An Australian's "greatest talent is for idiomatic invention. It is a manifestation of our vitality
and restless imagination".
Baker S 1983,
A Dictionary of Australian Slang, 3rd Edition , Currey O'Neil, Melbourne (1st
The diversity of accents in a country is a reflection upon the country’s diverse social identities. In England, different classes speak English with different accents. In America, different regions and different races speak English with different accents. In Australia; however, there is no variation in accent according to region, race, or socio-economic class. Instead, the accent varies according to ideology. Two Australians can grow up side by side and end up speaking different versions of Australian English, using different accents and using different words.
Australia has three defined accents. About ten per cent of Australians speak like ex-prime minister Bob Hawke with what is known as a broad accent. Although only a small minority of Australians actually use broad accents, it has a great deal of cultural credibility. For example, it is used by a disproportionately large number of newsreaders. It is also used in a disproportionately large number of television commercials.
Around 80 per cent of Australians speak like Nicole Kidman with what is known as a British received accent or general Australian English.
A final ten per cent speak like ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser with what is known as a cultivated accent. The accent sounds like someone educated at Oxford University in England. Although it is not very popular today, in past eras, the cultivated accent had the kind of cultural credibility that the broad accent has today. For example, newsreaders on the government funded ABC had to speak with the cultivated accent. Since there was a shortage of Australian men able to speak in the accent, male newsreaders were imported from England. It is usually spoken by women or men who don't like Australia.
A second cultural peculiarity of Australia is that there is a significant difference between how men speak and how women speak. It is quite rare to find a woman speaking with a broad Australian accent, and quite rare to find a man speaking with the cultivated accent. A woman speaking with a broad accent would be like a woman wearing a blue bonds singlet and talking about pig shooting. Likewise, a man with a cultivated accent would be like a man wearing a skirt and talking about make-up. No other English speaking country has the same gender difference in pronunciation.
A third peculiarity is that there is no regional variance in the accent. Despite the vast distances between Australian cities, and the very different migrant histories in the cities, all Australians speak with one of the three accents, with roughly the same proportion of speakers in each region. (The myth of regional variance is never anything more than a couple of words such as 'castle.') The lack of regional variance suggests that regional identities have not as strong in Australia as they have been in different parts of Britain and America. Instead, most of the Australian identities have related revolved around a pro-Australia anti-Australia social dynamic that has existed Australia wide. Alternatively, Australians may have had different conceptions about gender identities. Men have been expected to be more of the roguish side while women more on the refined side. If compared to New Zealanders, Australian men are definitely more masculine while Australian women are more feminine.
As well as being distinguished in pronunciation, the Australian version of English is also differentiated in regards to function and usage. One difference is in regards to informality. In America and England, the use of informal English is often interpreted as a sign of rudeness. Consequently, titles and family names are used to maintain a degree of social distance between people. In Australia; however, formality is more typically used by professional that don't like each other. The difference is most clearly seen in greetings used in business letters. Whereas Americans usually greet with Dear Ms/Mrs/Mr (family name), Australians are more like Dear (first name.) Likewise, boss and workers get on first name basis far more quickly than they do in other English speaking countries.
- American English vs Australian English
American strain of the English language is simple and easily understood by most
English speakers the world over. Its simplicity can be traced to the country's puritan
foundations. As religious fanatics wanting to expand their flock, puritans desired
a language of persuasion. To ensure clarity, they used generic words that were
understood by the majority of the population. To increase the persuasive power
of their words, they used a lot of analogies.
to America, the foundations of Australian English were in the prison system. Unlike
puritans, convicts did not want a simple language to persuade others to unite
behind them. To the contrary, convicts wanted to disguise their language so that
no one would know what they were talking about.
a legacy, the contemporary Australian dialect, or Strine, is littered with
idioms, similes and invented words that make it one of the world's most advanced
English dialects. Although speakers of American English struggle to understand
English speakers from outside of America, speakers of Strine can understand everyone,
or confuse everyone if they so desire.
