Musings, Sociolinguistics

Linguistic Diversity and the CBC

cbc logoI love the CBC, especially CBC Radio, and I listen a lot, so I can’t help but reflect on what I’m hearing. And it’s long struck me that the CBC doesn’t go far enough in terms of linguistic diversity– in terms of regional linguistic diversity, the evolving nature of Canadian English , and the issue of nativeness.

I know that the CBC has a diversity policy, which is  great thing. The policy says the following:

“Canada’s population is made up of a wealth of cultures, linguistic and ethno-cultural communities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religions and people with different abilities. Each of us contributes to the collective success. CBC/Radio-Canada is committed to reflecting the country’s diversity through its programming. All Canadians need to be able to recognize themselves on-air and know that its programs reflect the changing face of Canada on all platforms.

But the thing is, in terms of the national on-air personalities on CBC Radio, I don’t think they live up to this policy,

First, let’s talk about the standard Canadian English heard on-air. It is a fact of life that any language changes and evolves. Yet the CBC seems to maintain a certain old-fashioned, conservative idea of what Canadian English is, which is at odds with the way it’s actually spoken today by millions of people. A perfect example of this is the pronunciation of the word news  or  Tuesday. Traditionally, the Canadian pronunciation of the vowel in these words was more in line with the variant heard in many British dialects, with the palatal glide before the “u” vowel (/nju:z/ and /tju:zdej/); the absence of the /j/  (/nu:z/ and /tu:zdej/) is more common in American dialects. But the thing is, there’s been a lot of language change in that area, and in this study, for example, 80% of people under 40 dropped the /j/ in the word news, and it’s common even in the speech of 70-year-olds. Language changes, and this is one way in which Canadian English is evolving and has evolved. (And that study is from 20 years ago!) So why, according to a friend who works there, are  people who work at CBC Radio chastised if they say /nu:z/ on the air? That does not seem to be “reflecting the changing face of Canada”, as most young people don’t speak in a way that sounds like that. (And that’s only one example; there are others.)

Another way in which the CBC falls short of really allowing all Canadian to recognize themselves on air is in regional and social variation in the language of on-air personalities. The different Englishes in Canada sound different: the qualities of the vowels especially make Newfoundland English sound different from Edmonton English from Aboriginal English or the English of African-Nova Scotians. Regional programming is more representative, but most national personalities on CBC Radio, for example, all speak a “cleaned up” standard Canadian English that erases any regional flavour. I’m not proposing they get a bunch of Newfoundland fishermen to deliver the news in regionalisms and slang, but just that Standard Canadian English can be be spoken in a way that preserves some of the phonetic qualities present in the many Canadian Englishes. The BBC has done it; why couldn’t the CBC?

Finally, Canada prides itself for being a country of immigrants; a multi-cultural mosaic of cultures, right? Multi-cultural often means multi-lingual. Why don’t we hear any non-native speakers of English on the air as national radio personalities? I’m not talking about someone who is still in the beginning stages of learning the language but rather a high-fluency, extremely proficient speaker of English who just happens to speak it as a second or additional language, with some type of audible accent. I don’t think that would be a big deal. Non-native English speakers are my friends, colleagues and neighbours; why shouldn’t they be able to be heard on our public broadcaster?

I’ve been rhetorically asking why the CBC doesn’t get a bit more progressive in this area, but we know full well that if they made any of the three changes I’ve described above, they’d get hate mail in droves from that certain type of CBC listener that doesn’t like the youngs and their degenerate way of talking and that can only put up with the “awful twang” of the guys on Dead Dog Cafe or 22 Minutes in a comedy context and then, only for so long. But those type of reactions are barely disguised ageism, racism and regionalism most of the time: see certain people’s reaction to Shad as the new host of Q as a case in point. Rather than pandering to the old-fashioned and intolerant in its listenership, the CBC should show leadership and, by featuring a variety of voices on air, better fulfil its diversity mandate.

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