Australian English: Here's Why It's The Best Variety In The World
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time12 mins
Happy Australia Day weekend! 🙂
I’m currently home from the Middle East on a nice long break and since it’s Australia Day this weekend I decided to revisit one of my awesome posts on one of the many things that make Australia the best place on Earth – our variety of English.
Read that heading again! 🙂
Some friends of mine decided to chuck a little surprise dinner for me with some great tucker and a few beers recently.
It made me feel special. Loved in fact.
However there were a few Canadians and one Irishman there who thought’d be a cack to take the piss out of the Aussie accent all night (for some of these Canadians it was their first week in Australia) by exaggerating Aussie stereotypes and trying to get me to say stuff for their amusement.
These Canadians reckon it’s pretty funny when us Aussies say “Coke with no ice!” (‘coyk with no oyce’) and I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard “knifey spooney” get mentioned around me (a piss-take from The Simpsons). If not The Simpsons, a lot of people tend to think of Steve Irwin, Crocodile Dundee or the sharks from Finding Nemo whenever they think of Aussie English.
There’s so much more to our variety of English (pure English as I call it) than annoying clichés and stereotypes so today I’m writing about it!
Most of the people who read this blog aren’t Aussies so I thought it’d be a good idea to explain a thing or two about what I believe to be the best variety of English in the world.
I’m not biased. I’m just telling it like it is 🙂
Word of advice: A lot of books on Aussie slang give outdated expressions that we don’t really say anymore. The Lonely Planet phrasebook seems to be the most accurate one.
Dialects of status/identity rather than region
If you head to the UK or Ireland you’ll find that you only have to travel an hour (or less) down the road and you’ll find people speaking a different dialect of English to the town you were just in.
Compare that to the enormous island continent of Australia where you can fly 4-5 hours from Brisbane to Perth and there’s no noticeable difference in the way people talk. Even North America has some vastly different dialects depending on where you are but Australia’s a bit different.
It’s generally accepted that there are 3 main types of Australian English:
General, Broad, and Cultivated.
These are not regional dialects however.
They have more to do with a person’s socio-economic status or group affiliation then anything else. Rather than talk about the different phonology and structure I thought I’d just share some samples so you can hear the difference.
General Australian English is the most common and what we’d consider to be the neutral accent. For us Aussies, someone speaking this variety doesn’t really have any accent and most of the population tends to speak it.
Here’s an example of ‘Wolverine’ speaking General Australian English:
Broad is what we’re famous for.
It’s also often regarded as the language of the uneducated working class or bogans which isn’t always the case (our current Prime Minister speaks with this accent).
All the stereotypes and clichés that are floating around are based on this one accent. Here’s a sample from one of our greatest exports:
And finally there’s cultivated.
People with a quasi-British accent and what I like to call haughty-taughty Melbourne-types. 🙂
Here’s a sample from one of my favourite actors, Geoffrey Rush:
Aussies shorten just about everything
We’re experts at doing this (especially those of us with a broad accent).
This arvo me and my mates from Rochey are gettin’ together to have a barbie and watch the footy. Laz and Smitty‘ll be there. Oh shit, I gotta go pay me rego. I’ll stop at the servo on the way and pick up some ciggies.
These are called diminutives – when words get shortened and in the case of Aussie English, almost always end with a vowel.
Rochey – Rochedale.
Arvo – afternoon.
Barbie – barbecue.
Footy – football.
Laz – Larry.
Smitty – Smith.
Rego – registration.
Servo – service station.
Ciggies – cigarettes.
Oh, and you know how I said my name’s Donovan? Actually my mates call me Dono and my family calls me Donny – I rarely hear people call me by my whole name*.* 🙂
I’m not exactly sure why we do this but Kel Richards came up with 3 good possible reasons:
1. Verbal playfulness. The English speaking colonies in Australia were planted by folk from all over the British Isles speaking many different dialects. Thus thrust into close contact with each other they became extremely sensitive to language differences, and (from this, I would suggest) much given to verbal playfulness. Aussie English remains highly inventive and colourful, and diminutives are but one example of this.
2. Informality. Australia has a particularly informal culture. There is far more linguistic formality, for example, in the deep south of the US where people can still be addressed as “sir” and “m’am” even by other adults. Australia, by way of contrast, is (as one person once observed) a country where “everyone expects to address their doctor by their first name.” The heavy use of diminutives is one linguistic expression of Aussie informality.
