Why Aussies really butcher the English language



Rough, inarticulate, lazy – the Australian language is many things, but there is one thing it is not: drunk.

Australians are famous for their innovative butchering of the English language, both in the addition of new creative words and the shortening of old favourites.

It’s common knowledge that AFL stalwarts only ever call their game ‘footy’, not ‘football’. Likewise, only a true Australian speaker understands the meaning of the phrase: ‘yeah, nah’.

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But earlier this week, a communications expert floated the idea that the Australian vocal chords are perpetually drunk.

Australian settlers' home

One expert claimed Australian settlers liked to get drunk together and chat. Photo: AAP

In an article for The Age, Victoria University lecturer Dr Dean Frenkel described the Aussie accent as a “cocktail of English, Irish, Aboriginal, German”, and something else.

“Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns,” he wrote, while also calling for improved rhetoric studies in the Australian curriculum.

Another linguistics expert, UQ’s Dr Rob Pensalfini, disagreed with Dr Frenkel’s assessment, however, saying that our articulation was connected to Cockney and Irish English.

But the editor of the upcoming edition of the Australian National Dictionary, Bruce Moore, said both were absurd propositions.

“It is a very odd and curious and unhistoric notion of how new dialects get created, what worries me is that we do know a fair bit about how the Australian accent was created and it is unfortunate that pop explanations get promulgated,” he said.

“We know the Australian accent is a product of a levelling of dialects.

“There is no evidence that there was any influence on the dialect from Aboriginal languages or from the Irish.”

Children lead the way

school children

Children likely developed the current Australian tone between 1788 and 1830. Photo: Shutterstock

Australia was founded on January 26, 1788, and from that point a local version of English began to develop.

But rather than adults, it was children who pioneered the spoken word as we know it.

“You had people from all over Britain, an extraordinary mix of accents … in the parents,” Mr Moore said.

“The kids pick and choose from all over the place … slightly different features although they will always be wanting to sound like one another … and level out extremes.”

By about 1820 the Aussie tone had begun to take shape. Over the next 10 years it changed to something similar to what is spoken today.

But then, at the turn of the 20th century, the accent changed, as a focus was put on elocution.

“In Australia we had some trying to modify their vowels again, so that they sounded more British,” Mr Moore said.

“About the same time – around the First World War – we think there was a reaction against that where we start getting the opposite produced, the broad Australian accent.”

State to state, it is all the same

Although some people claim to be able to tell the difference between accents from different Australian states, there’s Buckley’s chance they actually can.

“There is very little difference in accents in Australia,” Mr Moore said.

“In Britain, regional accents were developed at a time of regional isolation.

“In spite of the huge differences, right from the beginning there were amazing movements of people from every area in Australia.”


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