Snorts and foamings, Peter Russell

Q and Eh: Questions and Answers on Language with a Kiwi Twist
Laurie Bauer, Dianne Bardsley, Janet Holmes and Paul Warren
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869793432


This book by four professional linguists at Victoria University aims to explain aspects of the English language to readers in New Zealand. As its subtitle suggests, the book’s chief focus is on New Zealand usage, although it also discusses numerous facets of language without specific relation to New Zealand, such as: “Why do we say ‘as bald as a badger’, when a badger isn’t bald?” The book is organised into six sections: the way we pronounce language; the social and psychological dimensions of language use; individual words; making words and sentences; different forms of English in the world; spelling and punctuation.

Addressed to a non-specialist audience, this is a sprightly, readable and entertaining guide. Many essays had their origin in columns in The Dominion Post. They’re short, typically two or three pages, quick bites for readers with a short attention span, and there are cartoons too. This format also means that there’s plenty of blank space where readers can record their own snorts and foamings.

For English usage in New Zealand is, as we know, a controversial matter. Possibly for this reason the tone adopted by all four authors is carefully amiable. Since three of the four are migrants from England, they perhaps hope readers will see them not as British naturalists who have travelled out to dissect the discourse of our two-legged fauna, but as our good mates. They are never patronising. In a similarly amicable spirit, all technical terms are explained, and there is a glossary. Linguists have a technical term for absobloominglutely everything (including that word). Even the little stalk on a b, I learnt, has its term (an ascender). So does the little stalk on a p: guess.

So what do they have to tell us? The approach to English usage professed by all four authors reflects the current doctrine followed by most academic linguists worldwide, in being not prescriptive, but descriptive. Thus, in an introduction, Laurie Bauer reminds us that language keeps changing, sometimes in ways some of us don’t like, but that “we cannot prevent it changing any more than Canute could keep the tide from coming in.” What mostly determines change is “if enough people” use a different form from that hitherto used. Hence a “thou-shalt-not approach to grammar” is futile. To say “less birds” or “a large amount of people”, he tells us, is not wrong, but “innovative”. (Hail Mrs Malaprop, innovator without rival!)

In this spirit, when Janet Holmes and Paul Warren inform us that increasingly New Zealanders pronounce women the same as woman, the consequent loss of a plural provokes no more regret than is implied in a pallid comment that it “seems careless”. The fourth member of the quartet, lexicographer Dianne Bardsley, even proposes such generalisations as that we have “reached a stage in social evolution where the concept of correctness is no longer relevant in many areas of life, and the English language is no exception” and “the concept of standards in language is probably becoming more of a feature of yesteryear.” (Would she tell an unwelcome visitor to eff off?)

There are problems with this approach. First, the doctrine is itself prescriptive. It is an ideology, and an ideology of fatalism. Its premise that scientific observation of the way people behave suggests they have no alternative but to behave thus, is abhorrent.

Second, while the doctrine is either reiterated or implied throughout the book, its proponents themselves keep making arbitrary, seemingly subjective departures from it. Having been exhorted in one essay to maintain in all things a benevolent elasticity, we’re told in the next that something is “right” or “wrong”. The elastic snaps with a ping when Holmes sweeps in like Boadicea in her chariot, lambasting sexist bias in the way we speak, and advocating changes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve nothing against her crusade, which is supported by enlightened public opinion. But such blatant prescriptivism sits ill in a book which at the same time keeps advocating non-interference, and disparages “prescriptivists like Lynne Truss”.

Holmes’s essay, “When is a girl a guy?”, culminates in a war-cry: “So come on, you female guys, why not protest when you are referred to by a male term?!” Here she is precisely the Canute of whom Bauer warned us, the water already lapping her knees. For years now “guy” has been used by the young of both sexes to refer to both boys and girls, men and women; and this has little to do with sexism. On the day on which I read this essay, we received from our son an email addressed to his wife, his sister-in-law, his mother and his father, which opened: “Guys, …”

Third, it is at times implied that many people are dogmatists for no good reason. Thus Bardsley: “We often hear people using unique with an intensifier, as in very unique. Does it matter?” The best answer is: of course not – provided the speaker doesn’t mind being thought stupid. I, for one, do mind. Then in certain cases there’s a higher price to pay than merely being thought an idiot. Take Bauer’s assertion that the effacement in New Zealand English of the difference between the sounds of air and ear does not matter. Sure, we usually know what is meant – to quote an example he uses, we will know whether we’re looking at a rare photograph of Edith Piaf or at a rear photograph.

But what of the newsreader who informed us that a tornado approaching an American town speared houses? He meant spared. The difference would certainly have mattered to the occupants, and it matters to me. And does it not matter whether something is really visible or rarely visible? – they’re close to being opposites. When I tell Bauer that I have grown wary of linguists telling me such distinctions don’t matter, I want him to know precisely that I mean wary and not weary – though the latter’s increasingly true as well. As for those injured trampers who are ear-lifted out of the bush (excruciating!), and those abject ear-inspectors who dash to the sites of aeroplane crashes… Spear us, Laurie!

There isn’t space to discuss the treatment in this book of those multiple other liberties New Zealanders take with vowels and diphthongs (“I love in Whutby, for example”) or notorious features of New Zealand speech such as the High-Rising Terminal, the eh, the throwen in preference to thrown. Let me at least say that Bauer writes with great good sense about English spelling and the inadvisability of “reforming” it. However, the increasing tendency in this country to pronounce words as spelt is dismaying, for it means jettisoning such merry madness as the British pronunciations of names like Cholmondeley, Wemyss, Marjoribanks, Cockburn, Menzies, and Gaius College (Oxford comma, guys!).

How pedestrian. Long live these colourful pronunciations, say I, along with such curiosities as spoonerisms, palindromes, anagrams and comic mistranslations. Not least mondegreens, those glorious misunderstandings which result from wrong hearing. The book gives inter alia the hymn line, “Gladly my cross-eyed bear”, but not the American school pupil who famously wrote of an author’s winning “The pullet surprise”. One of my favourites was related in a letter to the Times in 2001: “Some years ago, a Scottish friend of my mother mentioned casually to her that the Countess of Ayr was coming for tea the following day. It turned out to be the county surveyor.”

In the book’s afterword, a surprise: “we need people to model good practice for us”, writes Bauer, for “if we do not see or hear good practice, we have little chance of developing it for ourselves.” After so much arguing for the passive acceptance of whatever comes, the very phrase “good practice” is unexpected.

But who are these people who can model good practice for us? We’re not told. Not our Prime Minister, presumably? I propose as models of good practice Bauer, Holmes and Warren. Each speaks with immaculate correctness the Queen’s English, coloured by the region of England from which each came. I’ve never heard any of the three use the High Rising Terminal or say “If I had have knowen…” or even “and stuff”. None has ever called me mate. Although one of the three has lived here for more than 40 years, another for more than 30, the New Zealand English in which they are specialised appears to have had no influence whatever on the way they themselves speak. Why, I wonder? Could it be that they prefer what they speak to what they hear around them? Well, I do, eh.


Peter Russell is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in Essays, Language, Non-fiction
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