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Language and Identity in Australia
"Socio-economic background in Australia is not as visible as race and ethnicity in the United States, nor is it as obvious as class in the UK ." (Moodie 2003, p. 35)
The manner of speaking is an expression of identity; it signals identification with one group and rejection of another. For example, when soccer player David Beckam says, "I want to fank everyone for coming", his substitution of an 'f' sound for the 'th' sound shows pride in his working class roots.
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.
Bill Hunter - Broad Australian English
Broad Australian Accent
The broad Australian accent is typically associated with Australian masculinity. Notable speakers include ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, comedian Paul Hogan and actor Bill Hunter. Although the accent is only spoken by a minority of the population, it has a great deal of cultural credibility. This is shown by the fact that it is disproportionately used in advertisements and by newsreaders.
Very few women use broad Australian accents, probably because the accent is associated with Australian masculinity. If an Australian woman used it, she may sound like a woman partial to a spot of pig shooting or making fart jokes.
Nicole Kidman - general Australian English
General Australian Accent
Around 80 per cent of Australians speak like actor Nicole Kidman with what is known as a general Australian English accent. These accents are somewhat of a mix between the broad Australian and cultivated accents. Because they are comparatively neutral in ideology, most of the speakers believe that they don't have an accent. The speakers realise that they speak differently to the broad Australian speakers that they associate with Australia as well as the cultivated speakers that they associate with upper class or elitism.
Cate Blanchett - Cultivated accent
Cultivated Australian Accent
The final ten per cent of Australians speak with what is known as a cultivated accent, which sounds a bit like Prince Charles. It is usually spoken by women wanting to portray a feminine and sophisticated image. Although most speakers are women, some men, such as ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser, use the accent.
In the past, the cultivated accent had the kind of cultural credibility that the broad accent has today. For example, until the 1970s 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. (At the time, women were not allowed to be newsreaders on government television.)
Myth 1 – There is regional variance in pronunciation
There is a myth that Australians speak differently in different parts of Australia. For example, some people believe that all Queenslanders use the broad Australian accent. The myth probably comes from the combination of the stereotypes that Australians are racist and that Queenslanders are the most racist people in Australia. Because Queenslanders are racists, the stereotype proposes that they must speak with the broad accent. The stereotype is not based in fact. Queenslanders have the same variance in accent according to gender and ideology that is seen around Australia.
Some people believe that South Australians talk like New Zealanders. The myth probably comes from a presumption that since South Australia and New Zealand didn't receive Convicts, both should speak the same way. Again, the presumption is incorrect. South Australians have the same variance in accent according to gender and ideology that is seen around Australia.
The only regional difference is in regards to occasional words like 'castle.' These regional variances are insignificant compared to variances according to gender or ideology.
Myth 2 – There is ethnic variance in pronunciation
Most migrants who speak English as their second language have an ethnic accent. The children of migrants, who speak English as their first language, usually use a broad, general or cultivated accent depending upon their ideology or gender.
Sometimes the children of migrants will put on the accent of their parents as a joke. For example, actor Mary Coustas created the character of Effie, which used a wog accent. It was not her real accent.
Effie (Mary Coustas) - Wog stereotype accent
Myth 3 – Poor Australians speak with a broad Australian, cockney or low class accent
Much like the character of Effie, the characters of Kim & Kim involved the creation of fictional stereotypes of low-class Australians that could be subsequently mocked.
Contrary to the fictional portrayals, there is no relationship between socio-economic status and the manner of speaking. It is; however, more likely that women from wealthy families will speak with a cultivated accent because it is more likely that their parents will send them to a finishing school to cultivate a manner of speaking associated with elegance. The elegant image will be beneficial for the women because, as the characters of Kath & Kim and Effie show, there is ridicule associated with Australian women who lack elegance when speaking.
Unlike Australian women, Australian men will rarely be sent to finishing schools in order to improve their speech. This is probably because elegance is not an admired masculine quality in Australia. An Australian man that speaks like Prince Charles or Malcolm Fraser is likely to find himself the target of school yard bullies.
The broad Australian accent has cultural prestige for men because it creates an image that the man has the ability to relate to people from all walks of life, and will treat everyone with a sense of equality. For example, even though the late billionaire Kerry Packer was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he used a broad accent his entire life. The broad accent helped create a perception that Packer had an egalitarian ethic, which contributed greatly to his popular appeal amongst average Australians.
It is open to debate why the egalitarian ethic is not the status symbol for women as it is for men.
Of course, not all Australians (i.e, Malcolm Fraser) believe that the broad accent has a positive image. As a result, they prefer to speak like an Englishman.
Kath and Kim - Stereotype low-class accent
Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside using cultivated accents to talk about "Australian values"
Activity 1 - Identity and accent
What to make of the Australian accent? Why does Australia have a gender variance but no regional or socio-economic variance?
Look at the above stereotypical depictions of an Australian man and woman.
Activity 2 - The influence of Chinese on the Australian accent
Activity purpose - To understand how accents are associated with class and identity
The Australian strain of English is very musical. Tones are very important, and with the abbreviation of words to emphasize the stressed syllable, Australian English follows the general pattern of how English sounds when it is sung. In 1911, an English woman, Valerie Desmond, released a book titled The Awful Australian. In the book, she speculated that the tonal aspect of Australian English may have been the result of Australians mixing with Chinese: