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 Cairo Mon Amour, which has no pirates in it whatsoever and actually has nothing to do with linguistics

Going easy on the f-word in fiction


Writers are getting more foul-mouthed

The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.

I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.

Highly skilled at cursing

Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.

But why do I use  f*ck in my novels?

Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:

  1. Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:

Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”

“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”

2.  Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:

“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”

“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.

 3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:

“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”

 4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:

 “Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.

5.  In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:

As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”

I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!

Let me know what you think!

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Click any of these links to buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour

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Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.

Stan Grant’s account in The Guardian of his relationship with the Wiradjuri language jolted me back forty years to the language work I did as a Masters student at the Australian National University. For my major assignment, I was handed a box full of field notes and audio tapes collected by the American linguist Ken Hale. The box was marked ‘Wambaya, Barkly Tablelands’. My job was to write a grammar of the Wambaya language, which I was told was on the verge of extinction.

‘Jolt’ is an apt word: Stan Grant’s article left me feeling unsettled about my own relationship with Indigenous languages in general, and about the nature of the work I did four decades ago. I’ll come back to this later.

More generally, it made me reflect on how non-Indigenous Australians might respond to Grant’s argument. The comments following the article give us at least a preliminary answer.

I counted 121 actual comments, with 53 ‘removed by a moderator because’ they ‘didn’t abide by our community standards’ By way of comparison, an article on housing affordability with 123 comments had only two removed.

I roughly categorised the 121 unremoved comments as follows: About half were facetious, trivial, or off the point; some of these presented good arguments about the link between language and culture but didn’t address Stan’s argument.

On the positive side, about a quarter supported the thrust of the article or praised the quality of the writing, while the nay vote was represented by thirteen percent who rejected Stan’s argument without being rude about it.

Finally, there were half a dozen people who scolded Stan for ignoring his British heritage, two who argued that although they weren’t Indigenous their pain was equally valid, and seven who were personally insulting to the writer.

The verdict? My suspicion, based on the wording of the comments, is that opinion on Stan Grant’s article falls into two distinct camps, with attitudes pretty well entrenched on both sides. Let’s guess that half of the 53 removed responses opposed the article (and the other half were irrelevant insults or ravings): My tally is that only a minority of an admittedly small and imperfect sample are sympathetic to Stan’s views.

This is hardly surprising given the vast gulf of understanding about Australian language issues among non-Indigenous Australians. I count myself among the ignorant despite the fact that I know a little more than the man on the Toorak tram or the 440 bus to Leichhardt.

My acquaintance with these languages began at seminars at The University of London given by the celebrated linguist Bob Dixon. I had been trained to analyse the grammar, sound systems and vocabulary of exotic languages and, boy, these Australian languages were fine specimens: Weird ‘genders’, sets of consonants I’d never seen elsewhere, and sentence grammar that was ‘ergative’, i.e. not observing the ‘normal’ subject-object distinction. A year later in Canberra I’d had further training and I was let loose on Wambaya.

I am still tremendously grateful for that chance that I was given to boost my knowledge and skills as a linguist. What bothers me in hindsight is that the only human connection I had with the speakers of Wambaya was the scrapy voice of an old man saying words and sentences onto a reel to reel tape in some spot in the Barkly Tablelands that I could not begin to imagine. I did no fieldwork. I was a young white linguist in a hurry.

As I moved up the academic career ladder, I advocated for the teaching of – or about – Australian languages in my university, but all attempts failed. The lack of support from the Indigenous side was especially puzzling; language just didn’t seem to be a priority. It was around this time that I began to use the metaphor of the sliding door to characterise my experience with Indigenous life on campus: The door opened enough to give me a glimpse, but closed too quickly for me to see what was really going on.

Years later, I found myself with an entire Indigenous education centre in my management portfolio as a Pro-Vice Chancellor. The sliding door began to stay open longer, especially during the very long meetings that I spent with Indigenous colleagues thrashing out submissions for funding. I was warmly welcomed when I decided to work in the centre for a day a week rather than in the stress-filled senior management area where I belonged.

My best memory is being taken by a Wiradjuri senior colleague to a huge annual picnic on the outskirts of Sydney, where I witnessed the amazing depth and diversity of the Indigenous community of the region. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast with listening to that recorded voice decades earlier.

I’m happy to report that Wambaya had 89 speakers according to the 2006 Census – not exactly a big crowd, but at least the language is not extinct. Stan Grant would no doubt be very pleased.

Stuart Campbell is a former Professor of Linguistics and Pro-Vice Chancellor. Nowadays, he writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

New scholarly book evokes warm memories

New-Insights-into-Arabic-Translation-and-InterpretingI took time out from writing fiction last year to contribute the introduction to this new book, edited by Associate Professor Mustafa Taibi from Western Sydney University. In writing the introduction I took the opportunity to honour the memory of the Iraqi scholar Dr. Safa Khulusi, whose  Arabic classes I attended at the Polytechnic of Central London in the seventies.

The invitation to write the introduction evoked warm memories of academic colleagues, teachers, and students from the Arab World.

You can read a sample of the book by clicking the  Look Inside button here.

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Learn about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.