If you’re going to talk like a pirate, do it properly!

Do you suffer from bruxism brought on by poor pirate accents? I do: I grind my teeth whenever I watch the BBC TV show Doc Martin. If you’ve ever watched this program you’ll know that in the English seaside village where the doctor practices, all the locals speak Piratese, or as I sometimes like to call it Yokelese.  But more of Pirate language in a moment.

My real gripe as a finicky linguist is that TV and film so often handle language use so amateurishly. I often get into foetal position and weep when an actor playing an immigrant with poor English is given an inconsistent mishmash of lines where in one utterance they speak in ‘me no understand’ fashion, and in the next produce perfectly formed complex sentences dressed down with a silly foreign accent.

And don’t get me started on those war movies vere ze Chermans spik like zis! Make ‘em speak German and add subtitles, I say. The worst such example of this genre is the (for me) unwatchable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Nicolas Cage should have got an Oscar for sustained performance of high front vowels and trilled r’s.  Maybe he’d had tuition from an actor I once met at an audition whose résumé included the ability to speak English in twenty-five accents, including both Eastern and Western Armenian.

Arrr! That’s Piratese by the way, for ‘back to the topic’. In Britain and Australia, it is customary for actors playing southern English rural characters to employ a couple of pronunciation tricks such as modifying the ‘o’ sounds in words like ‘coat’ and changing the vowel in ‘eye’ to the vowel in ‘boy’. The principal trick, however is to rhotacise, i.e. (in simple terms) to pronounce most of the r’s indicated by spelling. So, where a Londoner or Sydneysider would not pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘hard’, a speaker of Piratese would pronounce it. Give it a try. If you have young children or grandchildren, you can copy Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles, who speaks quite good Piratese.

So why are my teeth a millimetre shorter than they should be? It’s because of the basic mistakes that Piratese speakers make. Why do I keep hearing actors saying things like “Hello GrandmaR” and “Where’s LouisaR?” where no ‘r’ exists in the spelling? Well, the reason is that they overdo a little rule that allows us non-rhotic speakers to pop in an ‘r’ when the next word starts with a vowel. So, while we don’t say the ‘r’ in ‘Here’s my car’, we can say it in ‘My caR is in the next street’.

OK, all clear so far. However, the brains and mouths of native Londoners and Sydneysiders wickedly conspire to play the ‘India office’ trick on us. Try saying this phrase quickly and not making an ‘r’ at the end of ‘India’.  No ‘r’ in the spelling – we just overextend the ‘caR Is’ rule to ease the transition between the last vowel in ‘India’ and the first vowel in ‘office’. Try it: IndiaRoffice.

Arr! What bad Piratese speakers do is push the rule too hard by sticking the ‘r’ on the end of words that end in a vowel but are not followed by a vowel: While it’s fine to say ‘GrandmaR isn’t here’, it’s a plank-walking offence to say ‘Here’s GrandmaR’.

If I can be shamelessly unscientific for a moment, we non-rhotics are like carriers of damaged linguistic DNA; a few centuries ago all English speakers pronounced all their r’s, until the effete London court gave them up and the fashion spread through the hot chocolate drinking classes. But not all our telomeres were degraded, and the vestigial ‘r’ still pops up here and there in the attenuated fin de siècle speech of Camden Town and Bondi.

I’m astonished that few people I’ve spoken to seem to notice these errant r’s, or, when the mistake is pointed out, care. But I do, which is, I suppose one of the burdens that we sad scholars of linguistics carry. For years I’ve struggled to answer the question ‘what’s the use of linguistics’ at cocktail parties, and I’m beginning to think that it’s to keep dentists in business.

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Now, if I’ve sparked your interest in linguistics, have a look at my latest novel The Sunset Assassin, which has no pirates in it whatsoever and actually has nothing to do with linguistics.

Sydney thumbs its nose at 8.2 million visitors

Where has the covered walkway gone? Photo: Stuart Campbell

Wrangling three small, sweaty grandchildren off the Manly ferry yesterday in 30+ degree sunshine, I realised something was missing: The covered walkway that used to curve from Circular Quay to the colonnade that runs down to the Opera House.

It’s not a long stretch – perhaps fifty metres – but when it was first built, you could at last walk under cover from the station to the Opera House, with just two small  gaps.

In a tux.

In a ball gown.

Or just in shorts and backpack, like the millions of visitors who come to our city to see the best view in the world.

Not now. The walkway has gone, apparently as part of a building site for a block of flats.  Actually, I thought I might might have dreamt about it, but I checked and  you can see the erstwhile walkway cover in the bottom right of the Pullman Hotel’s website here.

And actually, I thought for a moment that East Circular Quay might be public land, but quickly corrected myself for my foolishness.

So my grandchildren scorched on the way to the Gruffalo show at the Opera House, and got wet on the way back after a southerly buster hit.

Now that’s really not of much consequence. We live here and we can go to the Opera House whenever we like.

But what a great message for the 8.2 million visitors who visit the Opera House each year: It’s not worth our trouble to get you there in comfort.

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Stuart Campbell has lived in Sydney since 1978. He writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

 

Compelling debut novel, a mash-up of Lord of the Flies and Ivan Denisovich

I’m still puzzling over Mutch Katsonga’s novel Beyond the Spiral Gates a couple of days after finishing it. It’s a weirdly compelling book about the experience of a boy in Wickfields, a brutal home for criminal children. I read it quickly in two sittings, with questions accumulating in my mind as I went along.

Where is it located? Perhaps Australia, perhaps Europe, perhaps New Zealand; the clues are contradictory. The language of the first-person narration is faintly archaic, but peppered with colloquialisms that would be familiar in modern Australia.

What is the time period? The rural setting has horses and carts – but there is mention of plastics. And the legal-political context: A dystopian future, or a grindingly cruel modern dictatorship?

My guess is that Katsonga’s invented world is tailored to the psychological and spiritual journey of the boy. It’s a reversed-engineered mash-up of Lord of the Flies and Ivan Denisovich, and it doesn’t matter a bit if I can’t pin it down to a place and a time. I believed in it and I wanted our boy to win over his travails.

This is a debut novel of the kind I like: It’s brave, fresh and different, and it owes nothing to anyone.

There’s a bonus: Mutch Katsonga doubles as musician Indie Soull, and has recorded some sweet tracks on Spotify to accompany the novel. Check out Frozen in Time.

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Find out about my new novel Cairo Mon Amour here. Like Mutch Katsonga, I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

Andalus Arabic Choir – Sydney’s best-kept music secret?

arab musicIs the Andalus Arabic Choir Sydney’s best-kept secret? I’ve been listening to Arabic music for decades, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from their annual concert at Sydney Opera House last week.

It was a blast of joy, and a reminder that the heart of multicultural Sydney still throbs. A dozen and a half choristers swayed and sashayed through two sets of songs alongside a world-music flavoured band of piano, oud, qanun, wind, bass and percussion. The names of the singers and the musicians tell a Sydney story – Arab, Italian, Greek, Slav, Dutch, Turkish.

Artistic director Ghada Daher-Elmowy held the performance together, performing several emotion-drenched solos in between exchanging cheerful banter in Arabic and English with the audience.

My favourite song? It had to be Misirlou, sung in Greek and Arabic (as Amal). You may know it from Dick Dale and the Deltones, but there’s an exquisite old Arabic version by Maestro Clovis here which absolutely breaks my heart.

Alf shukr to Andalus for a great night – can’t wait for next year’s concert!

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You can find out about my novel Cairo Mon Amour here. And it contains lots of references to Arab music!