Aboriginal words have always had a very prominent use in Australian English. For example, Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, uses Aboriginal words like coolibah, jumbuck and billabong. Likewise, most of rural Australia has been given Aboriginal names like Wagga Wagga, Joondalup, Bondi, Yakadanda.
Perhaps the lazy way that Australians are perceived to speak is a result of using the Aboriginal words. The Aboriginal words generally end with a vowel sound, which is quite smooth and pleasant on the ear. It is possible that the use of the diminuitive, such as shortening words like journalist to journo, was a way of smoothing over the rough edges of British English in order to gain more consistency with the smoother Aboriginal English.
*Most Aboriginies speak with a broad Australian accent.
language of the deception - The convict influence?
two generations after the First Fleet, 87 per cent of the population were either
convicts, ex-convicts or of convict descent. With such strong convict foundations,
it was inevitable that Australia's linguistic traditions would be different from
the mother country:
No other class of society would use slang more readily or adapt it more expertly
to their new environment; no other class would have a better flair for concocting
new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life "
Sidney Baker (The Australian Language, 1945)
In 1869, Marcus Clarke described how locals devised language to '
convey a more full and humorous notion of all his thoughts' or to conceal'the idea he wishes to convey from all save his own particular friends'.
The most notable method
of concealment was cockney rhyming slang. Rhyming slang created an idiom
type sentence out of two or more words, the last of which rhymes with the intended
word. For example, "plates of meat" were "feet"
and "hit the frog and toad" was "hit the road." Although
few Australians use rhyming slang today, its legacy may be the prevalence of idioms
of words might be another legacy of rhyming slang. As rhyming slang involved the
addition of new words, sentences became long-winded. In order to compensate, long
words might have been shortened. Thus "have a Captains Cook"
which is rhyming slang for "have a look", was abbreviated down
to "ava Captains." Pomegranate, which is rhyming slang for "immigrant",
was abbreviated to "Pom."
skills that were acquired when abbreviating rhyming slang clauses may then have
been applied to also economise ordinary clauses. So words such as "good
day" were economised to "g'day", "afternoon"
to "arvo", "politician" to "pollie"
, "journalist" to "journo" and "barbecue"
from rhyming slang, another method the convicts used to conceal their true meaning
was to turn the meaning of a word upside down. For example, "bastard"
or "ratbag" were used a terms of endearment as well as insults.
The only way to know up from down was to infer from the tone of the sentence.
is to be expected, the combination of novel words, rhyming slang and tonal communication
had the authorities at a loss. This often allowed the convicts to make them the
butt of ridicule. A good example of this can be found in the memoirs of CaptainJames Rowntree:
of this week a Welsh convict named Jones called me "a Fair Dinkum Arsehole". Such
insolence and was about to pistol whip him when Jones quickly started rambling.
The funny thing was that it turns out that "Fair Dinkum" actually reverses the
insult which follows. By calling me "a Fair Dinkum arsehole" he was saying
that I am, in some way, the farthest thing possible away from an arsehole. Feeling
quite chuffed with myself I refrained from beating the man. I have decided to
play along with their folly. In the last few days I have been called a "Fair dinkum
Prick", Dick, Asseshead, Cows Tit and some really vulgar words that I would not
put to paper. It has taken time but I have finally gained respect from these horrid
convicts " 12th Febuary, 1839 *
* sometimes reality should not stand in the
way of a good story
*Australian English is not cockney, and working class Australians do not subsitute an 'f' for a 'th' like working class English people.
musical accent - The influence of the Chinese?
