Issues In Educational Research, 3(1), 1993, 1-15.

When the AIR BEER CEER pushed the Aussie twang

David Pyvis
School of Social Sciences
Curtin University of Technology


This is a multi-layered paper. At one level it deals with a language/literacy debate, at another it deals with the politics behind the debate and at a third it seeks to use the debate to comment on contemporary controversies over Australia and Britain's war-time relationship, divided political loyalties and the issue of an Australian republic.

On receipt of this information, you may be wondering why this piece has been included in a journal of educational research. Where's the classroom practice? Where's the deference and reference to a familiar context of studies and approaches? (At least mention Henri G. or Michael A.!) This doesn't feel comfortable. Assimilate into the accustomed or leave!

Well it would be nice to fit in, to be recognised as belonging. It's a frustrating business writing things that don't exactly slide into pre-established categories. The problem is that the world doesn't divide neatly into separate domains. Risking a statement of the obvious, education, sociology, cultural studies and politics (and the rest) are separated for convenience. In real 'real life' their subjects and themes merge. And if educational research insists on always writing itself within carefully defined borders then to me it loses relevance. Education is not just about better teaching. It's about politics, culture and every other damn thing!

To ignore the connections invites more than the charge of a bunch of academics talking to each other in ever decreasing circles. It also leaves education weak and open to manipulation. I'll give an example. In the late Thirties the Commonwealth Government decided that young people needed to be readied for military service, a la the Hitler Youth. How to push this through on the voters? Idea! Bring in the educators and tell them the kids are unfit. Pass the whole training and indoctrination programme off as an educational matter and have it run by teachers. Left, right, left! Did educational researchers object to the dupe? No way! Politics and education. Separate matters. They thought!

A more recent example. A State Government says it's committed to improving Aboriginal health. The same Government rejects Mabo. Nothing to do with education you say, and you might be right. But isn't Aboriginal health largely contingent on Land Rights? If Governments can be so ignorant, do curriculum designers need to re-think what they're teaching about Aboriginality, build in a defence against such dangerous divisions? An eye on the links, that's my argument.

So the starting point for the research for this paper was a refusal to be confined. I confess, literacy debates lend themselves to such an objective. Literacy is a matter for education, but also for the public, employers, politicians and the media. Literacy (and language, I use them interchangeably here) debates can reveal the links - as long as they're not referenced exclusively to education. Literacy debates are never solely about educational practices. This case study was always intended to reflect this argument. A case (study) of prior assumptions!

So in terms of how I set up this research topic, I was already looking and I already had a point of view. Where did the data for the case study come from? Again I have to point to an understanding held before the data were uncovered. Literacy debates recur. Simon M., Bill G. and others have shown this with studies on Australian education debates that occurred in the sixties, seventies and eighties. (You see, I am also obligated to the familiar.) I might add that the specialised knowledge wasn't really necessary. In my own lifetime, I've watched at least three literacy debates unfold in the media. So I knew!

Given the attention given to recent literacy debates, and my own interest in matters historical it seemed logical to look back to a period that perhaps hadn't been covered as thoroughly.

How to find information. Idea! The ABC had been the recognised authority on 'proper' language use and on culture. Peep into the archives. See what it had. Problem. The archives are in Sydney and I'm in Perth. A research grant? How do I, designated a sociologist now, justify the claim? Discrete borders, remember!

So it's the phone. A request coming up. No luck. A time frame is required. Search all available references for some clue, however faint. Nothing, nothing. Yes! A reference to a Dr Mitchell and a speech on the ABC during the war years. No luck again at the old archives, despite the help I'm getting. Weeks pass, other projects and teaching. Then another reference found. A 1946 reference to an argument in 1942. Bingo! A workable time frame.

Weeks later and it's all mine, passed on courtesy of a great bloke buried over there in the archives. A huge argument, spanning months and pages and pages of the ABC Weekly.

How to make it mean something? Start with the first shot fired. Why a literacy debate at this particular moment? It's 1942, the enemy is at the door. Are they all mad? Why worry about literacy, or language, when you're likely to be speaking Japanese very shortly? Back to my old prejudices. There's more to this than historical research. What was going on exactly, when this debate surfaced? Interesting links: Evatt, the ABC, language and national security. Coming together.

