I blame it on Shortland Street! Once we learned to regard New Zild as an acceptable way of speaking, there was no stopping us. Our accent has become stronger and more differentiated by the year. As a student of linguistics I’m fascinated by the changes in our natural accent; as a voice coach I’m less enthusiastic. It’s not the accent that bothers me, it’s what we’re doing to it. New Zealand voices, particular those of young women, are becoming increasingly and unpleasantly nasal. This annoying nasal twang is epidemic in young female news reporters on television; Fran Dresler from The Nanny is positively mellifluent in comparison. Even one or two of our female newsreaders sound as though they have terminal sinusitis. My automatic response to a strong nasal twang is to put my fingers in my ears. This is not a good noise. In fact, it’s horrible. But even if these women were aware of it, they wouldn’t know how to fix it. And don’t get me started on their wretched rising terminals. There’s a future post on that!
Our TV networks no longer give their on-air staff voice training, or expect them to do any work on their voices in their own time. Most journalists have probably never had a speech lesson in their lives. If they have naturally pleasant voices this may not matter – though many of them seem to have no idea what a microphone is for, or how to match their on-camera voice with their voice-over commentaries. I can’t help thinking our viewing pleasure would be greatly enhanced if our networks considered that a good voice was as important as a journalism diploma and a pretty face and invested in some vocal training. Is this old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy? I don’t think so. We no longer have a perpetual grizzle of discontent about pronunciation in the Letters to the Editor pages, but every time someone writes about voices on radio or TV, those pages are flooded with responses. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should revert back to being mini-Brits. Heaven forefend. I celebrate our new-found confidence as a nation, and the consequent pride in our identity. But I do think we’re entitled to expect to hear pleasant voices on the air regardless of which accent we’re hearing. Radio New Zealand still gives us a voices that are easy to listen to. It makes sure there is always someone keeping an ear on standards. Why can’t the vastly better resourced television networks manage to do the same thing?
There’s no doubt our accent has changed. Dramatically. In news reels from the 50s and 60s all the women sound like modified versions of the Queen. We took her English very seriously in those days. Radio announcers were auditioned around the country and the Chief Announcer and his deputies in Wellington played the tapes and said Yay or Nay to star-struck hopefuls. Mostly Nay. The few who were accepted were put through rigorous voice training and monitored constantly. In those days the only accent heard on New Zealand radio was Received Pronunciation, the neutral Southern English of the BBC World Service. New Zealand announcers, with not a regional vowel amongst them, were welcomed over there with open arms – almost a guaranteed job for your OE. The best and brightest journalists lined up for jobs when our radio and television news services started, and many were firmly sent away to work on their voices and then apply again. New Zealand radio wasn’t ready for Kiwi voices. We found Fred Dagg and Lyn of Tawa funny as much for their broad accents as for their comedy. When our first soap opera, Close to Home, beamed out from Wellington in the early 70s, there were cries of outrage across the country. Some of these actors had New Zealand accents – quel horreur! People on our telly were supposed to sound like Brits. We’d never be able to hold up our heads again. Slowly we got used to hearing our own voices, but then came ten wilderness years without a New Zealand soap and, to many people’s surprise, the same howls of protest were heard when Shortland Street hit our screens in the early 90s. This time it seemed an Aussie accent was fine for soaps, but a Kiwi one was cringe-making. In the 21st century the standard accents on local radio or television programmes are Kiwi ones, and thank goodness for that. I don’t want our kids cringing at our natural accent. Equally I don’t want harsh, unpleasant voices assailing my ears while I catch up with the news of the day.