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A look at Australian English past and present

Australian English

The 26th of January is Australia Day. In this post, we look at Australian English.

Professor Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, Australian National University , has this to say about Australian English in an article on the OED website:

Australian English differs from other Englishes primarily in its accent and vocabulary. The major features of the accent were established by the 1830s. In the period between colonial settlement (1788) and the 1830s, when the foundation accent was being forged, new lexical items to describe the new environment, especially its flora and fauna, were developed either from Aboriginal languages (coolibah, wombat, wallaby, waratah, and so on) or from the ‘transported’ English word stock (native bear, wild cherry, and so on).

Many more vocabulary items were later added in response to the nineteenth-century process of settlement and pastoral expansion. All of this seems at once predictable and inevitable—this is the way a colonial society imposes its linguistic footprint on a subjected land.

Cultivated, broad, and general Australian

And then, at the end of the nineteenth century, something curious and largely unpredictable happened to Australian English. In response to a newly-developed concept of received pronunciation in Britain, which was closely tied to notions of social prestige, some Australian speakers modified their vowels and diphthongs in order to move them towards the British exemplars. From the 1890s, and well into the 1950s, elocution was in the air, and elocution teachers found a ready market for the teaching of British vowels and diphthongs to the socially-aspirational classes. This modified form of Australian speech came to be called Cultivated Australian.

As if in response against this new British-based Cultivated Australian, a diametrically opposed form of Australian English developed in the first part of the twentieth century. This form moved the Australian vowels and diphthongs even further away from what was now the British standard of pronunciation, and emphasized nasality, flatness of intonation, and the elision of syllables. This second modified form of Australian speech came to be called Broad Australian. While it is true that when non-Australians hear any Australian say ‘mate’ or ‘race’ they are likely to mistake the words for ‘mite’ and ‘rice’, the mishearing is most likely to occur with speakers of Broad Australian.

The majority of Australians continued to speak with the accent that had been established in the first fifty years of settlement, and this form of speech came to be known as General Australian. General Australian was now book-ended by Cultivated Australian and Broad Australian, and these forms of Australian English came to carry with them very different sets of values. Cultivated Australian, for example, came to express a longing for British values and a nostalgia for a country that was still regarded by many as ‘home’. Broad Australian was strongly nationalistic, and carried with it notions of egalitarianism that were antagonistic to a perceived class-obsessed and hierarchical Britain.

All three forms of Australian English included most of the vocabulary items that had developed in the second half of the nineteenth century: billy ‘a cooking utensil’; swag (transferred from the underworld sense of ‘booty’) as the collection of belongings of a bush traveller, and swagman as their bearer; fossick—perhaps a variant of the midland and southern English fussock (to bustle about)—meaning ‘to search for gold’, and then ‘to rummage around for anything’; the outback and the never-never to describe country far from urban areas; brumby ‘a wild horse’; larrikin ‘an urban hooligan’; and so on.

You can read the rest of Professor Bruce Moore’s article on Australian English on OED Online.

Don’t be a dag – learn some real Aussie English!

John Mansfield looks at modern Australian turns of phrase:

When Kylie Minogue used the words dag and daggy in a TV interview in 2009, an explanation was required: “it’s just kind of like the opposite of cool, you know?”

What a perfect definition, and who better to define it than our national pop ambassador? Australian English is often mysterious when heard outside its native land: nothing is more confusing than the moment an Aussie talks about their love of thongs; an embarrassed British silence may follow, as listeners struggle to realize that we are talking quite innocently about ‘flip-flops’ (and you think our word sounds silly?)

The most familiar terms are the old Aussie clichés – strewth, crikey, and sheila – but while g’day is still in good health, many of these words are no longer widely used, except for in the outback. These days, mainstream Australian speech is all about avoiding too many syllables: we could meet up in the arvo for a convo about your recent compo; later on we’ll have a barbie with the rellies, but don’t forget your sunnies, and don’t let me find out you’ve been playing the pokies again. That’d be beaut.

Humorous and earthy topics are also fertile with Australianisms: cheap wine is goon or plonk. A really daggy and uncultured person is a bogan, and the most scandalously daggy items of clothing are surely budgie smugglers – as worn by the losing candidate in our 2010 federal election.

You can read the rest of John Mansfield’s article here.