Bang! Keating cuddles up to the Queen and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, 1942 is contentious. And now the Brits are coming for Keating and they're nailing him (and us) by aping Aussie speech. Old OZ speak, circa the war years. What the hell's going on? Links and links. Make the connections! Why? Why not deal only with the past? Because the meanings have to be made in the present. They come from the present and reflect the present. In the end, it is the present I am always going to address.

So that's how this research was; those were the issues, assumptions, methodologies and aims that underwrote it. As to the stance of writing it as I did, there's a cost. The lack of contextual studies is an invitation to criticism. Why didn't I at least gesture at so and so's work? I probably should have, but I resisted because I don't want this read as `fitting in'. There's your background. I'll begin again.

With a declaration of independence ... an accusation

In 1954 the Queen made her first visit to Australia, to be welcomed enthusiastically by Prime Minister Robert Menzies. In February 1992, on another tour, the Queen was again greeted by an Australian prime minister, but this time her host was less gracious, or perhaps, as he would prefer it, less obsequious. Prime Minister Paul Keating used the visit to publicly redefine the relationship between Britain and Australia. In an obvious reference to Menzies, Keating warned the Monarch that Australian politicians no longer "saw the world through imperial eyes" (The Australian, 26/2/1992). The years of deference and perhaps servility were over. As if to underscore this fact, Keating was filmed with his arm draped familiarly around the Queen.

Keating combined his declaration of independence with an accusation that Britain had deserted Australia during World War 11. In Parliament he scornfully referred to Britain as the country "which decided not to defend the Malaysian peninsula (sic), not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination" (CPD, 25/2/1992). Predictably, Keating's comments and casual treatment of the Queen upset many of the Queen's compatriots. "In the language of Oz, Paul Keating is a bit of a raw prawn", said Britain's Daily Mirror (26/2/1992). Keating "slapped his arms around the Queen's waist as if she was a Sheila at a sheep dip" complained the Daily Star (26/2/1992). And British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, admonished the Australian Prime Minister for "being rude to Britain" (The Australian, 2/3/1992). Even the academics got into the act. Cambridge don Corelli Barnett told the papers that Keating was "obviously an extremely unpleasant man" and presumably "the original model for Barry Humphries's Les Patterson" (The Australian, 2/3/1992).

In Australia, Keating's claims of British perfidy received mixed reactions. Prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey rejected Keating's arguments while Professor Peter Dennis of the Australian Defence Force Academy advised the Prime Minister not to "dredge up" history he did not understand for domestic political purposes (The Australian, 29/2/1992). On the other hand, there appeared to be tacit support for Keating in the electorate - and not just from republicans and people of non-British descent. As one military commentator observed, ever since Galipolli Australians have harboured the suspicion that British Governments "were readier to lose Diggers rather than British lives" (John Keegan, in The Australian, 29/2/1992).

This was not an idea countenanced by the Leader of the Liberal Party, Dr Hewson. He dismissed Keating as a man who had simply failed to learn proper respect at school. But the Prime Minister would not accept the rebuke: "If he (Hewson) thinks we ought to be basically into British boot-strapping, forelocktugging, and he calls that respect, it's not respect for this country" (The Australian, 2/3/1992). Keating probably scored a few more political points by accusing the Liberals of a history of subservience to Britain. Menzies, he declared, was "not aggressively Australian" (The Australian, 28/2/1992) and the golden age for the Liberals was "the era of the awful cultural cringe which stifled our spirit" (The Australian, 2/3/1992).

When debate subsided it left unanswered a number of questions. Did Britain really abandon Australia after the Japanese took Singapore? If so, what response did the Australian Government make? Did conservative politicians of the time, notably Menzies, give too much consideration to British interests? Did Labor politicians put Australia first?

No doubt a more urgent question for the reader is what has all this to do with literacy and language. There is a connection and it is not tenuous. Perhaps the best way to introduce the relationship is to shift the focus back to the crisis year, 1942. This was the year when the Pacific War opened up, when the British were ousted from Singapore (and Malaya and Burma) and the Japanese attacked New Guinea. It was in 1942 that the troops were brought back from the Middle East to fight at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail. And at home, in that year, there was another fight, ostensibly over the quality of Australian speech...

