How our language changes: consonental drift

Inez Romanos | August 3, 2016

I think I have heard hishtory in the making. That’s right; not history. Hishtory with a ‘sht’.

I hear it everywhere I go in New Zealand. Some people say it, some don’t. There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s just a consonental drift.

I began to hear it in London in the noughties. When I came back home to New Zealand in 2003, this idiosyncrasy of speech was lying in wait for me. Where did it begin? How did we get ‘conshtruc-shun infrashtruk-chuh’? How did construction infrastructure get so mangled?

Where does language change come from?

Wherever it began and wherever it went, we can safely assume that that ‘sht’ travelled via the media, probably TV. So did ‘arks’. I mean, ‘I arksed ‘im for the keys to the van’ — very East London.

But how about ‘har’? As in ‘Har I poured the concrete slab was I hired a mixer and Dave came round to give me a hand.’

‘Har’ definitely gives a statement a down-to-earth Kiwi twang. But is ‘har’ local, or do you find it elsewhere?

Then there’s the double ‘is’. As in, ‘The reality of it is, is that biscuits taste better when they’re dunked.’ Humph. You only need one ‘is’, whether you dunk or not. (I do. It’s my guilty secret.)

Try this experiment at home

Finally, here’s a little linguistic experiment. You need a teddy bear, a bottle of beer, and test subjects of a range of ages. Ideally, include a couple of under-10s. Show them the beer and ask ‘What’s this?’ Repeat with the bear. My observations from this highly scientific poll is that the younger the test subject, the more likely they’ll pronounce the cuddly toy exactly the same way as the amber liquid. If they’ve been asking for their beer, they don’t have an early-onset drinking problem. Just give their teddy back.

Tell us your pet peeves

As plain language experts, one of the benchmarks we set for clear communication is that it uses familiar words. But we know those words change. ‘Hishtory’ sounds like an inelegant newcomer. But we may all be saying it 10 years time.

Whether we are or not, I’ll have new words to grumble about by then. Meanwhile, what are your pet peeves? We’d love to know.


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