Time for T

Sat, Dec 18, 2004, 00:00

Gay Byrne is perplexed by the pronunciation of one letter on our nassional airwaves

This is a transcript of a random dipping into the output of RTÉ radio and TV in recent weeks. The speakers included newsreaders, reporters, special correspondents and presentation announcers. There was much talk of: "the majorissy of seats ... a layser statement ... the circuit course limiss ... a new eighssy kilomessre bypass ... the new roosse cussing times to the mowsserway ... polissical arrangements ... needing a new voess ... about next year's budgiss."

No matter when you switch on radio or TV in this country, it's there waiting for you - the Soft Irish Tee. It's like a nasty virus which has overcome the nation. And Montrose has become the centre of infection. The thing is my current obsession and makes me cringe, to the extent that my family ask me to leave the room now if they want to hear the news in peace.

Considering the trade I've been involved in for the past 50 years or so, it's not surprising that I've taken a more-than-passing interest in general verbal delivery, particularly on TV and radio (although on second thoughts, perhaps it's very surprising indeed, since those currently involved in the trade appear to take no interest whatsoever in such matters).

And no, I'm not setting myself up as the perfect example of error-free broadcasting, nor do I want BBC standard speech (if there is such a thing any more) all over our airwaves. Yes, I completely accept that in the rough-and-tumble of churning out hours of radio and TV each week, one can only too easily fall into bad habits and verbal tics if there is no one around who knows or cares enough to correct you.

I'm sure the Soft Irish Tee must always have been prevalent. But what intrigues me is that I was never aware of it, certainly on air, until recently. And now, suddenly, it has engulfed us. How did this happen, and when? And where did start? Was there no one in the entirety of the RTÉ organisation to notice what was happening and try to stem the tide?

If you don't believe me, try it for yourself, any hour of any day of any week. You can have many hours of innocent fun whooping for joy - and in derision - every time you hear it.

It would be easy to list those broadcasters most troubled by the virus, but it's easier to mention just the four I can think of offhand who are free of it. Newsreader Brian Jennings does pretty well. Our splendid man in London, Brian O'Connell, is virus-free (presumably because he lives in London and doesn't hear the damn thing all around him), as are Bethan Kilfoyle (presumably because she was born and reared in the UK and hasn't so far picked it up) and Ingrid Miley (maybe she went to a school which had an elocution teacher, or she twigged the virus herself and some stage and resolved to steer clear of it).

Pat is generally free of the disease, but occasionally falls into the trap. Gerry has it bad, as does young Tubridy and the whole gang around him; and apart from the two I've mentioned, every woman on the air at present is reeking with it. Indeed it seems to me that the virus is an essential prerequisite for anyone wishing to be employed in Montrose. Does anyone actually audition anyone any more, or even interview them before allowing them on air? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? Do they just walk in off the street and start blasting away because they've done a journalism course and they have an NUJ card?

There was a documentary about Limerick last week, and for me, it was the Lottery Jackpot of the Soft Irish Tee. I do not know the name of the young woman who did the narration - it was an independent production - but was there no one to listen to this before it went on air? In just 20 minutes or so, you got pretty much the entire collection.

"In nineteen eighssy-two, Prime Time's predecessor Today Toneiss ... iss heard ... more houses, six hundriss in all ... some burned ouss ... since the estaiss was built ... still awaiss action ... communissy leaders ... a name for gessup and go ... the heart of the cissy ... there's no thress... about to gess its first supermarkiss ... a CCTV monissering system for securissy ... drug trade activissy ... he had been targissis by the gardaí ..."

I think it is awful. And don't fob me off with the usual "Oh Gay! Sure it's part of what we are - it's part of our charm. And it's part of the evolving nature of language and pronunciation ..." and all that bilge. In fact, it's nothing more than slovenliness of speech, and lazy, careless habit.

One of our male newsreaders has taken the Soft Irish Tee a step further - he extends it into the Ds. If your name is David, he'll call you Daviss, because he's just too bloody lazy to lift his tongue.

Does no one have an ear any more? I was in mid-rant lately to one of my - and your - favourite women broadcasters, aintelligent and talented woman, when she suddenly stopped me and said: "Buss Gay, surely I don't speak like thass, do I?" She wasn't kidding - my dramatic outburst, complete with examples, had gone winging past her ears.

And the virus strides across every accent, with the possible exception of my friends in Donegal. They tend to talk in clipped, short sentences up there anyway, although where we say "now", they say "at the minute". But that final T is sharp and staccato: what you'll never hear is "ass the minniss". The rest of our regional accents are heavily infected. We live in a land where NATO has become NAYSSO, Kuwait has become Kuwaiss, and the Pope no longer lives in Italy, he has moved to a strange new country called Issilly, which is not on anyone's map but our own.

I happen to believe that RTÉ, as the national broadcaster, has an obligation to uphold and preserve some decent standards of speech, but at present, Montrose is sending a message to all our young people that this is the right way to do it. After all, if you can be an announcer and newsreader on RTÉ, you must have been learnt to talk proper, roish? No, dammit, it's not, and I think someone up there should do something about it.

Those nice people at "Messern" who tell us all about the weather are not RTÉ people, so could try independently to improve the standard. Ditto the unfortunates at AA Roadwatch, who, as we all know, inhabit some strange parallel universe of English-speak - one of their members, Louise Herrity, rather alarmingly tells us every day that her name is Heresy.

But the all-time pits has to be the RTÉ presentation announcer who tells us on a nightly basis that "thass programme can be seen, Sassdy nighss, seven thurssy, Nesswork Two". I suspect she's a close relative of the one who does the EBS commercial, which is all about "mutualissy" and being "besser all around". Now that they've spent all that money changing the name of the station, would there be a few euro left in the kitty to bring in an elocution teacher?