A station of the Empire recants

On 18/7/1942, the Journal of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, The ABC Weekly, published a front-page editorial entitled "Talk Like Australians". "We have suffered from the imitation of the so called BBC voice in this country", claimed the editorial, requesting that Australian accents be heard more frequently on the ABC. But the issue involved more than locution. Judging by the exhortation in the final paragraph of the editorial, having the 'BBC voice' dominate the airwaves was an affront to national pride:

We are Australians. We have our own manner of speech. Let us not be ashamed to broadcast it. Moreover, let us determine that no suburban fear of being considered 'uncultured' shall trick us into imitation of something that can never be anything but imitation and therefore of little value.

Remarkable about the whole argument was its source. Since its inception, in 1932, the ABC had been on a mission. Set up as part of the Empire broadcasting system, an important job of the ABC had been to bring Empire and outpost closer together. Inglis (1983:33) suggests Billy Hughes might have been "overdoing it" when he declared in Parliament that broadcasting had "made Empire government at last possible", but the utterance provides a clear indication of the role expected of the ABC. It was meant to be a bastion of imperialism and it worked hard to be one. The ABC identified its objective as that of bringing culture - meaning British culture - to the unenlightened Australian masses.

It was the ABC that had always shown a marked preference for announcers with refined British accents. As the former Deputy General Manager of the ABC, Clement Semmler has acknowledged "in the early days of the ABC plummy or exaggerated English accents were at a premium" (1981: 18). Semmler (1981:18) even describes how one would-be announcer got the job after convincing the ABC hierarchy that he was the illegitimate son of an English Duke, exiled by his family to the colonies! And Inglis (1983:70) points out that in 1939, when British born people formed about one in nine of the total population, half the announcers in Sydney were English. And furthermore, the influence of these English announcers was "greater than their numbers, for BBC English remained the standard" (1983:70).

After ten years of promoting the values of the Empire, had the ABC changed its philosophy? Apparently so because on 1/8/1942 the need to 'talk Australian' was reiterated in a front-page editorial entitled "The Language of the Country". An excerpt:

There is some very bad English spoken in Australia, just as there is in England. But to brand the Australian manner of speech as 'uncultured' or 'inferior' is just snobbishness. The average speech of the educated Australian is different from that of educated people in other English-speaking countries, but it is certainly not inferior. The aim should be to select announcers who speak the Australian brand of English well - not those who merely imitate something foreign to our environment ... The use by announcers of a 'superior' manner of speech, divorced from the ordinary speech of the people (and the pattern of speech dealt with is a conscious effort to achieve this meretricious superiority) merely alienates the people and sets up a natural resentment.

All this from the official organ of an organisation that had at least until recently seen itself as a 'co-relative' of the BBC (ABC Chairman Charles Lloyd Jones in Inglis, 1983:25), and had for years insisted that a cultivated British voice was a 'basic necessity' for announcing (Inglis, 1983:70). What was happening inside the Air Beer Ceer?

Timely or immoderate nationalism?

This was a question asked by many of its patrons. In follow-up issues the Weekly published a number of letters on its call to do away with British accents on the airwaves. Most letters were critical of the editorial stance. "I think we are extremely lucky in having such good English over the ABC," stated one reader (22/8/1942). And she urged Australian women in particular to listen and to copy the British intonations - or suffer the consequences: "How many women today lose their men through their voices? Consider ladies!"

A common (and hardly surprising) criticism was that the views expressed in the editorials represented an unwelcome 'national arrogance' which was dangerous to the unity of the Empire:

Would the writer (of the editorials) admit his preference for a shoddy, second-class material product if it was within his Emancial possibility to buy a first quality article? And is the cultivation of the best mental or educational production of a language to be despised? Carefully balanced and well-modulated speech is the cream of a nation's power of expression; a thing every intelligent and decently educated country admits and is proud of when achieved. The great genius and patriot, Dante, 'Father of the Italian Tongue', realised that, by evolving, for a disintegrated and dialectic Italy, a pure, simple medium of expression, he was helping to unite his beloved country ... If we, as a vast Commonwealth of Nations don't wish to disintegrate, we must put aside those peny jealousies and vanities, and follow a 'standard speech' based, as in Italian and French, on the rich source of our mother tongue. That is what London University English stands for (22/8/1942).

Surely you are not contending that the harsh nasal untrained speech which we hear from some prominent politicians (and one lecturer in particular) is preferable to what has been termed 'Standard English'? National arrogance and deceit can go no further than to claim that an untrained Australian voice is superior to that which results from study and hard work ... Please do not degrade the cultural level of ABC announcers. Is it any more blameworthy to speak English with an English accent than to speak French with a French accent, or Russians as the Russians do? (29/8/1942).