has often been said that Australians seem to sing their words. Tones are very
important, and with the abbreviation of words to emphasize the stressed syllable,
it follows the general pattern of how English sounds when it is sung. Valerie
Desmond in The Awful Australian (1911), speculated that this practice
may have been copied from the Chinese in the community:
"But it is not so much as the vagaries of pronunciation that hurt the ear
of the visitor. It is the extraordinary intonation that the Australian imparts
to his phrases. There is no such thing as cultured, reposeful conversation in
this land; everybody sings his remarks as if he was reciting blank verse in the
manner of an imperfect elocutionist. It would be quite possible to take an ordinary
Australian conversation and immortalise its cadences and diapasons by means of
musical notation. Herein the Australian differs from the American. The accent
of the American, educated and uneducated alike, is abhorrent to the cultured Englishman
or Englishwoman, but it is, at any rate, harmonious. That of the Australian is
full of discords and surprises. His voice rises and falls with unexpected syncopations,
and, even among the few cultured persons this country possesses, seems to bear
in every syllable the sign of the parvenu.The Australian practice of singing his
remarks I can only ascribe to the influence of the Chinese. During my stay in
Melbourne, I spent one evening at supper in a Chinese cookshop in Little Bourke
Street, and I was instantly struck by the resemblance between the intonation of
the phrases between the Chinese attendants and that of the cultivated Australians
who accompanied me."
Any similarity between Australian English and Chinese is more likely be co-incidence than a sign Chinese influenced Australia. Accents are influenced more by identity than by encounters with different accents. This is the main reason why all Australian regions speak roughly the same despite having vastly different migrant histories.
As a nation, Americans
are one-way communicators with the rest of the world. Via Hollywood and their
sitcoms, they have educated the world in regards to the words they use and the
way they pronounce them.
the downside, because Americans have little exposure to the outside world, speakers
of American English struggle to comprehend other English dialects. Americans do
not play international sports and do not watch television that originates from
outside of America. Many Americans can't even understand simple words like "bloke",
and "pub" or simple idioms like "have a crack",
"play a straight bat" or "any dramas?" Even
when the rare international movie makes it to America, such as Mad Max,
it is often dubbed into American English so that Americans can understand it.
As a consequence, speakers
of American English have a very limited vocabulary range and are often like a
deer lost in headlights when in an international environment.
the other hand, speakers of Strine can understand all of the world's English dialects.
Through sports such as cricket, Australians are exposed to commentators from the
West Indies, India, Pakistan, England, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, South
Africa, New Zealand and England. Other sporting contests, such as international
rugby, also provide the mass exposure to international English that further expands
the Australian lexicon.
terms of travel, Australians are keenly interested in the outside world. Almost
10 per cent of Australians go on a backpacking holiday. Almost one million Australians
are currently expatriates. When these travellers eventually return to Australia
they bring with them the new words they have learnt.
movies and television, Australians keep up-to-date with the evolutions in both
American and British English. Any new word that that is broadcast in either the
American or British media quickly finds its way to Australia.
importantly, the cockney origins of Strine give Australians a strong ability to
invent and comprehend novel idioms. This is the most difficult skill of speaking
English but also the most important. Idioms are like poetry. They add visual imagery
to a sentence to enhance its power and emotive appeal. Without them, English speakers
can communicate no better than a ten-year-old.
Determinism is a psychological theory that proposes that the structure of
a language shapes the user's thoughts. For example, French has more emotional
words than English. Consequently, French speakers have a psychological lattice
work that better supports the growth, proliferation and exploration of emotional
The theory is used to explain
why French Canadians from the province of Quebec share behavioural mannerism very
similar to French speakers around the world. Furthermore, even though they are
both exposed to similar influences, French Canadians are very different from English
also explains some of the peculiar cultural traits of Australians. Words like
larrikin, wowser and bludger do not exist in any other English dialect.
An Australian's ability to use such words allows them to celebrate a style of
behaviour and to criticise another style of behaviour in a way other English speakers
can not. This in turn shapes the Australian's attitude towards the behaviour.
use of slang also reinforces Australia's egalitarian values. Slang is used to
show that the speaker belongs to the same group as the listener. By constantly
developing slang, Australians are constantly breaking down psychological barriers
of formality and social distance. Unlike Australia,
most other English speaking countries fear intruding on someone's "space". Instead
of using slang, they use very formal English to maintain social distance. When
they encounter an Australian using slang, they often feel the Australian is being
arrogant or rude.
