Australian English, a guest post by Dillon Garrison

Dillon just completed his bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in English at Southern Oregon University. He works as a freelance copywriter and editor.

Australian English has been perceived in a variety of ways over its relatively short history. With its distinctive accent and penal colony beginnings, Australian English has often been looked down upon in popular mythologies, being seen as “slovenly,” “poorly articulated,” and “nasal.” Yet beginning in the 1980s, the popularity of the Crocodile Dundee movies and television personality Steve Irwin led many to associate Australians and their unique dialect of “Strine” with friendliness, a more relaxed lifestyle, and exotic natural environments. Throughout its evolution separating from British English dialects, Australian English has developed largely through its speakers’ rebellion against British class consciousness and their interaction with the Australian landmass and its original Aboriginal occupants.

Australian English first emerged from the establishment of the British penal colony of New South Wales in 1788. The colonists and convicts who formed the colony came from all over the British Isles, and had to smooth out their regional dialect differences in order to communicate with each other in a process known as “leveling down.” The children of these early colonists were the first speakers of what could be considered the Australian English dialect. By the 1820s a distinct dialect had emerged, and in 1827, Scottish naval surgeon Peter Cunningham released Two Years in New South Wales, documenting the unique accent and vocabulary of the native-born colonists. Cunningham characterized the young colonists as differing from their parents through a heavy London influence. By the 1840s, some English visitors to Australia claimed that Australians were speaking “the purest English on earth:” English with the dialect variations taken out. The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought new waves of (non-convict) migrants to Australia, and new influences upon the language.

Cockney English, the dialect traditionally spoken by working-class Londoners (particularly of the East End), became a big influence on the new Australian dialect, as many of the new arrivals came from London’s slums and prisons. According to Anthony Burgess, ”Australian English may be thought of as a kind of fossilised Cockney of the Dickensian era.” Just why Cockney had such an influence compared to other English dialects is a matter of debate, considering the majority of convicts were from the north of England, as well as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

Two more forms grew of Australian grew out of that original dialect. Linguists, beginning with A.G. Mitchell and Arthur Delbridge in 1965, classify three main varieties of Australian speech: Broad, Cultivated, and General Australian (These “varieties” are not distinct but rather are rough markers along a dialect continuum). Starting in the 1880s and well into the 1950s, the elocution movement swept through Australian in response to the newly-developed Received Pronunciation in Britain. Socially-aspirational Australian speakers modified their vowels and diphthongs in order to more closely resemble RP. This form came to be known as Cultivated Australian, and is historically associated with higher social status and levels of education. Some Australian speakers went the opposite way, and in the early twentieth century, a new form now known as Broad Australian emerged, which emphasized the nasality, flatness of intonation, and elision of syllables present in the Australian dialect. While Cultivated Australian expressed a longing and nostalgia for Britain and an upper-class consciousness, Broad Australian expressed Australian nationalism, the working class, and egalitarianism in opposition to the British fixation with class. Meanwhile, the original Australian dialect continued as the most common and became what is now known as General Australian. General Australian is prominent in urban areas and is the standard language for Australian broadcasting.

At the time of colonization, Australia was home to 700-800 Indigenous language varieties across the continent, which can be grouped into over 250 distinct languages (with some estimates as high as 363) and around 28 language families, spoken across a population of around one million people. Many language varieties were spoken by small populations of 40-50 people, with the largest populations speaking a single language numbering around 3-4000 people. The process of colonization proved to be devastating to the traditional Aboriginal languages of Australia; of the 250 distinct languages spoken in 1788, only around 15 are now learned by children as a first language. Another 100 have only small numbers of speakers remaining, and most have no fluent speakers left at all. Australia has experienced the greatest and most rapid loss of languages over the last century of anywhere in the world, with some estimates predicting if current trends continue, there may be no speakers of Indigenous languages at all by 2050.