... I hope we don't have to listen too often to those unpleasant voices which have been so well described as a sing-song whine through the nose. We are fighting to defeat Hitler and the extravagant nationalism for which he stands. But if the immoderate nationalism which seems to be in cultivation is allowed to grow unchecked in this Commonwealth, Australia may ever remain a large island ... (29/8/1942).

Of those contributors who sided with the editorial perspective, none was more enthusiastic than "one lecturer in particular", the University of Sydney's Dr A.G. Mitchell. On 5/9/1942 Mitchell went to print in the Weekly with a two page article entitled "Australian Speech Is Here To Stay". After a preamble about Fowler and split infinitives, Mitchell came to the point:

The Australian pronunciation of English takes its place among the national forms of English, as much entitled to respectful consideration as any other. It has its own history and is not a corrupt derivative of anything. Development does not necessarily imply degeneration. The development is inevitable. It is the result of a combination of social, psychological, physiological and acoustic influences, and it cannot be stopped. It is very doubtful, indeed, to what extent it can be modified. We could no more rid ourselves of our Australian way of speech than we could help being native to it. And there is no reason why we should try to be rid of it.

A second article by Mitchell appeared in the next edition of the Weekly under the heading "There Is Nothing Wrong With Australian Speech". The piece had a distinctly patriotic feel:

We should use an Australian speech, without apology and without any sense of a need for selfjustification. There is nothing wrong with the Australian voice or speech. It is as acceptable, as pleasant as good English, as any speech to be heard anywhere in the English-speaking commonwealth ... in general announcing and in short-wave broadcasting, the speech should always be Australian. To use an English or pseudo-English pronunciation is a policy which has no justification in theory, dodges the problem, which shrinks from proclaiming own nationality, and which may inflict irritation upon many Australian listeners.

But the letters continued to flow. Dr Mitchell was asked whether a problem with the sensory control of the ears might cause an announcer to say "the tame is et o'clock". There were also questions about the 'mouth sensations' of 'I' and 'A' sounds (12/9/1942). Did people enunciate in particular ways for the pleasure provided? One writer (12/9/1942) claimed the rot had already set in at the ABC:

The class to correspondence pupils given on August 17 was given by a voice even more unpleasant than one usually encounters. Not only were English words pronounced in an exceedingly slovenly fashion: paper pronounced 'piper', later, 'lifer', etc, but a complete ignorance of elementary German pronunciation gave these children the impression that Herr was pronounced 'her', and Ja with a 'J' as in jump.

A symposium on Australian speech

Following up on Mitchell's articles the Weekly invited comment from "citizens with a special interest" in "Australian Speech". The chosen included politicians and academics. Over two issues; (19/9/1942, 26/9/1942) the Weekly produced a symposium of views. The discussions were broad. Arguments were made about speech and spelling, sound and content and sense and form. Pet hates were raised, such as the pronunciation of government as 'goverment'. One writer complained about sentences beginning with 'too' and 'also' and about the use of 'owing' in place of 'due' in a construction like 'owing to illness' Another objected to what was identified as the Australian habit of putting the accent on the second syllable of proper names. But amidst the vagaries and the ruminations the core issues were kept alive. Was Australian speech equal to the English of England? Did a preference for the 'BBC voice' signify a country shrinking from proclaiming its own nationality? What did the contributors to the symposium think?

A vowel sound should be single and pure, and in the broad Australian speech it is not ... In this particular, I think the English of educated persons as spoken in England is preferable to our own speech. But it must not be thought that generally I prefer the English of England to our own speech. There are many facets to be considered - especially the rhythm of the language. To me the English of many Englishmen bears the same relation to standard speech as walking on one's toes does to ordinary walking (Mr Justice Lowe, Chancellor of the University of Melboume, 19/9/1942).

One cannot help thinking that in this country there has been a tendency towards vulgarity both in speech and in bearing (Mr L.A. Robson, Headmaster, Church of England Grammar School, 19/9/1942).

Australian speech ... might best be described as 'cribbed, cabined and confined'. The speaker does not open his mouth sufficiently, places his soft palate in the wrong position and does not use his nasal resonating cavities as he should. Moreover, he does not give his vowel sounds their true value. I submit that we should aim at the cultured type as a standard (Sir Nomman Kater, 19/9/1942).

