Prejudice alive and well in the spoken word

I’ve always been a big talker, even though people haven’t always understood what I was saying. As a child, I had a lisp, and my ”Rs” came out more like ”Ws”, but these standard-issue elocutionary stumbles were dwarfed by a drawl that made me sound like a drunken Scotsman with a handful of marbles in his mouth. This was generally explained with reference to the fact that I spent a lot of time with our neighbours, a family of Glaswegians, and had presumably picked up their thick Gorbals accent. Whether this was true or not, I embraced the explanation, and soon took to telling other kids that I was Scottish, as a way of staving off embarrassment when they asked me why I spoke strangely.
Regardless of all this, I loved public speaking, and my dream was to be chosen to do a reading at our school mass. Eventually, I was selected to read the Alleluia, which should have been a singular honour, except for the fact that I couldn’t say the word ”alleluia”. No matter how hard I tried, my loo-yahs came out as loo-las, and so I was eventually bumped.
In reaction to this setback, mum sent me to speech classes, taught by an ancient woman with a faux English accent and a house that smelt like an op shop. There, I was made to read out poems, over and over again, until finally I was deemed ready, and was entered in an elocution competition in the city.
It was an afternoon of slow, protracted suffering, as child after child took the stage, all reciting the same poem, about a pony that ran out of a stable after a strong south wind blew suddenly, causing the stable door to swing wide.
Finally, as a reward for my efforts, one of the judges stood up and publicly whacked me over the head with the grammar stick. The strong south wind had not blown suddenly. The wind had blown, it’s true, but it was the stable door that had swung suddenly. Once again, my public-speaking thunder had been stolen, all because I had missed a comma.
By the time I hit my teens I had finally lost my lisp, found my rs, and no longer sounded like Billy Connolly on a bender.
I thought that my days of being mocked for the way I spoke were finally over. Then in my early 20s, when I moved to Melbourne, the whole thing started again. I’d be at the pub, for example, and would announce that I was going to the toilet, when one of my new friends would snigger and repeat the word toilet, which I was apparently pronouncing as ”tawlett”.
At the time, I thought it might be a Melbourne thing, but, of course, the problem was not regional.
There are subtle variations between the states, but what really differentiates accents in Australia is socio-economic status.
From an elocutionary point of view, people who grow up in the west of Melbourne typically have more in common with those raised in the west of Sydney, separated by nearly 1000 kilometres, than they have with the denizens of the leafy eastern suburbs, only a 15-minute drive away.

We Australians like to imagine ourselves classless, yet you can usually tell which side of the tracks someone is from by how they speak, and to speak the ”wrong” way is still to be exposed to mockery. The producers of Kath and Kim built an entire film and television franchise on our collective willingness to laugh at the way the lower-middle classes talk, and it isn’t just about a bit of harmless TV fun. Look at the way Julia Gillard was ridiculed for her ”harsh” accent, when the reality is that she simply dared to speak like someone who didn’t attend a fancy private school. No wonder then, that even in supposedly egalitarian modern Australia, so many of us hide our class by watching the way we talk, lest our ”noices” and our ”tawlets” damn us as bogans.

Most of the strine has now disappeared from my own speech, smoothed out over time by the company I keep and the voices I hear. I like to think that I don’t care anyway, that I’m proud of my background and impervious to the barbs of snobs.
But perhaps the sting goes deeper than I realise, because even today, I never ask where the toilet is, always the bathroom.
Follow Monica Dux on twitter @monicadux

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