tautologies, where a superfluous word is added to one whose meaning is already clear (as in “added bonus” and “revert back”), are commonplace.
And all the while, American English continues its insidious advance. Tracks are now “trails”, reporters “reach out” to politicians for comment, and I even heard a journalist using the folksy Americanism “oftentimes” (what’s wrong with “often”, for heaven’s sake?).
It’s got to the point where you brace yourself for new solecisms. I recently read about a sportswoman who had never “stepped foot” outside New Zealand – a corruption of the old-fashioned “set foot”. And how often do you read of someone “watching on” when something happens, that second word being utterly superfluous?
Some of these changes are the result of an English curriculum that no longer places emphasis on strict rules, opting instead for an approach that places more weight on whether the meaning is, like, y’know, more or less clear. The problem is accentuated by dictionaries that no longer prescribe correct word definitions, but rather accept whatever usage is popular.
Does it matter? Well, yes. Proper usage of English promotes precision, accuracy and clarity. Of all people, this should matter most to those in the business of communication.