Since differences of speech tend to divide people into groups antipathetic towards each other, I look forward to the day when unifommity of pronunciation will be even more marked in Australia than it is to-day. What is desirable is that all schools should give systematic training in 'educated Australian not over-refuned'. What happens now is that some schools give training in English as contrasted with Australian speech, while too many others give almost no training at all (Professor McRae, Principal, Teachers' College, Sydney, 19/9/1942).

Dr Mitchell's view is, I think, too comforting. It seems to assume that whatever is, is right, and that a aufficiently universal error may pass currency for truth. That the Australian voice and intonation are here 'for keeps' cannot be doubted. At its worst the flat Australian voice jars on the ear, but no more villainously than the bogus accents of Toorak and Bellevue Hill. My own quarrel is not with the national 'colour' of the voice, which is our inheritance just as surely as a burr on the tongue is the inheritance of a Scot, but with the far too widespread slovenliness of speech. The English tongue deserves respect, and demands knowledge. To snarl your way through life by using the corner of your mouth and the slurred vocabulary of the stable, and to meet all criticism by saying, "Well, you know what I mean," is to commit a crime against a beautiful and flexible language. I am all against encouraging carelessness and indifference on these matters. We will be none the less good Australians by being a little fastidious in our expression and using words as if we really knew what they meant (R.G. Menzies, MHR, 26/9/1942).

I think it is beyond argument that the standard we ought to aim at is good Australian speech, not any other kind ... In England, class-considerations urge the individual toward improvement in speech, but this often leads to self-consciousness. There is a good deal of self-consciousness in English speech, for a large number of people, even in the educated groups, have a mortal fear of slipping into cockney. It seems to me that self consciousness is a greater evil than mangled vowels or dropped aitches, for it places all the weight upon sound rather than content (ABC Announcer, Vance Palmer, 26/9/1942).

As an Australian of the third generation, I find it impossible to agree with Dr. Mitchell. The pronunciation of vowels by the educated Englishman is musical, and the contrast with the usual ugly Australian pronunciation of vowels most marked. I think the Universities greatly to blame ... (Dora Suttor, 26/9/1942).

The debate continues

The symposium did not bring an end to the great Australian Speech debate. Throughout October and into November 1942, the Weekly published further articles, editorials and letters on the subject. Some excerpts from the letters may convey a sense of the depth of interest in the topic:

For 15 years - since arriving in this country, that is to say, - I have suffered acutely listening to Australian voices. But all that will be changed. First thing in the morning, as I awake from sleep, I now clasp my hands together over my breast in accepted coue fashion, and say to myself fifty times: - "Every day in every way I fund there is nothing wrong with the Australian voice or speech. " I repeat this exercise as I drop to sleep at night and f1rmly believe it will succeed with me as it has with Dr. Mitchell (10/10/1942).

The attempt to create a distinct Australian accent is mischievous ... There ... should not be any difference in Standard English as spoken here, in the Motherland, or elsewhere in the Empire ... (17/10/1942).

Until I went to England recently I had no idea English was such a beautiful language ... Now back in Australia, working amongst hundreds of women, I am sorry to say that never before have I heard such ugly voices and such murderous pronunciation of the vowels (17/10/1942).

To sum up, if we want to speak in this way we must and will do so, but we can hardly expect respect for a language bred of carelessness out of ignoranceÑstill less to find it considered "as acceptable, as pleasant, as good English" (17/10/1942).

I have heard Englishmen complain of our way of pronouncing cow, but when they say it sounds to my ear like 'coow' (17/10/1942).

May I not be 'happee' in Australia, rather than 'happi' according to the BBC? (17/10/1942).

The speech will modify, enlarge its vocabulary, but never entirely lose its Australian touch, for that touch is of the land itselfÑthe Australian land which has made us such as we are ... (31/10/1942).

I have read with interest the letters appearing in 7he ABC WeekAy regarding Australian versus English speech. So far no one has drawn attention to the habit prevalent in this country of substituting the vowel sound u for i. Habit becomes 'habut', office 'offus', milk 'mullc', do it 'do ut', etc. (7/11/1942).

I submit that there is no such thing as a fixed Australian dialect, but there are many degrees and variations of slovenly speech (7/11/1942).

