The Godfather: Peter Corris on our changing language
Language has to change, to absorb new influences, if it is to retain its vigour. Typically, a dominant culture will have a profound effect, impacting on the subordinate society as with Norman French on Anglo-Saxon English, but it’s a two-way process – think of Hindi words like ‘veranda’, ‘pyjama’, ‘shampoo’, and so on, absorbed into English.
Ever since the Second World War, American English has had a pervasive influence on the way we speak here in Australia. It was perhaps inevitable; we adopted dollars and cents (a blessing, as our blimpish Prime Minister Robert Menzies favoured crowns and royals) and our elections have become increasingly presidential. ‘Australia’s own car’, the Holden, was a modified version of the US Chevrolet.
One of the most notable effects is Australians’ embrace of the American emphasis on the first syllable in many words. It is common to hear magazine and cigarette and even more common to hear defence and offence in sporting discussions – very obviously the effect of television. Research has often replaced the older practice of giving the two syllables equal weight or slightly stressing the second syllable. I’m not sure why this has happened.
A few words have completely changed to American pronunciation. I hear some politicians (not good models of speech –many of them with their ‘somethinks’ and ‘everythinks’) saying ‘route’ to rhyme with ‘about’ and numerous people pronouncing ‘lieutenant’ as ‘lootenant’.
I’ve heard ‘clerk’ pronounced to rhyme with ‘jerk’ and a local fire-fighter refer to the blaze as a ‘wildfire’ rather than a bushfire. Pure California. Mercifully, I don’t hear Newcastle pronounced as ‘Noocastle’.
Some expressions – ‘such as’ or ‘for example’ or ‘as if’ – have been displaced in favour of ‘like’; a change I don’t admire. If you were to walk into a coffee bar and ask for a standard-size coffee you would probably meet incomprehension until you rephrased the request as ‘regular’.
My children and grandchildren never refer to an address as being ‘in’ a street, it is always ‘on’ a street. I suspect this can be traced to the immense popularity of the 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady and the 1964 film of the same name in which the song ‘On the Street Where You Live’ was featured. The practice may have been reinforced by the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street. Popular culture has been the impetus for many of the changes.
‘Film’ gave way to ‘movie’ long ago, as ‘wireless’ did to ‘radio’ and ‘runners’ to ‘sneakers’. ‘Footpath’ appears to be holding its own against ‘sidewalk’ but I think ‘jumper’ is under serious threat from ‘sweater’.
A more recent borrowing is another one I hear from my grandchildren. When asked if they would like something, in refusing they will say, ‘I’m good’. Similarly when I ask if the way is clear to cross the road, the positive response will be, ‘We’re good’.
Why some important changes in words and their application have occurred is mysterious. Why Australian universities took up the American ‘semester’ rather than the previous division of the year into terms has never been explained to me. I assume it has something to do with economic rationalism.