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 published 1959)
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.
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.
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
The 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 missionaries 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.
Contrasted 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.
As 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 diminutive, 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.
language of the deception - The convict influence?
Nearly 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. As argued by Sidney Baker in The Australian Language:
" 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 "
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 in Strine.
The abbreviation 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."
The 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" to "barbie."
Aside 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.
As 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.
musical accent - The influence of the Chinese?
It has 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."
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.
On the downside, because Americans have little exposure to the outside world, speakers of American English struggle to comprehend other English dialects. Specifically, Americans do not play international sports and do not watch much television that originates from outside of America. As a result, many Americans can't even understand 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.
While the American lexicon is limited, 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.
In 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.
Via 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.
Most 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.
Linguistic 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 thoughts.
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 speaking Canadians.
Linguistic Determinism 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.
Strine's 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).
Strine's 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.
On 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 biting wit and a colourful command of language. When on the attack, he was a genius at exposing inconsistencies and/or belittling people. But after becoming PM, Keating revealed himself to be one of the worst leaders Australia has ever had. Internationally, he caused a diplomatic crisis by referring to the Malaysian Prime Minister as a recalcitrant. Domestically, his tear down style led to the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party.
Keating on Former Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson:
(His performance) is like being flogged with a warm lettuce leaf.
I 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.
On Former Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Peacock
"I suppose that the Honourable Gentleman's hair, like his intellect, will recede into the darkness."
"We're not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos."
"I was nearly chloroformed by the performance of the Honourable Member for Mackellar. It nearly put me right out for the afternoon."
On John Howard
"What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him."
"But 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'."
"I am not like the Leader of the Opposition. I did not slither out of the Cabinet room like a mangy maggot..."
On Independent, Steele Hall:
"The Honourable Member has been in so many parties he is a complete political harlot."
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"
Reporter: 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."
"The Opposition crowd could not raffle a chook in a pub"
"Honourable Members opposite squeal like stuck pigs"
On former Prime Minister Bob Hawke
"Now 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.
On Former Labour politician, Jim McClelland:
"That 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."
On Fund Managers:
"...these 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."
B. M. (1985). Variation in Australian English: The sociolects of Sydney.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A. G., & Delbridge, A. (1965). The pronunciation of English in Australia.
Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
A. G., & Delbridge, A. (1965). The speech of Australian adolescents.
Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
R. (1989). The Americanization of Australian English: Prestige models in the media.
In P. Collins & D. Blair (Eds.), Australian english: The language of a
new society (pp. 158-168). St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
B. A. (2001). Australian English in interaction with other Englishes. In D. Blair
& P. Collins (Eds.), English in Australia (pp. 317-340). Amsterdam:
K. (2001). Discourse analysis in communication. In D. Schiffrin & D. Tannen
& H. E. Hamilton (Eds.), The handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 725-749).
G. W. (1994). English in Australia. In R. Burchfield (Ed.), The Cambridge history
of the English language. Vol. V: English in Britain and overseas: Origins and
development (pp. 277-327). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.