Most of the vocabulary assimilated into Australian English from Aboriginal languages came from the language spoken in the Port Jackson (now Sydney) area, known variously as the Port Jackson, Sydney, Dharuk, Dharug, or Eora language. The majority of Aboriginal words were used for place names (such as the capital Canberra, which means ‘meeting place’ in Ngunnawal), the unique flora, fauna, and landscape features of the continent, and some slang terms. The first words to come from Dharuk include the names of now internationally-known animals, such as dingo, wallaby, wombat, and koala. The first and most famous borrowing, kangaroo, has long been a matter of debate in terms of its origin. Unlike the others, it did not originate from the Dharuk language, but was encountered by the crew of Captain James Cook during contact with the Guugu Yimidhirr people in 1770, when Cook’s ship the Endeavor was beached for repairs near modern north Queensland. One famous theory claims that an Endeavor crew member pointed at the animal, and an Aboriginal replied something like “kangaroo,” which translated not as the animal’s name but as something like “I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Whatever the term originally meant, the name stuck. In addition to the animal, the word has become a symbol for Australia, used to refer to members of Australia’s international rugby team, to Australian soldiers during both world wars, and in the creation of a wide range of compounds (i.e. ‘kangaroo bar’).

Other popular borrowings include the slang term bung, originally from the Dharuk language via Sydney pidgin English, meaning dead, useless, or broken; cooee, a shout used to attract attention or find missing people; hard yakka, meaning hard work, derived from yakka in the Jagera language; billabong, meaning “dead river” and now the name of a global surf clothing brand; and boomerang, whose exact origins are unknown but refers to an Aboriginal hunting tool which has also become a popular toy and symbol of Australia. Many names for the local fish and birds are also borrowings (and many are onomatopoeic, imitative of the birds’ calls), such as currawong, while others were adapted from English names for similar birds (i.e. magpie). In the same way many American borrowings from Indian languages became localized in use or obsolete, the use of Aboriginal terms in Australian English had long been dwindling; however, the usage of Aboriginal terms has been slowly rising since the 1980s. In 2016, the Australian National Dictionary listed around 500 words in common usage from 100 different Aboriginal languages, up from 400 words from 80 languages in 2008, and 250 words from 60 languages in 1988.

Separate from the Aboriginal languages is Australian Aboriginal English (AAE), a dialect of Australian English used by a large section of the Indigenous Australian population, which has a number of varieties that have developed in different parts of Australia. AAE does not make use of auxiliary verbs such as “to be” and “to have,” and the masculine pronouns he and him may also be used for females and inanimate objects, particularly in northern Australia. Several slang words used by young Australian Aboriginal English speakers have begun to spread to Australian English speakers, such as deadly to mean “excellent” or “good” (in the same way wicked is used) and dardy, meaning “cool.”

American English has also been a big influence on Australian English, particularly since World War II and the expanded international influence of American media, entertainment, and pop culture. Some North American borrowings, such as bushranger, phoney, and squatter, have been so thoroughly integrated they are thought to be of Australian origin. Australians overall seem to be less concerned with the impact of adapting American terminology upon national cohesion. However, studies have shown Australian borrowings from American English to be selective and often readapted for other purposes.

In addition to borrowings from indigenous languages and American English, Australian English has coined a large number of its own words, some of which descend from older British dialects, and in particular, working-class and prison slang. Some of the most popular and important of these have to do with fairness and hard work. A battler is a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances, while its opposite is the derogatory bludger, a person who expects another person to do all the work. Related to these terms in dinkum or fair dinkum, which originally meant “work” or “a fair share or work,” evolved to mean “above board” or “true,” and is now used to mean “true” or “is that true?” (among other things depending on context and inflection). The term fair go also arose as an Australian principle, referring to the lack of formal class distinctions in Australia and the importance of fair play and equality of opportunity.

