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Posted on 23 Feb 2018 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 2 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on accents

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All four of my grandparents spoke with regional British accents – Manx, north-country English and Scots. My parents spoke with mid-range Australian accents, neither – to use examples from the period – broad like the Labor leader Arthur Calwell, nor posh like the prime minister, Robert Menzies. My mother had pretensions to higher social status, although, like my father, she had only done two years of secondary schooling – standard for upper-working-class and lower-middle-class students at the time. She spoke rather carefully and her only lapse was to use ‘learn’ instead of ‘teach’ in a sentence like ‘That will teach her.’ She was embarrassed whenever this happened and corrected herself. My father’s accent was a little broader and he pronounced basic, as in basic wage, to rhyme with classic, and Canberra with emphasis on the e. Both spoke grammatically, pronounced the letter h as ‘aitch’ and were never guilty of ‘somethink’ or ‘anythink’.

My brother and sister and I grew up with similar accents. My sister, who attended a prestigious private school, may have had a more refined accent but if so I never noticed. Being Victorians not of the upper class, we all used the hard a in words such as dance, chance and prance.

I went to the University of Melbourne and towards the end of my time there brought home a girlfriend who was to become my first wife. She had grown up in Melbourne’s inner west and spoke pretty much as I and our friends – high-school products, though admittedly from selective ones – did.

I was vaguely aware that my family didn’t care much for this girlfriend and, many years later, long after our divorce, I asked my sister why. ‘Well, there were the accents,’ she said.

To my surprise I learned that my family thought that my wife-to-be and I had affected accents. On reflection I realise that we had been exposed frequently to top-drawer accents from people like the poets Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and historians such as Max Crawford and Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Aspiring academics ourselves, perhaps we subconsciously imitated them.

Anyway, that’s the accent I’ve carried for the rest of my life and I’m not aware that anyone else has ever thought it affected. Years ago my daughter Miriam, then studying linguistics, performed a test on me and the result was that my accent fell into the ‘cultivated’ category of Australian, as distinct from ‘broad’ and ‘standard’. There are gradations within these categories and I like to think I place in the middle, with plummy speakers like Alexander Downer in the upper stratum. When, very occasionally, I’ve been asked whether I’m English because of my voice, I’ve denied it emphatically and put any apparent difference from the Sydney drawl to having come from Melbourne – although, as I’ve often said, my only connections with Melbourne, having left it in 1975, are an annual bet on the Melbourne Cup and passionate support for the Essendon football team.

2 Comments

  1. I thought it pretty common knowledge that anyone who pronounced ‘aitch’ as ‘haitch’ was of blue collar, Catholic background – as I’m now in my late 60’s I imagine that distinction – with its snobby undertones – was of a time and place, and is no more. My parents were English immigrants, my mother born a Cockney though she would hasten to say she was ‘taught the King’s English’. My darling Dad nearly fainted when visiting his sisters after 30 years here, to be told he had an Aussie accent! It’s funny to listen to old Movietone newsreels and hear how differently we used to sound. I must be getting old and cranky as I can’t stand the aggressively Australian accents you hear on the radio or tv; I really wince!

  2. I’m with you Julia. And I extend that to the aggressively English accents (whatever they are) you hear on BBC radio. I feel I am being talked at rather than to. On the other hand may be a step away from the class defining role of accent when we were growing up. Would be a good thing if the sounds were more pleasing to the ear. Suzanne