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In-depth: Australian English

Authors: Dr Debbie Loakes, Dr Duncan Markham. © 2018. All rights reserved.

Many people wonder how and why an identifiably Australian form of English developed. Historical comments show that English-speaking colonists sounded different from people from “the mother country” (Britain) within just a few decades after the establishment of the colonies in Australia. This rapid development was unexpected and also had an unusual characteristic: across all the colonies, people sounded quite similar, despite the low populations and massive distances separating them. Australian English is now an easily recognisable dialect, with many interesting flavours.

Introduction to Australian English

Before the so-called “settlement” of Australia by the British in 1788, there were hundreds of Australian Indigenous languages spoken in Australia by the peoples who had already been living here for thousands of years. Despite the terrible history of colonial aggression towards Australian Aboriginal peoples and many racist attempts to eradicate the use of indigenous languages, some of these languages have survived (see e.g. AIATSIS for more information).Since the arrival of the British, most discussion of Australian English has focused on how the British-descendant population of Australia spoke English, but in recent decades there has been increasing attention given to both Indigenous Australian English (actually multiple types of Aboriginal English exist), and “ethnic” varieties of Australian English, spoken by people whose heritage is not British.

When people come into contact, there are various ways that speech can change and evolve, and this is what has happened in Australia in multiple phases.

The English that was “transported” to Australia along with the convicts, administrators and free settlers included many different dialects from the British Isles, so at first the colonists sounded different from one another. The majority were from south-eastern England though (London being the most important place in that area), and this is why Australian English is often compared to London English.

As described by Cox and Fletcher (2017), within just one generation, it seems that an Australian-flavoured English had developed in the colonial children. When these children came into contact in Australia, through social interaction and (eventually) schooling in particular, Australian English is thought to have begun to emerge.

As we know, children’s speech is quite flexible, especially at an early age. Putting English-speaking children together in a new place, where there was no particular pressure to sound a certain way, meant that they could effectively develop a new mix from all the accents around them. Quite rapidly, the children of early colonists started sounding very similar to one another. A recognisable form of Australian English is thought to have evolved within just forty years.

Note that this is a theory, as there are no recordings or precise linguistic documents from this time, but there are some old documents which describe the unique accents of children in Australia in those early settlement days. We also know that this is the most likely scenario from other sources about the ways that language and speech work in different communities.

Characteristics of modern Australian English

The phonetics of Australian English

Now that we have considered some aspects of how Australian English came to be, we can think about some of its features, and how Australian English varies.

Some features of Australian English are:

  • The different vowel system: Australian vowels are relatively close to Standard Southern British English (because of the way Australian English developed) but quite unique in their flavour. At Ear and Speak we teach people about why British English dictionaries and resources can be useful, but not perfect, for Australian English.
  • Lots of unstressed vowels: Many varieties of English have a big difference between vowels in stressed and unstressed syllables. Australian English tends to make more difference than many other major dialects.
  • High-rising intonation (a questioning melody). This is when people sound like they are asking a question because their pitch rises, but they are actually making a statement. Not everybody does this, but you will certainly hear it around you. The British have started doing it, and tend to blame Australian soap operas for their “bad influence”.
  • Australian English has traditionally been called non-rhotic, meaning that the “r” sound is only ever pronounced before a vowel, not before a consonant. So we would say the “r” in story, but not in words like storm. We are hearing increasing instances of young speakers using “r” before a consonant, though, so Australian English is changing!
  • Some consonants, and especially “l”, sound different and have a different effect on neighbouring vowels than in most other dialects.

You can find out a lot more about Australian English features at the site below, as well as listen to examples:

Consonants:

http://australianlinguistics.com/speech-sounds/consonants-au-english/

Vowels:

http://australianlinguistics.com/speech-sounds/vowels-au-english/

Varieties of Australian English

A dialect and accent are never fixed in one form. People often say that Australian English is “uniform”, because unlike English in Britain or Mandarin in China, there is very little strong regional variation: a Queenslander can understand a Tasmanian without difficulty. Nonetheless, you have probably already noticed different ways that Australian people use English – it’s all around us!

Most of the differences between speakers of Australian English are in the accent, but there are also regional and social differences in vocabulary and grammar.

