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Odd facts of Australia

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The Landlord

Strine (Australian English); How it Differs from British and American English

Language is born of culture and in turn reflects the history of a culture. This is particularly evident when comparing the manner of speaking English in Britain, the United States and Australia. Of the three dialects, British English has the most confusing grammatical and spelling rules. This is probably because those involved in English standardisation processes in the 18th century wanted to showcase their French influence and thus differentiate themselves from the uneducated masses. In other words, British English reflects the British preoccupation with class.

The US dialect is almost universally recognised as the easiest to understand. In comparison to British English, its spelling is more phonetic, grammar more pattern orientated, and its pronunciation is more legible. In addition, Americans are prone to use persuasive analogies in their conversations. For example, “the domino theory” was coined by politicians to rally Americans to fight in Vietnam while Apple founder Steve Jobs defined the computer as a “ bicycle for the mind” to increase sales. The American fondness for a legible and persuasive dialect can probably be traced to the US' religious history, economical liberalist economy and presidential system that rewards those leaders that have been best able to rally the masses behind them.

Australian English is different from British and American English in that it has a bias towards invention, deception, profanity, humour and a classless society. At times, this can make it almost impossible to understand and quite offensive to speakers accustomed to formality.

Inventiveness and deception

The bias towards invention and deception can be seen as a Convict influence. Nearly two generations after the arrival of 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. According to Sidney Barker, author of the Australian Language (1945):

" 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, British author Marcus Clarke described how Australians 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 rhymed 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 inventive legacy may be seen in the prevalence of idioms in Strine. For example, idioms like "kangaroos loose in the top paddock",  "mad as a cut snake" and "built like a brick shithouse" all illustrate a creative application of visual imagery to a linguistic discourse.

The abbreviation of words might be another legacy of rhyming slang. Because 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 to "ava Captains." Pomegranate, which is rhyming slang for "immigrant", was abbreviated to "Pom."
The skills that were acquired when economising rhyming slang clauses may have also been applied to economise ordinary clauses. Consequently, 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 that 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 and the context it was used in.

Profanity and informality

There is an Australian saying that proposes,

“If the guy next to you is swearing like a wharfie, there is a good chance he may be a billionaire or just a wharfie.”

It is a saying that not only indicates how pervasive swearing is in Australia, but also how it has egalitarian connotations. This is in turn reflected in political circles where politicians use it around journalists in order to signal their membership of the common classes. For example, former Prime Minister Paul Keating was once recording saying,

"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."

Again, the penal foundations help explain the profane influence. The educated Convict, J.F Mortlock, wrote that Convicts were far more likely to use swear words when around people who would be offended by them. In his own words,

"The foul disgraceful language, uttered with increased zest in the presence of anyone supposed to retain a spark of decency, quickly disgusted me."

Aside from the use of profanity amongst those who would be endeared by it and those who would be offended by it, the Australian bias towards a classless society is reflected in the reluctance to use formality and titles. In Britain, titles like Mr, Mrs, Ms, Lord and your highness help structure social relations but also reduce social comfort. In Australia, the use of titles is relative rare. Bosses and workers are usually on a first name basis as are students and professors at universities.

Pronunciation

In regards to Australian pronunciation, different nationalities have heard different things at different times. In her book, The Awful Australian (1911), English woman Valerie Desmond criticised Australian English as being excessively tonal, which she attributed to a Chinese influence:

"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."

Other people have described the Australian accent as sounding excessively lazy, which in turn makes it extremely easy for Australians to adopt other English accents but difficult for other English accents to adopt the Australian accent. In the words of actor Rachel Griffiths,

"all we're learning is how to do something, we're not learning how to undo."

Some have speculated that the lazy sound is the result of Australians needing to keep their mouths mostly shut to keep flies out. Perhaps another explanation could be that it reflects an Aboriginal influence. Although Aboriginal languages are extremely diverse throughout Australia, they share a propensity to end each syllable with a vowel sound, thus making sentences sound extremely smooth. For example, consider the sentence:

“On walkabout from Ulldullah to Wagga Wagga, I camped by a billabong, boiled a billy, cracked a tinnie and had me some wallaby for tucker.”

The use of Aboriginal words requires the English words be softened to harmonise them with the smooth sounding Aboriginal words. This requires a less defined but more subtle use of lips and tongue and a nasal rather than throaty sound.

Admittedly, talking about pronunciation is a bit difficult as pronunciation is not constant among Australians, as it is not constant in Britain and the US. However, the manner of variance reveals something about the identity conflicts that have occured in each country. In England, accents vary according to class and region. In America, they vary according to race and region. Unlike America or England, Australia has no variance in speaking according to class, race or region. Instead, the accent varies according to ideology or gender. Two Australians can grow up side by side, go to the same schools, do the same job, but end up speaking English using different words, different syntax and with different accents. In fact, due to the gender variance, a brother and sister can grow up in the same house and end up speaking differently.

