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Thursday, 6 July 2017

Australian accents

Have you noticed the silence? I have been away in Sri Lanka, travelling with a bunch of Australians in pursuit of snakes. crocodiles, monitors, birds of many kinds, water buffalos, wild pigs, squirrels, mongooses ... and, as you can see from the photograph, making close contact with wild elephants.

Travelling in a foreign clime can be a bit off-putting, but travelling with a bunch of fellow-Australians gave us a solid grip on normality, because we speak much the same language. Perhaps the reader will allow me to offer a short quote from, and hence plug for, my new e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Tales, available now on Kindle.
Sit in a coffee shop in Riga, a wine bar near Rome’s Spanish Steps, a restaurant in Bergen, a Greek cafĂ© in Banff, a chippie in Glasgow, a tapas bar in Cuzco or a bangers and mash restaurant in Reykjavik, and when you hear Australian tones in the room — and trust me, you will — say in a carrying voice with vowels as flat as a roadkill goanna, one word: “G’day!”.
Then, from the corner of your eye, watch as the Australian heads turn this way and that, seeking their unseen compatriot who may have news from back home. That’s the news we want now, not news from Home, and a single “G’day!” reminds us of where home really is.

Slang, the vernacular, the peculiarly Australian form of English can be difficult to understand.  Slang aside, there are the words that all Australians use in a special way, like ‘bush’.  Even those Australians who speak ‘educated’ or ‘cultivated’ English will talk about ‘the bush’.

There are no forests or woods in Australia, just bush.  When people disappear into the wilds, they ‘go bush’ (or bushwalking), if they stray from the made path, they are bush-bashing.  Thieves who roamed the bush were called bushrangers, and if somebody has come up to the ‘smoke’ (Sydney) from the bush, then he or she probably lives on a farm or in a country town.  So you have to listen to the context.

There are three distinct forms of English that we detect in our own speech.  The ‘general Australian’ is broader, and less ‘English’, and it is more likely to contain references to manufactured products and cultural allusions and clever similes (‘Vegemite’, or ‘as mean as Hungry Tyson’ or ‘as flash as a rat with a gold tooth’).  ‘General Australian’ usually involves less lip movement.

The broad Australian accent involves no lip movement at all (to keep flies out of the mouth, some say), more reliance on tones (carries over longer distances), and many impenetrable slang terms, including rhyming slang, often similar to (but differing from) Cockney rhyming slang.  It is a gross error to see the Australian accent as deriving from Cockney, just because of fancied similarities in one or two vowels.

The ‘cultivated’ style of English is fancied by most Australians to be indistinguishable from English, and it is indeed fairly close, closer than Bostonian English, for example.  After just a few months in Australia, most English people lose the ability to tell whether or not a ‘cultivated’ or ‘educated English’ speaker is English or Australian.

As a user of that style, I have never been mistaken for English in England (though I have been in both Wales and Scotland), and I can also vouch for the problems that north Americans have in distinguishing the ‘educated’ accent from the English accent.  This style seems to be getting less common, if only because most ‘cultivated’ speakers can and do use at least one other form of local accent.

This sort of variation is by no means new.  Henry Cruciform, for example, is the source of most of my information about Crooked Mick, and the stories I tell are actually Henry's reminiscences of his own youth.  The old man usually spoke with me in the ‘educated Australian’ style, but when he was passing on to me a story of his experiences early this century, he would drop naturally into the broad form of speech, imitating the characters he knew and worked with, like Crooked Mick.  Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Cruciform was, in fact, the character called ‘The Professor’ in several of his stories.

The New Zealand accent is common in Australia, and hard to pick, even for an outsider who has been here for some time.  Australians say it is easy: ask the suspected New Zealander to count to seven.  For Kiwis, especially those from the South Island, the number between five and seven is sux, and lists are lusts.  It's a subtle difference, and not really important, except when a Kiwi clerical worker tells you with some urgency that we badly need some lists . . .

Some of the slang terms can be traced to regional English usages, others are of unknown origin.  The correct and safest procedure for any foreigner is to smile engagingly and look agreeable without actually agreeing to anything when slang is used in their presence.

So far as swearing is concerned, Australians use the same terms as other English-speakers, although with different frequencies.  You should have no problem in recognising when you are being sworn at, but context and tone of voice are more important than content.  A poor old bastard is an altogether different beast from a miserable bastard or a rotten bastard.

Then there are the aboriginal words, names for places, animals or things that are used quite unconsciously, like billabong, an oxbow lake in other places, or maybe tucker, which is food, and which may or may not be an aboriginal word, depending on who you ask.

Last of all, there are words that are used in Australia in some way that the scholars of Oxford know not, that you will never find in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Just as the Americans needed their Webster's, so we now have our own Macquarie Dictionary that tells us (and others) what we mean.  Try looking up ‘jam’ in all three!

As a writer, I have an enduring need to know when terms came into the Australian idiom, and I have recorded many of them at a site you can access either through, or as

The first resolves into the second, and one day, when I stop writing books and travelling, I will add to the list.

Right now, I am back on home ground, awaiting the edits of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, and developing the draft of Australian Survivor (working title).

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