Wednesday, 29 April 2009

MCP Watch: Karl du Fresne on women's accents

Dominion Post curmudgeon Karl du Fresne dedicated a third of his column yesterday to the horror that is the bad bad sound of lady broadcasters talking:
It won't surprise anyone to hear that my periodic grizzling about the ghastly voices of female broadcasters has had zero effect. If anything, things have got worse.

On my local radio station I hear a young woman announcer who sounds as if she has just inhaled helium. Even Radio New Zealand, the last citadel of correct pronunciation, has fallen to the Barbarians. There are female reporters on the state-owned radio network who would make Lyn of Tawa sound like the Queen.
But wait, there's more!
I recently heard a female RNZ journalist report that a district howth board had wowcomed a crackdown on teenage drinkers. And did you know the Labour Party is led by someone named Full Goff?

Female broadcasters were once regarded as exemplars of proper speech, but in a bizarre upending of the norm, they now talk in a wince-inducing kay-way accent far worse than anything heard on the streets.
Really? What about male broadcasters?

You'll be pleased to know though that du Fresne does not restrict his criticism to Kiwi sheilas:
It's almost a relief to report that the phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand. Australian political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh, who does a weekly report from Canberra on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report, has a voice that would make a flock of galahs sound melodious.
Can't say I'd noticed. i love listening to Kerry-Anne Walsh as I find what she has to say interesting, and often communicated in a witty and intelligent manner. Silly me!
I have heard it argued that none of this matters as long as we can understand what people are saying,
Finally some sense!
to which my response is twofold. First, it's physically painful to listen to some of these awful voices torturing the language; and second, it's getting to the point where we can't understand them.
Oh dear, I typed too soon. I wonder what type of torture reading a Karl du Fresne column constitutes?
It's only a matter of time before we'll need subtitles on the TV news bulletins to explain what some female journalists and newsreaders are saying.
But not the men. Maybe we should just replace the ladies with fellas and solve the problem?

Big thanks to reader Tessa for emailing me about this stunning piece of ridiculousness.


A Nonny Moose said...

But I'm sure if these ladies lowered their voices and over-enunciated, they'd be ridiculed (as I was) for sounding like Helen Clarke.

Another true story: Just the other day I got asked by a client why we use women in our advertising so much.

Ms. Monster Hunter said...

Ugh. Sexism and colonial cringe.

Can we stop the pathetic whining about the kiwi accents now, please?

Anna said...

I would have thought that both women and men in NZ use kiwi vowels pretty equally - which is only wrong if you're comparing our speech to British RP or some other ideal.

I'm the proud owner of a Southland accent, and it fills me with gumbooted parochial pride.

A Nonny Moose said...

Double Post Syndrome.

Actually, I have issues with enunciation and accent too in the media, but it's equal opportunity offending. Nothing wrong with "colloquialling up" the sound of New Zealand, but there is some shocking slurring and fast talkers on telly and radio.

I'm not old, nor deaf. I do get a little colonial cringe going on (tnx Monster Hunter), but I have fought barely veiled racism from American ears over NZ accents in my vocal travels.

Random lurker said...

Is his comment on accents or accents on the radio? For example would he have the same complaint if he were having a conversation with a female broadcaster face-to-face?

Higher pitched voices are more prone to unintelligibility in radio. The distinguishing characteristics (which makes words intelligible) in speech is carried by the high frequency components.

Economics of transmission requires that bandwidth is limited, so high frequencies are attenuated. Meaning people with high pitched voices might have the most important frequency components of their voice reduced in volume making them harder to understand.

In high quality transmission equipment this shouldn't be an issue however. Telephones, in particular mobile phones, might cause issues in this regard though.

libertyscott said...

For me the problems are not about the sex of the person talking, but the speed, nasality of it, and mispronunciation. However, it really is about taste. Whenever I come back to NZ, I find so many NZ broadcasters sound appalling. However, some Australians do too. Afrikaans type South African accents always remind me of apartheid era racists, sadly. Of course the vast range of US and UK accents deliver stereotypes we are all too quick to jump on.

People DO judge on the basis of accents. Brummie accents typically sound common and uneducated. Southern Bible Belt US accents do the same, but also sound very friendly.

Perhaps THAT is the key point. Discrimination by accent is phenomenal, but works both ways. In London NZ accents are accepted more than parochial English accents. In the US, I've found NZ accents are more often adored than not.

So Karl du Fresne wrote an article about his own personal taste, when it could be far more interesting and diverse than that.

AWicken said...

I don't know the engineering side of it, but at work we use handheld radio transceivers a lot - and the higher-pitched voices are *easier* to understand, much less muffled. Just my own informal perception, though.

As to language, I think there's a difference between "cringe" about accent vs expecting people to have at least vaguely accurate pronunciation - "nitch" instead of "niche", "corpse" instead of "corps", "could of" instead of "could've" all irritate me immensely. Any individual one is nitpicking, and I'm certainly not perfect in this regard myself, but if you lump all of the little variations together a surreal message can be received - especially if the person is writing in the same manner.

Couple poor language skills with text-speak and lousy sentence structure... at my own workplace it can be ambiguous as to who hit whom, or what they were hit with, or why, or where they are, and precious time is being wasted. Not to mention incident reports being thrown out - it's hard enough to make them legible under some conditions, and people can guess whether it's "ri" or "n" from the context of the accepted "RP" usage of the surrounding words.

Language is about communication - yes it evolves and has regional variation, but the goal is to communicate. I watch the news to find out what's going on in the world [debateable], not to play "WTF was THAT supposed to mean?"

Rant aside, du Fresne's apparent belief that women can't manage basic enunciation might actually be due to higher-register deafness on his part. Just a thought - but interesting that it might not have occurred to him.