3. Group solidarity. By using Aussie diminutives we are signalling our membership in the club of “Aussie-ness”… and by addressing you with diminutives we’re including you in our club as well. Group jargon defines the group. If English speakers from overseas don’t understand our diminutives, well, that’s because they’re not us!
How the bloody hell did Aussie English come about anyway?
I have to share this insightful little snippet with you from Burridge & Mulder, English in Australia and New Zealand (2005):
Much discussion has focused on the origins of OZ and NZ pronunciation, and at times the speculations have been wild. Some have maintained that these accents are caused by climate, by a national nose inflammation as a result of pollen or hay, and even by fear of opening the mouth on account of dust or flies; other accounts look to carelessness, laziness, some kind of gross national inferiority complex, a free-wheeling and adventurous spirit, or an outlaw heritage. Even ill-fitting dentures have been suggested as a likely cause.
A bit silly but these are actual theories! 🙂
They go on to say that there are two main theories about the origin of Aussie English:
1) A mixture of regional accents from Britain and Ireland that kind of ‘melted together’ and became what it is today.
2) Mainly descended from Cockney English (‘ello guvna!’).
Now as you probably know (unless you’ve never been to school or grew up under a rock somewhere) Australia was founded as a penal colony for Great Britain. What this basically means is that their jails (gaols) were jam-packed and they needed somewhere to send their criminals, and since North America wasn’t accepting criminals in the late 1700’s they were sent down to Australia.
It wasn’t considered a holiday destination back in those days! 🙂
Cockney’s were the lower ‘ratbag’ class of London and the Irish were arrested for pretty much anything – they only had to sneeze near an Englishman and they’d be put on a boat to Australia.
As a side note if you ever get a chance make sure to check out the Wicklow Historic Gaol in Ireland (an hour or two south of Dublin) and read the curses that the Irish prisoners scratched into the walls of their cells for being sentenced to 8 years in Australia (8 years was a life sentence too because they never made it home). That place should be a pilgrimage spot for every Aussie – it was a pretty emotional experience being there.
Anyway, I’d like to highlight three really distinct influences on our English: the Cockneys, the Irish and the Australian aborigines. If you were to sit down and take a good, hard look at the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation of Aussie English then these sources really stand out.
I’m sure that like every language and dialect, Cockney has evolved somewhat over time so you can’t make a really accurate comparison here, but I thought I’d post a sample of the modern day Cockney accent if you haven’t heard it before. This is from one of my favourite films, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels:
Here are a few things for you to listen out for in the clip:
- Like most British English dialects, Cockney is non-rhotic. What this means is that unlike Americans, Canadians and Irish they don’t pronounce the ‘R’ unless there’s a vowel in front of it. E.g. car sounds like kaa. Australian English is a very strong non-rhotic variety like Cockney.
- Sometimes the letter ‘T’ is replaced by what’s called a glottal stop. This is where air is momentarily stopped causing something like a little speed bump in your speech. E.g. “shor’age (shortage)”, “you go’ i’ all (you got it all)?”. In Aussie English we do occasionally do this but not as much. E.g. “he was hi’in the ball (he was hitting the ball)”. Usually the ‘T’ just sounds like a ‘D’ though. E.g. shid ‘ouse (shit house).
- In the “shid ‘ouse” example I’ve just given you’ll notice the ‘H’ is silent. Notice how the Cockneys say “‘e’s (he’s)”.
- The ‘TH’ sound is often replaced by an ‘F’ or ‘V’ in Cockney. E.g. he’s a fucking feef (thief), “nuffing (nothing)”. Occasionally (but not as often) you’ll encounter this in Australian English.
- See how this Barry bloke gets called Bazza? This is what I talked about earlier. We’re renowned for this.
Because the Irish English dialects (Hiberno-English) are rhotic the influence of the Irish on Australian English isn’t as obvious as the British are, but it’s important to know that in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Irish people either only spoke Irish Gaeilge or spoke English as their second language.
That means that most of the Irish prisoners sent to Australia would have spoken Irish as their first and possibly only language, and thus their children would have been forced to learn a British variety growing up.
It goes without saying that Gaeilge has influenced the vocabulary of Aussie English along with plenty of place names across Australia being the same as towns and villages back in Ireland. For example, I live in Queensland where we have places like Innisfail, Clontarf, Cloncurry, Enniskillen, and Donnybrook to name a few.