The business letter
format is simple example of how Australian slang has reinforced the egalitarian
psychology of Australians. Americans and English people begin letters with Dear
Mr/Ms/Mrs/Lord/Your Highness... Australians usually begin business letters with
Dear (First name).
influence upon Australian psychology is both a blessing and a curse. Breaking
down formality helps assimilate diverse groups into one and so makes for a very
inclusive society. It also makes Australians very critical thinkers; with a strong
ability to identify problems, or tear down myths. Consequently, Australians are
not as easily lead as are other nationalities around the world.
the downside, Strine is a great language for tearing people apart. It can be used
to confuse, and with the prevalence of colourful phrases, invent a colourful expression
to belittle someone else. Perhaps this explains why Australians are terrible leaders
and abysmal persuaders - unlike Americans. They are great at tearing down a tall
poppy, but very poor at being the tall poppy trying to encourage others to follow.
The benefits and liabilities
of Strine were exemplified by former PM Paul Keating. Keating had a fantastic
imagination, a brilliant wit and a colourful command of language. When on the
attack he was a genius at exposing inconsistencies and/or belittling people with
humour. But after becoming PM, Keating revealed
himself to be one of the worst leaders Australia has ever had. Internationally,
he caused an diplomatic crisis by referring to the Malaysian Prime Minister as
a recalcitrant. He also exposed his lack of respect for formality when he put
his arm around the Queen and was subsequently nicknamed the Lizard of Oz.
Domestically, his tear down style led to the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation
Keating on Former
Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson:
(His performance) is like being flogged with a warm lettuce leaf.
have a psychological hold over Hewson...He's like a stone statue in the cemetery.
I'm not going to be fairy flossed
away as my opposite number, John Hewson, is prepared to be fairy flossed away
by some spaced out, vacous ad agency.
Former Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Peacock
suppose that the Honourable Gentleman's hair, like his intellect, will recede
into the darkness."
not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos."
was nearly chloroformed by the performance of the Honourable Member for Mackellar.
It nearly put me right out for the afternoon."
have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down
to replace him."
I will never get to the stage of wanting to lead the nation standing in front
of the mirror each morning clipping the eyebrows here and clipping the eyebrows
there with Janette and the kids: It's like 'Spot the eyebrows'."
am not like the Leader of the Opposition. I did not slither out of the Cabinet
room like a mangy maggot..."
Independent, Steele Hall:
"The Honourable Member has been in so many parties he is a complete political
On the press
"You (Richard Carleton) had an
important place in Australian society on the ABC and you gave it up to be a pop
star...with a big cheque...and now you're on to this sort of stuff. That shows
what a 24 carat pissant you are, Richard, that's for sure"
How long is it since you've been to Fyshwick Markets ? Keating:
"Not long, not long. In fact if you get down to woollies at Manuka on Saturday
I'd probably run over you with a trolley as I did a journo recently."
On the coalition party
"Honourable Members opposite
are a joke." "They are irrelevant, useless and immoral." "...they insist on being
mugs, Mr Speaker, absolute mugs."
Opposition crowd could not raffle a chook in a pub"
Members opposite squeal like stuck pigs"
former Prime Minister Bob Hawke
listen mate," [to John Browne, Minister of Sport, who was proposing a 110 per
cent tax deduction for contributions to a Sports Foundation] "you're not getting
110 per cent. You can forget it. This is a fucking Boulevard Hotel special, this
is. The trouble is we are dealing with a sports junkie here [gesturing towards
Bob Hawke]. I go out for a piss and they pull this one on me. Well that's the
last time I leave you two alone. From now on, I'm sticking to you two like shit
to a blanket.
Labour politician, Jim McClelland:
you Jim? Paul Keating here. Just because you swallowed a fucking dictionary when
you were about 15 doesn't give you the right to pour a bucket of shit over the
rest of us."
donkeys..." "It must get right up their nose, quaffing down the red wine at these
fashionable eateries in Bent Street and Collins Street, with the Prime Minister
calling them donkeys - but donkeys they are."
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