Many of the reasons for variation are social (or sociophonetic) and depend on what people have been exposed to in their lives. You may notice differences in how people talk depending on:

  • Their heritage: certainly having been born somewhere else and speaking a second language makes people sound different to other Australian English speakers, but there is also some research showing that people speak Australian English differently depending on where their parents were from. Research shows that the flavour of certain sounds may be different for Greek and Lebanese Australian English speakers (Kiesling 2005, Clothier & Loakes 2018), and linguists know there are differences in many other communities as well. This makes sense, because of the types of speech people are exposed to. Note that sometimes these ethnically-specific dialects or accents are called “ethnolects” and linguists find that ethnolects are often used to signal social identity to other people.
  • Their age: All languages change over time to some extent, but some of the vowels of Australian English have changed rapidly in a short period (Cox & Fletcher 2017), so you will hear quite a lot of variability amongst younger and older people.
  • Whether people are male or female: People may sound different depending on gender, and we also know that they may be judged differently because of it. For example, people say that women use a lot more high-rising melody than men, but from my research (Fletcher & Loakes 2018) we know that this is simply not true. We suspect that high-rising tunes are more noticeable when used by women because women have a higher overall pitch than men.
  • Their location: There are definitely some regional differences in the way people speak. These are not always large and obvious, but they exist! For example, people sometimes comment on the way people in Melbourne say words like celery and salary (often, they both sound like salary!) –

See e.g. Loakes, Hajek & Fletcher 2017, also see Centre for Language Sciences (Macquarie University)

There are many audio examples of variation in Australian English on this page at the above site for further reference!

Before moving on, we would also like to acknowledge that many Indigenous Australians speak their own unique form of Australian English. Some Australian Indigenous people speak “mainstream” and/or Aboriginal English and other traditional languages (they are often multilingual in two to three languages). You can read more about Aboriginal English on this page at Language Varieties.

and you can listen to some Aboriginal English here (this is a link to a cartoon show):

https://www.littlejandbigcuz.com.au/

and you can also listen to a popular Aboriginal Australian singer called Baker Boy by following links in this article at the ABC (note that English is his third language!).

The vocabulary and grammar of Australian English

Aside from the sound of Australian English, there are also many unique words that you will not hear in other varieties of English, or you may hear some words used in different ways here. Some examples of very Australian words and phrases are mate (a friend), banana lounge (sun recliner chair), g’day (a short greeting, which comes from “good day”, but is pronounced differently), too right (statement of agreement), and footy (which refers to AFL football).

In addition to unique Australian English words, there is also a some regional variation within Australia. For example in Victoria we tend to say bathers for the clothing we wear when we go swimming. In New South Wales people say swimmers and in Queensland they tend to say togs. Even within Victoria there is some interesting variability. For example, the little meat pies you might see at a party here are called party pies but in some places in western Victoria they are called nibble pies.

Have a look at the excellent Linguistics Roadshow site, which maps variation for some words (and also, you can see some examples of words which don’t vary at all across the country).

You will also notice some grammatical differences between Australian English and other varieties. Some examples are that Australian English uses irregular past tense (and past participles) on verbs. So for verbs such as, people here mostly say/write the past tense as “burnt”, “learnt” and “smelt” (rarely “burned”, “learned”, “smelled”).

In Australian English, we also typically use collective nouns as singular. So we say “the government is...” rather than “the government are...” we could also have sentences like “The class is out on a school trip” rather than “the class are out on a school trip”.

Note that there are more similarities between Australian English and British English than between Australian English and American English (not surprising given the way that Australian English developed!).

You can learn more about grammatical features of Australian English on this page at the Linguistics Roadshow site.

References

Butcher, A. (2008) "Linguistics aspects of Australian Aboriginal English" Clinical Linguistics. Vol. 22 (8), pp. 625-642.

Cox, F. and J. Fletcher (2017). Australian English: Pronunciation and Transcription (2nd edition) Cambridge: CUP.

Clothier, J. and D. Loakes (2018) "Coronal Stop VOT in Australian English: lebanese Australians and Mainstream Australian English. Proceedings of the 17th SST. ASSTA, NSW. pp.13-16.

Fletcher, J. and D. Loakes (20180 "Pitch accent variation in interactive discourse in Australian English" Proceedings of the 17th SST. ASSTA, NSW. pp 93-96.

Kiesling, S. (2005) Kiesling, Scott F. (2005). Variation, stance and style: Word-final -er, high rising tone, and ethnicity in Australian English. English World-Wide Vol. 26 (1), pp.1-42.

Loakes, D., J. Hajek and J. Fletcher (2017) "Can you t[æ]ll I’m from M[æ]lbourne? An overview of the DRESS and TRAP vowels before /l/ as a regional accent marker in Australian English". English Worldwide. Vol. 38 (1), pp.29-49.

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