Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) gets a lesson in the language of drinking from a friendly Australian (Jack Allen) at the Marble Bar, a legendary Sydney watering hole. The barmaid (Anne Haddy) looks bemused. From the Australian film “They’re a Wierd Mob”. (1966)
by Alyce Taylor
How did “G’day mate” become the sound of home for millions of people
THE ORIGINS OF the Australian-English accent are veiled in myth and Aussie legend: from pollen levels being behind our nasal twang, to the idea that we mumble to stop flies entering our mouths.
Now, a project called Australian Voices is listening to voice recordings and aiming to collect 1000 past and present Australian-English accents, to learn more about what’s behind the Australian drawl.
“Language is a marker of social identity and so people speak like the people they either aspire to be like, or want to be with,” says Dr Felicity Cox, an associate professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney. Felicity and her colleague, Dr Sallyanne Palethorpe, are the drivers behind Australian Voices.
A person’s accent changes slowly after their early teenage years, so voice recordings provide a snapshot of their origins, and information about their childhood social environment.
This means that old recordings of elderly people are particularly interesting: listening to the voices of 1950s grandparents gives researchers such as Felicity an insight into accents as far back as the 1870s. She also gets to hear some great stories.
“A few of them talk about Ned Kelly, actually,” says Felicity. “One gentleman recounts a conversation with Ned Kelly’s sister in a pub.”
Distinctive features of the Aussie accent
The Australian accent is famous for its vowel sounds, absence of a strong “r” pronunciation and the use of an inflection – or intonation – at the end of sentences, which can make statements sound like questions.
According to Felicity, the way vowels are pronounced is the most peculiar feature of Australian English.
“There’s a story of a lady who was told she was going home ‘to die’,” recalls Felicity. “But what she was actually doing was going home ‘today’.”
Felicity believes the Australian accent began with the first Australia-born colonial children in Sydney in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
They’d have strengthened their bonds as a group by speaking in similar ways, in the same way today’s teens use language to form tribes.
The early colonial children would have drawn on the many British accents spoken by adults around them to create their sound.
If you’d lost your mobes in Melbourne at a barbie on a Sunday arvo you couldn’t be anything but Australian.
In fact, Australians use abbreviations and diminutives more than other English-speakers – and a new study is trying to find out why.
“There are many theories,” says Nenagh Kemp, a psychologist specialising in language at the University of Tasmania, who’s leading the work.”
“Australians who use these diminutives might be trying to sound less pretentious, more casual and more friendly than they would by using the full words.”
Nenagh and her colleague Evan Kidd at La Trobe University in Melbourne have asked more than 100 Australians aged 18-90 to write down as many abbreviations and diminutives (which can be shorter or longer than the original word) as they could think of in 10 minutes.
Abbreviations and diminutives
The most common words they’ve identified so far were barbie (barbecue), arvo (afternoon), footy (football), sunnies (sunglasses), rego (registration), servo (service station), brekkie (breakfast), cuppa (cup of tea) and sanga (sandwich).
But people also came up with a lot of abbreviations for brand names, like Maccas, Woollies, Subie (Subaru) and Suzy (Suzuki).
While there’s a good deal of overlap between the abbreviations used by older and younger Australians, there are also seems to be some differences.
Nenagh and Evan’s preliminary analysis of their results suggests that older people use ‘cosier’, family-oriented words like cardi (cardigan), lippy (lipstick), rellies (relatives) and oldies more often than younger people.
Like a lot of Aussies who are now geriatric “baby boomers I have a pretty relaxed attitude towards the word “bastard”. I don’t think I have used it very often in the dictionary sense.
To me it is almost a term of endearment in Australia (“good old bastard”) or used to describe someone going through a rough patch (“the poor bastard”) or someone who has just “dropped his guts” (farted) better known as a “dirty bastard.”
It even extends to acts of heroism (“he was one brave bastard”) or admiration (“what a good looking bastard?”).
So there you go, but wait!
Be very careful how you use the “bastard” word in the United Kingdom.
Better still don’t use it at all and then certainly don’t smile or laugh if you say it. Oh! and start running.