“Correct speech”

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I've just been having a wonderful laugh reading a hundred-year-old booklet about phonics sent to me by a friend.

It belonged to her elderly mother, a teacher. Published by the Victorian Education Department in 1910, it's called "Exercises in Phonics – A New Series" by Alfred Fussell MA, Chief Inspector.

Alfred Fussell. What a magnificent name for a Chief Inspector of Schools. I can just see him running his white glove along window-ledges, checking his fob watch, filling his fountain pen to write copperplate reports, and flexing his cane.

I was expecting this booklet to be about sounds and spellings, because that's what "phonics" means to me, but to my surprise, it's mostly about pronunciation, and the spellings of each sound are mentioned only fairly incidentally.

A key objective of the booklet seems to be the prevention of "slovenly speech", exemplified by such horrors as dropped consonants, distorted vowels, nasal twang and speaking through clenched teeth, particularly among the lower classes.

In 1910 the Education system held firmly to the belief that there was a single correct way to speak, and that it was teachers' job to teach it.

The booklet recommends first teaching all children each sound in isolation, then in single words, then sentences and via the recitation of improving verse by the likes of Tennyson, Shelley, Browning, Milton and of course Shakespeare.

For example, to practise the sound "l", the booklet recommends that children recite: "Lily, lolly, looloo, hullabaloo, twirl, lip, pill", followed by "The lustre of the long convolvuluses".

To practice "u" as in "cup" it recommends they recite:

Posthumous man, who quitt'st thy narrow bed,

And standest undecayed within our presence!

Thou wilt hear nothing till the Judgement morning,

When the great trump shall thrill thee with its warning.

The idea of asking today's children to recite such things is slightly hilarious, though I guess they might be a bit more interested if they knew the verse comes from "Address to a Mummy In Belzoni's Exhibition, London", given the current cultural obsession with all things undead, participation rates in the Zombie Shuffle etc.

However, in general, if this is what phonics used to be, no wonder it got thrown out.

Self-respecting linguists are these days interested in describing how people speak, not prescribing how to speak, and it's accepted that there are multiple dialects of English, with the four main Australian ones being:

  • Broad Australian: as spoken by blokes in blue singlets around the nation, and everyone at the footy,
  • General Australian: as spoken by TV newsreaders, and most white-collar workers,
  • Cultivated Australian, as spoken by a few monarchist toffs in the wealthiest suburbs, and
  • Aboriginal English, which itself has many variants, and is spoken by many but not all Aboriginal people.

Like many Australians, I can speak the first three dialects, and understand a lot of Aboriginal English, though it would generally be inappropriate for me to try to speak it.

Our dialects are important ways we express our identity, and connect ourselves to others, or distance ourselves from them. If I went into an outback pub and started speaking Cultivated, I wouldn't make too many friends, but if I used Broad I'd probably soon strike up a conversation and gain acceptance.

If I worked for a charitable organisation and went to a wealthy Cultivated-speaking socialite's garden party in Toorak, I'd probably be well-advised to match my dialect to that of my hostess, if hoping to win her favour and thus future donations.

Switching into someone else's dialect is a way of telling them "I'm like you, we understand each other", so it's a very socially handy thing to be able to do.

Being a Speech Pathologist, however, I'm also in the business of correcting children's speech – fixing up their lisps and lateral "s" sounds, their "w" for "r" and generally trying to make their speech more intelligible.

Consonants are generally harder to pronounce and later to develop than vowels, so they're the main focus of this therapy. Its purpose is to make children's speech easier to understand, and to help them with their spelling (if they are saying "s" as "th", how do they make sense of these letters?), not to change their dialects. Dialects are mostly differentiated by vowels, not consonants.

However, I had an interesting conversation the other day with a group of Grade 2 teachers about the speech and language of the children in their classes, in which some of them expressed concern about children's pronunciation, grammar and sentence formation at school e.g. asking "Go out?" instead of "May I please go outside?"

Most children come to school from very informal contexts, and often their dialect is Broad, but schools tend to expect them to use the General dialect, and to speak in a more formal way, in complete sentences and using polite forms. However, I'm not sure that teachers are always aware of, or explicit enough about, their dialect and register expectations in the classroom.

Where do we draw the line these days between what we accept in children's speech, and what we don't? We don't expect them to pronounce "which" and "witch" differently like Alfred Fussell did, but often there seem to be unstated speech and language expectations that are likely to be difficult for less socially able children (especially children on the Autism Spectrum).

Should schools be teaching children who speak Broad Australian to also speak General, which will probably afford them more career and other choices in life? Should the dialect of the classroom be General, or should the teacher use whatever dialect the majority of children use?

Should everyone also be learning how to use the Cultivated dialect, even though it's now close to extinct, in case they're invited to a garden party in Toorak, or more importantly because it can help them make more sense of English spelling? In Broad Australian, "picture" and "pitcher" are homophones, but Cultivated speakers are more likely to say "c" then "t", and the last syllable rhyming with "cure" and "pure". However, a child who speaks Cultivated other than in jest in a school playground (even in the poshest schools) is probably asking to be bashed up behind the shelter sheds, so perhaps we just let this dialect die a natural death.

I don't actually know the answers to these questions, but I think they're interesting and worth parents and educators discussing. What do you think?