Vunerable, Straya and Libary: the evolution (and denigration) of the English language

“Lazy Lips” has led to the denigration of the English language. Shutterstock

Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called Writing Skills. Despite selling well, it proved spectacularly unsuccessful in actually lifting standards of English in Australia. Given the current federal government is so besottedly Anglophile, perhaps they will take note of the new marking scheme of the Brits in their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam (approximately our year 11) which will allocate 8 percentage points for grammar, spelling and punctuation. This is amazing news, only slightly less amazing than the question of where the grammar-literate teachers will come from.

We slavishly followed the Brits into chaos by throwing out a focus on grammar and decided that the best way for students to learn to write was to get them to “read until they bleed” - the osmosis theory. The result? Exam questions in NSW and Victorian year 12 papers in the 1960s and 1970s would now be given to second- or third-year university Linguistic students, but never - never - to today’s students or, for that matter, English teachers.

In the US, a year 12 English mark is barely worth the paper it’s printed on. Virtually every college and university runs a subject usually called Freshman composition, where tertiary students learn about “big ideas” like commas and clauses.

But does this matter? Doesn’t language change all the time? Yup, sure does. Often, the changes in spelling come about through changes in pronunciation, or phonology. Thus, those nasty snakes (nadders) and those delicious fruits (napls) and those useful kitchen garments (naprons) underwent a linguistic process called elision. The collective unconsciousness of the 14th century decided that an adder, an apple and an apron rolled more smoothly off the lips.

Similarly, should an American naval lieutenant meet his British opposite number, the greeting will sound like this: “Good morning, lootenant.” “Good morning, leftenant.” Why? Because many years ago, the letter u had an ambiguous pronunciation: sometimes it was a v, sometimes it was a u.

More letters were needed! Give us a w (double u), and give us a v (the voiced version of f). Some mumbling of lieu gave us leftenant. (Italian is 99% phonetic: speak what you see. Us? 75%, unfortunately.)

Dr Samuel Johnson produced the first great dictionary in 1755 a few decades before succumbing to Tourette’s syndrome (interesting connection). Then, from out of the west, came Noah Webster to produce his own dictionaries in 1806 and 1825. Johnson and Webster “froze” the language, giving “proper” spellings of words.

Webster was a reformer, and produced many words that some of us today denigrate as Americanisms, such as color, theater and center. Yet Shakespeare and Milton used all of these spellings more than the “acceptable” colour, theatre and centre. Webster went right back to the Latin to get it right: color is from the Latin color; it was those dastardly mediaeval French with their pronunciation who came up with colour/couleur). Just to infuriate the pedants, “stiff upper lip” appears to be American, not British.

This denigration of the English language is attributed by many to “lazy lips”. Can we not spare a hundredth of a second of breath to pronounce words correctly?

In my 1994 book, I railed at vunerable being used for vulnerable. Vulnerable derives from the Latin vulnus = wound. To pronounce it, you need to move your tongue and lips, and many are too lazy to do this.

Have things changed in 30 years? No: see “What is the definition of a vunerable child?” - The Children’s Commissioner, Northern Territory; and “First generation of computer programmers to die and skills shortage leaves software vunerable” from news.com.

Lazy lips have problems with elisions (they omit sounds such as in libary, Febuary, secetry, enviroment, vunerable, jool rather than dual), substitutions (foopball, Choosdy, arst or arks rather than asked, edjacation, jew rather than dew) and intrusions (anythink, stastistics, athaletic).

This may mean that sloppy diction leads to malapropisms (incorrectly using a word because it sounds similar to the one you mean to use), clichés, jargon and prime ministers who say Taliband, hyperbowl, high dungeon, Straya, moving forward and suppository of wisdom.

It’s about clear communication, embodying some semblance of intelligence, and perhaps some gravitas we can believe in. Otherwise, we end up sounding like hicks, bogans and nasal drongos with what is known as the Australian Questioning Intonation or High Rising Tone - the upward verbal inflection.

Reports out of the UK said job seekers who had adopted this Australian way of speech were a third less likely to attain senior management positions. There are real world consequences for individuals, and for us as a nation.

Somewhere between Steve Irwin and Kath and Kim on one side and Geoffrey Robertson and Pru and Trude on the other lies a land where lazy lips are feeling very vulnerable at the moment- but only if we as language warriors take the battle to them.

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