One of the most famous phrases associated with the Australian dialect is “shrimp on the barbie,” thanks to a series of Australian tourism commercials in the 1980s and a 1990 movie of the same name (with “barbie” in this case referring to barbecue). Such diminutives are a core feature of the Australian dialect. With over 5000 recorded, Australians use more abbreviations and diminutives than any other English speakers. Common uses include: arvo (afternoon), footy (football), sunnies (sunglasses), rego (registration), servo (service station), brekkie (breakfast), cuppa (cup of tea) and sanga (sandwich). Brand names are not exempt, such as Maccas for McDonald’s, Blunnies (Blundstone boots), Subie (Subaru) and Suzy (Suzuki), nor are new technologies: lappy (laptop), webby (webcam), remi (remote control) and mobes (mobile phone). Unsurprisingly, the now internationally-popular term selfie originated in Australia.

While such hypocoristics exist in many dialects of English, they are particularly frequent in Australian English and considered one of its major differentiators, with one estimate finding that these forms make up 4% of the Australian lexis. In an elicitation study, Kidd, Kemp, and Quinn (2011) asked 115 speakers of Australian English to generate as many hypocoristic forms as they could in 10 minutes, and reported more than 1,500 different forms. Diminutives are no modern degradation, but rather a long tradition with examples going back to the 1800s. Use is common even in formal contexts such as by politicians and journalists, and some hypocoristic forms are now more common than their standard forms, such as uni for university and Salvos for Salvation Army. This pervasive use of diminutives has generally been interpreted to reflect core Australian cultural ideals of informality and egalitarianism, as they sound more informal and relaxed, and usage is reinforced as a marker of in-group identity and a shared cultural history.

Australian is a non-rhotic (r-less) variety of English, meaning the /ɹ/ sound does not appear at the end of a syllable or immediately before a consonant. As with most dialects of English, it is distinguished primarily by its vowel phonology. The Australian English vowels /ɪ/, /e/ and /eː/ are noticeably closer, pronounced with a higher tongue position, than their Received Pronunciation equivalents. Like General American, General Australian has completed the weak vowel merger, which is the loss of contrast between /ə/ (schwa) and unstressed /ɪ/, that occurs in certain dialects of English. Most speakers of Australian English replace the unstressed weak /ɪ/ with schwa, although where there is a following /k/, as in paddock or nomadic, some speakers maintain the contrast, while some who have the merger use [ɪ] as the merged vowel. While relatively homogenous, there is some regional variation with phonology, including the celery-salary merger in Victoria (where the words celery and salary sound the same), and differences in the distribution of the trap-bath split. In the trap-bath split, the lengthened vowel in words such as bath, laugh, grass, and chance, which in RP is pronounced as a broad A or long A [ɑː], is pronounced more near the front of the mouth ([ɐː] or[aː]). Australian English has also diverged from Cockney since the settling of Australia in the use of a glottal stop where a /t/ would be found, in th-fronting, and in h-dropping. In terms of intonation, the variable that has been most extensively investigated is the “Australian questioning intonation,” or AQI (also known generally as high rising intonation, high rising terminal, or rising intonation), where declarative clauses end with a rising intonation. The AQI began to appear in the 1970s, and there is general agreement among linguists that the function of AQI is to seek verification of the listener’s comprehension. As with American English, but unlike British English, collective nouns are almost always singular in construction. However, Australian spelling is closer to British than American spelling. As with British spelling, the u is retained in words such as colour, honour, labour and favour.

Evolving from a mix of transplanted local English dialects, then interacting with indigenous Aboriginal and migrant languages, American English, and other global varieties of English, Australian English has emerged as a unique dialect expressing Australian national identity values. While it shares much of its phonology and grammar with the other major varieties of “settler English,” Australian English manifests uniquely egalitarian and anti-authoritarian leanings based in its underclass past, a pervasive relaxed informality, a wry understated humor, a desire for fairness, and a set of distinctive vocabulary drawn from the island’s original Aboriginal inhabitants.


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Kidd, E., Kemp, N. & Quinn, S. (2011). “Did you have a choccie bickie this arvo? A quantitative look at Australian hypocoristics.” Language Sciences, vol 33, no. 3, pp. 359-368. DOI: 10.1016/j.langsci.2010.11.006

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About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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