Australia has three recognised accents. About ten per cent of Australians speak like ex-prime minister Bob Hawke with what is known as a broad Australian accent. The broad Australian accent is usually spoken by men. 80 per cent speak like Nicole Kidman with a general Australian accent. 10 per cent speak like ex Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser with British received pronunciation or cultivated English. Although some men use the pronunciation, the majority of Australians that speak with the accent are women. It is a myth that working class Australians use cockney like David Beckam. It is a myth that Queenslanders speak differently to South Australians. It is also a myth that children of migrants have distinct accents.

The gender difference in pronunciation can perhaps be attributed to differing expectations about gender identities that are relatively favourable to the Australian male stereotype but unfavourable to the Australian female stereotype. Specifically, expectations that men should be unpretentious, laid back and friendly are relatively consistent with stereotypes of Australian men. Contrasted to men, expectations that women should be refined, proper and neat are relatively inconsistent with stereotypes of Australian women. As a result, arguably more Australian men are comfortable adopting the accent of the Australian stereotype than are Australian women.

Although the connotations of stereotypes are subjective, arguably most Australians would agree that the traditional male Australian stereotype is more positive than the traditional female Australian stereotype. The difference in values provides the best explanation for the gender difference in pronunciation with Australian women not wanting to sound, bogan, ocker or stereotypically Australian.

 

Spelling

In regards to spelling, Australia uses a mix of American and British spelt words. As a general rule, words less than five letters tend to be spelt in the British style while those over five letters are more likely to be American. Some of the politics involved were illustrated in the spelling of labour. The Australian Labor Party 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 the act of labour is expected due to fears of an American cultural colonisation of Australia. American spelling for words like "organization" is more common than British "organisation", probably because it makes more sense to spell a z sound with the letter z and the word is too long to worry about where it came from.

Grammar

Like spelling, Australian grammar is a mix of British and American English. In Britain, collective nouns are usually defined as plural. For example, the British would say, "The couple are happy." American grammar is more pattern orientated so a noun is defined as plural when it has an s. For example, Americans would say, "The couple is happy" (singular) but "The two cowboys are happy." In Australia, there isn’t sufficient knowledge of grammar to reject either British or American tradition so both have become standard as a result of American television mixing with traditional British instruction.

Australian idioms

A shitshow - (disaster)

Bee's dick of a chance (no chance)

Didn't come down in the last shower (clever)

A dog's breakfast (mess)

Australian similes

As mad as a gum tree full of galahs (crazy)

As a mad a cut snake (crazy)

Built like a brick shithouse (muscular)

As dry as a dead dingoe's donga (thirsty)

Rhetorical sayings

Is a duck's arse water tight?

Words unique to Australia

Bludger - (Lazy person riding off someone else's hard work. Derived from bludgeoner; a prostitutes standover man)

Wowser - (Someone who mistakes the world as a penitentiary and themselves as the warden.)

Larrikin - (Iconic individual that sails close to the wind in regards to rules. Initially used in reference to street criminals)

 

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.

 

[Top]

Innovation and Creativity

Inventions
Thinking different

Economy
It could be described as post-Socialist but also as post Capitalist

Strine
Australia English differs from British and American dialects. How?

Poetry
Defying stoicism

Painting
Landscape and Identity

Cuisine
Creativity in the kitchen

Movies
Once were popular

 

""Shouting", or rather its meaning, is peculiarly Australian. The shortest and most comprehensive definition of "shouting" is to pay for the drink drunk by others." Drinking

"Australia has been hailed as a saviour of our soi-disant movie industry. So it could be, irrespective of its box office earnings, if it leads to recognition that we don't have a film industry, despite expenditure over 20 years of $1.5billion in subsidies and perhaps another half billion in tax concessions." Movies

"Australians are very difficult to impress; even if you do manage to impress them, they may not openly admit it." Social Rules

"a confused mix of landscape, animals, and Aboriginal culture, with a kind of Bible overtone." Painting

"A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop" Wisdom

"Gallipoli tends to seem strange to outsiders, as it appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat, but in essence it is rather a commemoration of those who died serving Australia in battle, be it warranted or not." Anzac

“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.” Australia Day

"He declared, confidently, that an immense number of women were dying for his diminutive highness, but became terribly angry, when an ugly, red-nosed publican with a hump-back, pretended to recognize him as an organ grinder strolling about with a monkey." Egalitarianism

"Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
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
" Poetry