There is one assault on the language that causes me much concern - the wrong application of certain words, notably 'disinterested' (7/11/1942).

I should like to ask Dr. Mitchell if he does not consider it a convenience to know, without having to wait for the context, whether his Australian companion is talkng of rice or race, or of a bison or a basin? (7/11/1942).

The final entry into the debate as it featured in the Weekly was an article by Professor A.J.A. Waldock entitled "American English belongs to the people" (7/11/1942). Waldock conducted a defence of American English, saying it belonged "to the American people themselves whose slang has made it one of the most vigorous languages that has ever existed". Waldock's tribute concluded with a question: What could Australians learn from American English? The gist of his answer was that "it shows us that language belongs to the people".

A question of language or politics or both?

So the Australian Speech debate ran from July to November 1942. While it was being prosecuted, Australian Prime Minister Curtin fought British Prime Minister Churchill over the matter of the placement of the sixth and seventh divisions of the Australian Army (Alexander, 1974:139-40). By the time of the symposium on Australian speech, in September 1942, Curtin had brought these troops back from the Middle East and they were fighting with the Americans against the Japanese in New Guinea.

Why make the connection? What has the war to do with a debate about Australian Speech?

To approach this matter properly, it is necessary to return to the question of why the Weekly initiated the debate. Why did its editors ask Australians to tone down their homage to things British? Scotch any thoughts that this was a maverick operation. The ABC ran a tight ship and mutinies were certainly not allowed. If the ABC hierarchy had opposed the views pushed in the Weekly, the debate would never have happened. Talk like Australians and be proud of being Australian - this was the message that even the Anglophiles at the Empire's station were apparently endorsing. What was behind the campaign to separate the Australian identity from its British bindings?

The short answer to the question is that in 1942 the Australian Government dictated a change of policy to the ABC. Inglis, the offficial biographer of the ABC, reports that on 7/1/1942 the Chairman of the ABC, W.J. Cleary, and other senior aides, were summoned to a meeting with Senator W.P. Ashley, Postmaster-General and Minister for Information, J.A. Beasley, Minister for Supply and Development, and Dr H.V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs. At the meeting, the ABC was given a specific brief:

Evatt told Cleary that the ABC must counter the propaganda of BBC relays putting the European war first. Back in Sydney Cleary instructed (senior ABC staff) Barry, Molesworth and Dixon that the Pacific was now paramount; 'news, talks and other programme features', as Dixon noted the message, would all have to carry subtle propaganda for 'Australia first' (1983:96).

Evatt's directive obviously reflected the Government's concern at Japan's entry into the War. (And the bombing of Rabaul three days before the meeting would have prompted fears about the threat the Japanese posed to Australia.) That the ABC was asked to serve as a weapon against British 'propaganda' on the BBC seems particularly significant when seeking an explanation as to why the Weekly began to push its 'Australia first' line later in that year. Of course Evatt's orders also raise questions about the degree of trust between the British and Australian Governments even before the fall of Singapore.

It is not relevant here to discuss in detail exactly how the ABC went about putting Australia first, but in the interests of showing that the ABC did comply with the order, a brief look at some of the measures taken seems warranted. Inglis (1983:96) records that the first changes initiated by the ABC were to cut down on BBC news bulletins and to cease taking BBC news commentaries. In early February, the decision was made that on the ABC news bulletins, the national news read from Canberra would precede the overseas news read from Sydney. And the number of national bulletins was increased from one daily bulletin (introduced 16/12/1941) to five. Coincidentally or not, on 16/2/1942, the day after the British surrendered at Singapore, Advance Australia Fair replaced 7he British Grenadiers as the theme ushering in the ABC news. More Australian music was played on the ABC - all the local compositions that could be found - and on Cleary's instructions, writers were commissioned to produce Australian radio drama to replace British shows (Inglis, 1983:100).

With all this the Government was apparently still not satisfied. Inglis (1983:111) records that in April 1942 Prime Minister Curtin sent a message to Cleary advising that the ABC "should be following a more aggressive national policy in all respects. It should be promoting a national consciousness". The next day Curtin called the editor of the Weekly (and the man in charge of Public Relations for the ABC) S.H. Deamer to an audience and reiterated his remarks. Deamer incidentally was of British birth but he had fought with the AIF at Galipolli.


