Changing the Voices of Teachers and Children: Singing and Elocution in South Australia in the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

In 1931 a new enrolee in the Adelaide Teachers' College, Isabel Kimber, began her two-year course. (1) At that time Olive Carter (known as Ollie) was the lecturer for elocution, voice production, and correct speech, and Frank Gratton was in charge of music, both at the college and in the Education Department. Kimber recalled that, "We all had to sing to Ollie Carter and she'd tell us whether we had a drawing room voice or what we had." (2) Those with a "drawing room voice" were encouraged, while those with something else received remedial attention. Regular lectures were given on music and voice production. Sometimes the content might overlap. Teachers and, for example, their fourth-grade students, were expected to practice the recitation of such poems as "The Land of the Counterpane" by Robert Louis Stevenson and "Hiawatha Goes Hunting" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (3) In 1900 South Australian school inspector Alexander Clark had noted the skills and importance of recitation of poetry that demanded "a great variety of treatment ... [which needed] not only pure and correct pronunciation of the consonants and vowels, but an effort to find an appropriate speed." (4) There had been concerns about vocal tone, singing tone, and elocution from the inception of state-supported education in South Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century, as elsewhere.

That Worrying Australian "Twang and Slang"

Concerns about the Australian accent were noted early on in the Australian colonies. In 1844 Mrs. Charles (Louisa Anne) Meredith noted that "a very large proportion" of Australians have "the same nasal twang as many Americans." (5) Mrs Meredith was not alone. In 1859 Richard Horne wrote of "the colonial twang." (6) After this initial flurry of concern, however, comment waned and for the next twenty-five years there was little public debate by authorities, governmental or self-appointed, about the "twang." Then the debate resumed. In the late 1880s music educator Samuel McBurney entered the fray, offering what Baker called a number of "semi-phonetic observations." (7) On January 18, 1894, the Bulletin published a poem, "The Austrylian [sic] Songstress," which concluded with the lines: "Twere [sic] better if thou never sang, Than voiced it in Australian twang." (8)

The Bulletin opined in a leader headed "Twang" on January 6, 1892:

   The early English convicts, mostly from London, brought it [the
   accent] with them. Early Australian parents were too busy, and
   generally too uneducated, to notice that their offspring had caught
   the complaint, and said 'kike' for 'cake.' ... If the thing is to
   be eradicated the reformers must start upon State schools at once,
   for every year brings its thousands of recruits to the twang
   brigade. At present there is no effort made to raise the standard
   of State school accent, nor are the masters in general aware that
   it is a terrible thing to hear the youngsters reading. They read
   nearly as nasally themselves. The twang is everywhere ... If it
   remains on familiar terms with society for a few years longer, it
   will become the accepted pronunciation of the country. (9)

Disparagingly, this accent was ascribed as a "Cockney vulgarity" which was brought to Australia "long before rabbits, sparrows, snails and other British nuisances were grafted upon our budding civilisation." (10) Baker dispels the notion that the Australian accent is solely a variation of the Cockney dialect but also ascribes it to more northern English modes of speech, from which origins it has developed independently in Australia. He states: "The allegation that Australians talk like Cockneys must be regarded as one of the popular myths." (11)

The Educators' Response

Despite the debate concerning the provenance of the Australian accent, colonial educators heard the call to action. Once the decision had been made that there was only one way of pronouncing English, the South Australian "Education Department partook enthusiastically of 'the vulgar insolence of telling other Englishmen that they do not know how to speak their own language. …