Barbara RyanAnother open lecture from the Centre of the Book.  I didn’t look closely at the synopsis and thought it might be an overview of what New Zealanders were reading in the decade on the eve of World War One.  I called that one wrongly.  Instead Professor Barbara Ryan of the University of Singapore, a migrant American, talked about looking for quotes from the forgotten American humourist David Harum.

David Harum was the pseudonym for Edward Westscott.  He wrote one book about working in the horse trade, but died before it was published and then became so popular that everyone was quoting it.  Its appeal was that it recorded a broad vernacular language without being offensive or provocative.  Being recognised posthumously probably didn’t harm his reputation either.  New Zealanders picked up on this popularity as well.  References to him appear in the newspapers of the website Papers Past for New Zealand.  Ryan cited the quote (I’m paraphrasing here): “A dog needs a requisite number of fleas.  It keeps him from thinking about the status of being a dog”.David Harum O

The Manawatu Times picked up on Harum as an example of story-telling for New Zealanders to emulate in an editorial of 1909.  Professor Ryan argues that what the Manawatu Times was advocating was the emergent of a New Zealand voice and accent, the demos from the natio, to use her language, the people from the nation.  When I spoke to her afterwards I suggested that this was interesting because the newspapers at the time were reporting annual elocution competitions like national events.  We see two conflicting impulses, the emergence of national dialect alongside the prestige language of empire.

I find myself returning to Arnold Wall’s 1938 preface to New Zealand English, his guide to correct pronunciation:

On a previous occasion, when commenting on the pronunciation of English in New Zealand, the author said: “I would not have it thought that I lay too much stress on this detail of ‘good speech’ as a part of the make-up of the New Zealander. I am fully aware of its comparative unimportance. I remember how, at the outbreak of the war in 1914, seeing that young students whose speech left much to be desired yet died gloriously on Gallipoli, I told myself that I must never criticize New Zealand speech unkindly, and in making the above statement I have borne this resolution in mind.”

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