So what do we have when we return to the contemplation of the Australian Speech debate in the Weekly? At one level, surely, we have a literacy/language debate: What should be done about speech? What should be done about spelling, and grammar, form and content? Is it important to conform to Standard English? Is slang acceptable? Which experts should be believed? Are standards deteriorating? If so, who is to blame?

All these questions are characteristic of this kind of dispute. Even the active role of the press in stimulating concern and organising a forum for the debate is a familiar part of the pattern.

But on another level the Australian Speech debate is not really about language usage and the observance or non-observance of conventions. For the politicians who gave orders to the ABC hierarchy, to Dr Mitchell and to the editor of the Weekly, the objective was to foster national consciousness and to alter the world view of Australians. The message was that there could be no more reliance on Britain. The Empire was dead in the Pacific and Australians had to be made to recognise the facts. So in August and September 1942, while Australian soldiers fought desperately at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail - with their American allies - the Weekly was doing its bit for national survival by being 'aggressively Australian'. "Talk like Australians," urged the first editorial. "We are Australians," it declared (and sotto voice "not British"). And, doubtless not coincidentally, printed alongside the Australian Speech debate were the words of Advance Australia Fair (The ABC Weekly, 3/10/1942)! The grenadiers had fled or been defeated. The new allies were the Americans. It was the 'vigorous' American language that would now get the plaudits from the ABC.

Of course, many later contributors to the Australian Speech debate obviously did not recognise these objectives. They did not connect the struggle against the 'BBC voice' with the struggle for national survival and the reorganisation of alliances. They missed the politics, but worried about the diction, the grammar and the spelling. So the Australian Speech debate had simultaneous plots running, an overt and a covert agenda. This prompts a question: Was the Australian Speech debate exceptional, or do literacy/language debates frequently work on different levels? Are language debates, in a sense, normally alibis for other debates? And do the players - who often seem so dear and opinionated on the rights and wrongs of language use - normally fail to appreciate these other, possibly higher, stakes?

By now it should be apparent that the Australian Speech debate really can facilitate the formation of certain judgements on the issues raised during the Queen's visit to Australia in February 1992. Whether Britain deserted Australia is a question that has to be left unresolved but the editorials of the Weekly - with their clear reflection of Government directives to the ABC - are a testimony to a loss of faith in Britain. The stance in the editorials was not exactly anti-British, such a description would be too strong, but Australians were asked to shed their British identities and to put their own country first. As to the charge that Menzies was not 'aggressively Australian', he is faintly condemned by his own words. It is Mitchell (and Curtin, Evatt, Cleary and Deamer) who appear as patriots, more so than the man who in the crisis argued that "the English tongue deserves respect" and patronised his people by telling them not to snarl out of the corner of their mouths and to speak as if they really knew what words meant.

As a final remark on the mesh between Australian identity, Australian speech, and the issue of servility to Britain, perhaps it is worth reflecting on the language used in the British press to deride Prime Minister Keating. Why did the Mirror and the Star use 'Australian Speech', or at least what they assumed was the Australian idiom in their put downs? Why mock the language of the country? Why use it to imply a lack of culture? Has the message of the equality of cultures, languages and nations still not been received?


Alexander, F. (1974). Australia since Federation. Victoria: Thomas Nelson.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 25/2/1992.

Inglis, K. S. (1983). This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983. Carlton Victoria: Melbourne University Press.

Senunler, C. (1981). The ABC: Aunt Sally and sacred cow. Carlton, Victoria Melbourne University Press.

Newspaper sources

The ABC Weekly (issues July 18/1942 - 7/11/1942)
The Australian (issues 26/2/1992, 28/2/1992, 29/21/1992, 2/3/1992)
The Daily Mirror (26/2/1992)
The Daily Star (26/2/1992)

Author: David Pyvis is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Curtin University of Technology. Previously he was employed as a Lecturer in Social Policy at Edith Cowan University and before that, as a Senior Tutor in Politics at Murdoch University. His ties to education include a stint as an English teacher and a PhD acquired while a postgraduate in the School of Education at Murdoch University. In 1992, he was the recipient of a Research Prize from WAIER and was short-listed for the equivalent Australian award.

Please cite as: Pyvis, D. (1993). When the AIR BEER CEER pushed the Aussie twang. Issues In Educational Research, 3(1), 1-15.

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