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Mind their language

Hustings and human speech (failings) in a 24/7 campaign

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Co-authored with Howard Manns

Lengthy elections grow tedious for everyone and, in the 24/7 media cycle, nerves and performances fray.

Yet how many of us would really stand up to such intense and prolonged linguistic scrutiny, especially in this all-digital-all-the-time age of social media and news services that never sleep?

We thought it’d be a useful point in the election to cut the pollies some slack and highlight some of the complexities of human language. Most of us would be apt to commit the odd “tingue-slop” under the hot lamps of 24/7 scrutiny!

Everybody’s tingue slops

It’s natural to care deeply about language, but never lose sight of the realities of ordinary language production. From doorstop interviews to TV interviews to YouTube to debates, speaking is cognitively demanding, and everyone at some time slips up and accidentally lets the wrong word through.

Slips of the tongue tell us as much about the way people process language as their intelligence or capabilities as speakers. To these ends, it’s entirely human for a politician to say something like “suppository of all wisdom” when in fact he was looking for a “repository” (though this is more a slip of the brain than a slip of the tongue – while accessing his mental dictionary, something went wrong with the selection process).

What’s changed is the speed and ease at which such utterances reach us for derision and critique. In contrast, when one of the writers of this piece uttered “Piddle Dutch” rather than “Middle Dutch” during a first-year lecture, no-one cared two hoots.

Then why do we care? Well, there is the possibility that the politician doesn’t know the meaning of a word, or a slip-up might reveal what a pollie actually feels (beneath the polished texts of his or her PR machine).

So, for instance, we might be kind to George W Bush when he says “misunderestimate”, but are we really “misunderestimating” him alongside his other gaffes? In the 2012, US presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed regret at the shootings at a sheikh temple, when the shootings took place at a Sikh temple. Slip or ignorance?

And in 2004, BBC presenter James Naughtie introduced Conservative politician Jeremy Hunt, who was serving as culture secretary at the time, as Jeremy Cunt. Another innocent word-selection error? Or Auntie getting a jab in?

It can be difficult to tell, but it’s worth noting that these kinds of slip-ups are entirely natural and bound to happen under the lens of the 24/7 media cycle.

Beware the smooth talker, but welcome the ‘simple’ one

In judging political language, it’s also worth noting, in the words of REM singer Michael Stipe, “what we want and what we need has been confused”.

First, we decry pollies’ use of simpler language as endemic of a decline in intelligent discourse. So, for instance, when it was found Donald Trump was speaking at a fourth-grade level, it fed into the narrative of the dumbing down of America.

While politically, Uncle Sam’s house may be burning, Trump is doing exactly what science (and George Orwell) tell us pollies should do – longer sentences and complex words take longer for the average political audience to process.

Second, people today are fed on a diet of the beautifully choreographed linguistic performances of TV and film (particularly those political and courtroom dramas), and this has fed into our growing impatience with non-fluency – repetitions, hesitations and what appear to be empty fillers like umm and err.

However, speech lacking these features is probably well-rehearsed, certainly pre-planned, or is simply a matter of stringing together some pretty well-worn and formulaic expressions. In short, speech lacking these forms hint at a smooth-talking pollie. Jobs and growth, anyone?

Yet lest we judge jobs and growth too harshly, we should remember that repetition is an essential quality of human language. It turns out that the frequency of fixed expressions generally in language is remarkable. One researcher working on a UK-based corpus of spoken language calculated that 70% of the running words formed part of recurrent word combinations of some kind. These word combinations were even more common in popular television programs.

It seems none of us comes up with anything terribly new.

‘Black pudding being fed through a mincer’

We’re also perhaps a bit too harsh on our pollies’ ways of speaking.

In this election, among other observations, we’re drawn to Turnbull’s pronunciation of words like “ensure” (“lingering extravagantly over the ‘sh’”) and Shorten’s pronunciation of words like “with” (as “wiv”).

Such observations are common in elections but rose to particular prominence in 2010. Julia Gillard’s accent was one that was analysed within an inch of its life — and comments were overwhelmingly disparaging (“horrible”, “atrocious”, “excruciating”, “manufactured”, “fake”, “painful–almost fingernails on a blackboard”).

Gillard’s voice quality was likened to cheese graters, metronomes and meat grinders (for example, “with all the charm, variation and responsiveness of black pudding being fed through a mincer”). It’s all remarkably out of whack for an era that professes equality for all and a desire not to offend.

Some claimed Gillard’s accent was evidence she’d had voice training; others claimed it was evidence that she hadn’t but should. Politicians often take voice coaching, but she denied she’d any coaching at all. And, as Monash linguist Simon Musgrave showed, before and after snapshots of her vowel sounds show that nothing much changed after her rise to political power.

Sociolinguistic studies reveal that accents perceived to be coarse or broad are typically more negatively evaluated in females than males. This is so much the case that we sometimes hear broadness where it is not present.

For instance, Gillard’s accent is not strikingly broad at all. One striking feature is her quintessential Adelaide [a] vowel in words like dance and circumstance (so the same vowel sound you hear in la-di-da); it’s more formal and belongs to a higher sociolect.

We all hear language through filters shaped by our beliefs and preconceptions. Even the introduction of a stuffed kangaroo or kiwi into a lab will influence whether people “hear” an Australian or NZ accent (for example, Aussie “feesh” versus NZ “fush” for fish). In other words, these toy animals activated stereotypes about Australian or New Zealand speech and change people’s perception of the vowels.

So, have a heart

We’re not saying politicians shouldn’t be held accountable for the language they use, but don’t let pet hates, pinpricks and pollywaffles get in the way of properly evaluating just how well, or not, they are doing the job.

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