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Navigating the Minefield of Australian English

After gaining citizenship, migrants can gain employment in the public service. Here they will be expected to use Australian English. This can be a problematic expectation because it is not widely agreed what defines Australian English. Broadly speaking, it is typically defined by rejecting language that is recognisably British, American and somewhat ironically, Australian.

British English tends to be identified and rejected on the basis of formality and its ability to conjure images of aristocracy. For example, many Australians would be irritated by sentences such as:

“I shan’t be partaking in the noon luncheon.”

It would be far better to use:

“I won’t be going to the lunch at 12.”

Because of the sensitivities with British English, words like “shall” should be avoided and words like “whom” and “noon” used judiciously.

American English tends to be identified and rejected on the basis of its spelling. For many Australians, using the American spelling of colour (color) over the British version is a sign of American cultural colonisation. The one exception they make is for the Australian Labor Party (which adopted American spelling in the early 20th century in order to associate itself with American libertarian ideals.) While using American spelling for the Labor Party is acceptable, British spelling for actual labouring is expected.

Aside from colour and labour, there isn’t a great deal of angst about American spelling, perhaps because many Australians aren’t really sure how to spell words with more than five letters. As a result, American spelling for words like “organization” don't evoke the same angst as color and are more common than the British "organisation".

In regards to grammar, both British and American English are acceptable, probably because most Australians educated between 1960 and 2000 received no instruction in grammar and are therefore unable to identify grammar as British or American in origin. For example, British grammarians define collective nouns (such as couple) as singular while Americans define them as plural. As a result, the British use singular verbs in association with the nouns while Americans use the plural form. For example, whereas the British would say, “The couple is happy”, Americans would say, “The couple are happy.”

Due to the prevalence of American English on Australian television and the historical adherence to British English in Australian institutions, Australians have been exposed to both forms of grammar and use both without thinking. If in doubt, they tend to rely on what their computer grammar check is telling them. Due to America having a more highly developed IT industry than Britain, the American versions can be expected to dominate in Australia's future.

While British English tends to be rejected for its elitist associations and American English for its colonising associations, language that is recognisably Australian tends to be rejected for its informality and Australian associations. For example, words like “G’day” make some Australians think of the 1985 movie Crocodile Dundee and how much they hated Australians being defined by a good natured larrikin that likes a beer and a chat.  These Australians cringe when they hear “G’day” and may even make a point of declaring that they don’t use the word.

Idioms like "kangaroos loose in the top paddock" and "mad as a cut snake" don’t seem to evoke the same cringe as "G’day" but are still rejected in professional situations for being unprofessional. It would be better to use "crazy". (British idioms like 'flogging a dead horse' would probably be fine.)

The use of the diminutive (journo instead of journalist, pollie instead of politician) is quite common in broadcast media where broadcasters use informality to build an affinity with a wide audience (and don't need to show consideration to the minority that take offence.) In written English the diminutive may be rejected as informal. Like Australian idioms, the use of the diminutive doesn’t seem to provoke the same angst as “G’day”, probably because it is not widely known to be an Australian language trait.

Paradoxically, titles and surnames are often avoided in business situations because they are too formal. For example, it is very common for business letters in Australia to commence with Dear (first name) instead of Dear Mr (surname), Mrs, Dr and Lord. Likewise, it is common to refer to bosses, professors and other people in positions of authority using their given names rather than titles paired with surnames.  

Aboriginal words have a nuanced connotation in Australian language use. In the late 19th century, words like ‘coolibah, jumbuck and billabong’ helped the song Watzing Matilda build a patriotic emotion. Only billabong remains widely in use today, and that is only in the form of a clothing label. The words probably became rare because they made some Australians cringe by evoking images of the old bushmen stereotype that fell out of fashion. Aboriginal words are also commonly used in place names, with words like Mullumbimby, Wagga Wagga and Ulladullah proving to be tongue twisters for many new Australians. (Because of the pre-existence of the names, Australia has not had the de-colonisation naming movements that have been common in other former British colonies. Changing Ayres Rock to Uluru has been one of the few exceptions.)

A number of English words have been conceived of as being Aboriginal words and therefore, using them has become a fashionable form of respect for Aborigines. For example, "mob" was originally used to describe groups of an unruly group of people or a group of horses. It was later used to describe a group of kangaroos. Somewhere along the way, mob started being used in reference to groups of Aborigines. Today, a non-Indigenous person asking an Indigenous person what mob they come from is seen as using Aboriginal terminology in a culturally educated way. In other words, referring to Aborigines as unruly and/or animals became seen as a culturally respectful use of Aboriginal language.

Generally speaking, it is safer for men to adopt recognisably Australian language than it is for women. Reflecting this fact, Australia is the only English speaking country where there is a significant difference in gender pronunciation. Specifically, the broad Australian accent that is typically recognised as Australian is almost exclusively spoken by men. Meanwhile, Australian women speak with a cultivated accent that is more similar to an accent spoken by an educated British women.

The unequal gender status has been reflected in much of popular culture. For example, Crocodile Dundee created humour that was based on laughing with a stereotyped Australian man. In contrast, the sitcom Kath & Kim created humour that was based on laughing at stereotyped Australian women. Naturally, some men could identify with Crocodile Dundee while most women recoiled from Kath & Kim.

Admittedly, the broad accent (male) is only spoken by around 10% of the population while the cultivated accent (female) by 10%. The remaining 80% speak what is known as a general Australian accent. This would suggest that, while there may be a gender bias towards one end of the spectrum, most Australians like to be somewhere in the middle.

Obviously it is not always easy to decide when to reject British, American, Australian and Aboriginal language features in order to please some Australians while not alienating others. To address these difficulties, many institutions have a style guide that prescribes the type of written English that should be used within the institution. This helps when needing to please the boss when writing reports but still leaves a lot of uncertainty when using spoken English in general conversation.

There is no one piece of advice that can help navigate the situations other than to say that if someone is overly sensitive about correct language when there really is no consensus on correct language use then perhaps they are the personalities who are fun to offend. In such cases, use the American spelling for colour when they demand the British version, say they have kangaroos loose in the top paddock when they declare they don’t say g’day, say you shan’t be partaking in their mirthless attempts at hilarity when they criticise British pomposity and demand they use the word jumbuck when they say there is nothing more Australian than a lamb roast.




More reading

Horvath, B. M. (1985). Variation in Australian English: The sociolects of Sydney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, A. G., & Delbridge, A. (1965). The pronunciation of English in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Mitchell, A. G., & Delbridge, A. (1965). The speech of Australian adolescents. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Sussex, 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.

Taylor, B. A. (2001). Australian English in interaction with other Englishes. In D. Blair & P. Collins (Eds.), English in Australia (pp. 317-340). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Tracy, K. (2001). Discourse analysis in communication. In D. Schiffrin & D. Tannen & H. E. Hamilton (Eds.), The handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 725-749). Oxford: Blackwell.

Turner, 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.







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From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
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