At the beginning of this post I used the word – tucker. Tucker basically means food in Aussie English but comes from the Irish word tacar. From this we created the word tuckshop (like a school cafeteria).
Shut ya gob! An Irish word meaning beak (as in the beak of a bird), gob is used here to mean mouth.
I’ve got the gift of the gab. Gab is another Irish word meaning speech/talk. We say someone has the gift of the gab when they’re talkative, very sociable or a good liar.
You’ve no doubt heard of blokes and sheilas. Well, sheila is actually a common female name in Ireland (Síle).
And so on.
One really important (and not researched enough in my opinion) contribution made by the Irish to Aussie English is the way that Irish culture shaped the way we use our language. The laid back, egalitarian culture where everybody (young, old, wealthy, poor, local or foreign) are all mate (along with our jovial nature). Although the culture has been changing, there’s this general rule that everybody is on par with each other and there’s no respect for snobs. Bloody poms! 🙂
A theory that I’ve read (and tend to agree with) is that it goes back to the days of the first Irish settlers in Australia battling to survive the harsh conditions of Australia and the English crown. Even today this working class battler status is revered by us as sacred in a way.
This Barnzy (Jimmy Barnes) song is pretty much the second national anthem of Australia. 🙂
The Australian aborigines
Sadly, hundreds of Australian aboriginal languages have been lost over the last two centuries with many more currently endangered but they’ve been a huge influence on the development of Aussie English, and about a third of all place names in Australia are aboriginal names.
A few examples from the area I live in are Coombabah, Nerang, Tamborine (this is an aboriginal word from the Yugambeh language – not the musical instrument), Worongary, Mudgeeraba, and Canungra. Absolutely everywhere you go in Australia you’ll see place names like this.
Most of our animal names are aboriginal too:
Koala, kangaroo, wallaby, kookaburra, barramundi (fish), dingo, and heaps more.
One really common expression you’ll hear in Queensland is hard yakka. This was actually the word for work by the Jagera people around what’s now Brisbane and we’ve even got a work clothing brand named after it.
Some aboriginal communities today also speak creoles which are basically hybrid languages where English and a local language have mixed together. They can’t really be understood by English speakers though.
If you get a chance I recommend you check out the movie Ten Canoes which is scripted entirely in the dialects of the Yolngu people. It’s a beautiful film:
If like me you’re passionate about language revival and have an interest in Australian aboriginal languages then also consider helping out programs like this one.
The best variety of English on Earth
Okay, I’m a bit biased.
There’s so much about our Aussie English that I’m proud of and I’ve only touched on a few things briefly here. I could write heaps and heaps on this and give bucket loads of expressions as examples but I think this will do.
As I said earlier, if you want a good little reference for Australian English that isn’t out of date or lame then grab the Lonely Planet phrasebook.
Hope you enjoyed this post! If you did like it or if you’re a proud Aussie then share it around by clicking the ‘Like’ button here. Cheers! 🙂
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Language is life..you brought it to life. Absolutly brillant. Charles Dickens used cockney in dialouge speech.
”Theres a thousand feathers in a thrushes throat” it means talk too much.
Thanks for your wonderful website, currently writing from the city library in Brisbane :-)
i’ve read aspects of your discussion on other websites explaining australian english. I have to respond however that your comments are not universal and can possibly mislead the visitor. There are lots and lots of native australians with english as their only language whom do not do many of things you mentioned - eg use the various slang and colloquialisms, shortening words, swear, (bloody is such a horrible word to incorporate into every day speech!) or pronounce written english in some strange appropriation of the original spelling. Whom don’t say ‘’sat’dee and sun’dee’’ (saturday and sunday). Who in fact know how to say service station, registration, football, afternoon et cetera ;-)
And no they are not ‘’haughty taughty melbournians” :-) I was about to say that when I read things like you have written I think wow no wonder people overseas consider australians illiterate redneccks. But, on the other hand, you are right and sadly they are often right :-(
so I guess my point is entirely irrelevant :(
now, I’ll just go me a snag on the barbie for brekkie and get the missus to ...sigh ... :-(
incidentally I am in my early thirties, I’m not eg pre war era!!!
I am impressed with your website, you have a lot of insight and resources simply not available elsewhere
Are you familiar with Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner? It’s light years beyond anything I’ve ever seen
Yeah you think your way of speaking is so much better than everyone elses, yet you totally misuse the word “whom” (“whom do not do many of things you mentioned”; hypercorrection much!).
All the people who say servo and arvo know how to say service station and afternoon. They just don’t because that’s not how they speak.
ps Donovan a funny one I heard recently. A french woman whom has lived in Australia for decades always thought men were referring to womens breasts as ‘teats’ which she thought was a sufficiently acceptable and appropriate
description. It took me to explain that it was actually ‘tits’ , was crude and somewhat offensive depending on the company and what sex one was ;-) and incidentally that HEAPS of men and almost all women would NEVER use that word, along with plenty of other horrible yet commonly acceptable words for male and female anatomy
It would just be nice if Australians learnt a bit of taste, a bit of refinement, a bit of style instead of living in the lowest common denominator. Language is a fundamental ingredient in this, for better or for worse
PS a linguistic student once explained to me that she hated the americanised spelling of english until she learnt it was often much closer to the latin. Have not qualified that but, as much as I hate american spelling too I can concede it has some merit. Removing silent letters (colour) et cetera.
Also to carry on from your comments on convict history of australia informing language.
Calling everyone ‘mate’ - regardless of ones station or familiarity - could
be related to the super egalitarian roots of shared convict life. And, yet again, many people will simply NOT use that word!! Ever! and they won’t be stuffy or up tight. They just simply wish to speak proper, innit, and that.
There’s no argument from this American that Australian English cuts sick. It’s colorful as. Heaps of expressions. There aren’t enough metaphorical roos in our American English language paddock to keep up. Yours goes go off like a frog in a sock with the verbiage.
In what other language can you throw a sickie?
I have more vocab to put to use, but alas, I can’t think of any more context.
Now, where are the Sheilas at?
Fellow Aussie here. Have to say that was bloody awesome. Love the rest of the site too. You truly are a linguistic master. Barely anyone I know speaks another language but after doing exchange in Germany I fell in love with learning German. I’m currently learning German in Austria and have a passion to learn some Spanish and just keep going. You’re definitely an inspiration!
Keep it up mate!
Also I’ve seen 10 Canoe’s too. Watched it in film studies at uni. Great film!
An excellent summation without being overly technical. Well done to you mate. Good to see other Aussies debunking the myth that we all drink Fosters (ugh!) and wrestle crocodiles. Now if only you can answer the question of why American TV and film use so many Americans with awful impersonations of the Aussie accent when there are so many Australians in Hollywood these days...
@InAmerica: Not sure which Great Vowel Shift you are referring to, but the main one was from Middle English to early Modern English, generally agreed to have occurred 1350-1500. This would put it a little (at best) before colonisation of the Americas.
Regarding the aluminum/aluminium debate, I was given to understand the -ium suffix was chosen to conform with the other elements discovered at the time (pottasIUM, sodIUM etc) although they are both recognised as equivalent now.
Mother of god that was ridiculous, I mean in a good way. That’s seriously one of the best overviews of the various English dialects I’ve ever seen, props to you for writing that, I’m sure it took you a few days (I hate writing blog posts like that, I much prefer the ones I can knock out in a couple hours and be done with).
Of course, I think American English is best, but then I am American (and it’s “aluminum”, not “aluminium”, by the way). If you’re British, I will fight you over this, the original name of the element as given to it by its English discoverer was “aluminum”, it was only later change to “aluminium” in the U.K. The Americans kept the original, correct spelling :P
I never knew about the 3 primary dialects of Aussie English, that was fascinating, thank you for that. For what it’s worth the last one really does sound British, I would’ve pegged him as a Brit had I not been told beforehand that he was Aussie, the bit about living in Melbourne I would’ve just took to mean that he was a Brit living in Melbourne, not that he was a native Aussie. Fascinating.
You do really excellent work on here, very good quality content, keep it up and thanks for sharing it.
Thanks very much for the compliment. It’s comments like yours that encourage me to keep writing posts like this :) You write some excellent stuff too!
Funny - I have the ‘aluminium’ argument with North Americans all the time. haha :D
Don’t forget that the British went through the Great Vowel Shift after they colonized the Americas, making our accent closest to the original English accent more than you people, speaking with your bastardized Cockney. <3
The great vowel shift occurred a few hundred years before that...