Language and Identity in Australia
The manner of speaking is an expression of identity; it signals identification with one group and rejection of another. For example, when soccer player David Beckam says, "I want to fank everyone for coming", his substitution of an 'f' sound for the 'th' sound shows pride in his working class roots.
In England, accents vary according to class and region. In America, they vary according to race and region. Unlike America or England, Australia has no variance in speaking according to class, race or region. Instead, the accent varies according to ideology or gender. Two Australians can grow up side by side, go to the same schools, do the same job, but end up speaking English using different words, different syntax and with different accents. In fact, due to the gender variance, a brother and sister can grow up in the same house and end up speaking differently.
Australia has three recognised accents. About ten per cent of Australians speak like ex-prime minister Bob Hawke with what is known as a broad Australian accent. The broad Australian accent is usually spoken by men. 80 per cent speak like Nicole Kidman with a general Australian accent. 10 per cent speak like ex Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser with British received pronunciation or cultivated English. Although some men use the pronunciation, the majority of Australians that speak with the accent are women. It is a myth that working class Australians use cockney like David Beckam. It is a myth that Queenslanders speak differently to South Australians. It is also a myth that children of migrants have distinct accents.
The gender difference in pronunciation can perhaps be attributed to differing expectations about gender identities that are relatively favourable to the Australian stereotype when it comes to men but unfavourable when it comes to women. Specifically, expectations that men should be unpretentious, laid back and friendly are relatively consistent with stereotypes of Australian men. Contrasted to men, expectations that women should be refined, proper and neat are relatively inconsistent with stereotypes of Australian women.
Bill Hunter - Broad Australian English
Broad Australian Accent
The broad Australian accent is typically associated with Australian masculinity. Notable speakers include ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, comedian Paul Hogan and actor Bill Hunter. Although the accent is only spoken by a minority of the population, it has a great deal of cultural credibility. This is shown by the fact that it is disproportionately used in advertisements and by newsreaders.
Very few women use broad Australian accents, probably because the accent is associated with Australian masculinity. If an Australian woman used it, she may sound like a woman partial to a spot of pig shooting or making fart jokes.
Nicole Kidman - general Australian English
General Australian Accent
Around 80 per cent of Australians speak like actor Nicole Kidman with what is known as a general Australian English accent. These accents are somewhat of a mix between the broad Australian and cultivated accents. Because they are comparatively neutral in ideology, most of the speakers believe that they don't have an accent. The speakers realise that they speak differently to the broad Australian speakers that they associate with Australia as well as the cultivated speakers that they associate with upper class or elitism.
Cate Blanchett - Cultivated accent
Cultivated Australian Accent
The final ten per cent of Australians speak with what is known as a cultivated accent, which sounds a bit like Prince Charles. It is usually spoken by women wanting to portray a feminine and sophisticated image. Although most speakers are women, some men, such as ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser, used the accent.
In the past, the cultivated accent had the kind of cultural credibility that the broad accent has today. For example, until the 1970s newsreaders on the government funded ABC had to speak with the cultivated accent. Since there was a shortage of Australian men able to speak in the accent, male newsreaders were imported from England. (At the time, women were not allowed to be newsreaders on government television.)
Myths about the Australian accent
Myth 1 – There is regional variance in pronunciation
There is a myth that Australians speak differently in different parts of Australia. For example, some people believe that all Queenslanders use the broad Australian accent. The stereotype is not based in fact. Queenslanders have the same variance in accent according to gender and ideology that is seen around Australia.
Some people believe that South Australians talk like New Zealanders. The myth probably comes from a presumption that since South Australia and New Zealand didn't receive Convicts, both should speak the same way. Again, the presumption is incorrect. South Australians have the same variance in accent according to gender and ideology that is seen around Australia. Furthermore, South Australians don't say, "Fish and chups" or "I'll see you at sex."
Although the myths of regional variance are common, it is unlikely that the geographical origin of a player on the Australian cricket team or in an AFL team could be discerned from their accent alone. Likewise, it is unlikely that the geographic origin of a federal politician could be discerned from their accent alone.
Myth 2 – There is ethnic variance in pronunciation
Most migrants who speak English as their second language have an ethnic accent. The children of migrants, who speak English as their first language, usually use a broad, general or cultivated accent depending upon their ideology or gender.
Sometimes the children of migrants will put on the accent of their parents as a joke. For example, actor Mary Coustas created the character of Effie, which used a wog accent. It was not her real accent.
Effie (Mary Coustas) - Wog stereotype accent
Myth 3 – Poor Australians speak with a broad Australian, cockney or low class accent
Much like the character of Effie, the characters of Kim & Kim involved the creation of fictional stereotypes of low-class Australians that could be subsequently mocked. Contrary to the fictional portrayals, there is no relationship between socio-economic status and the manner of speaking. It is; however, more likely that women from wealthy families will speak with a cultivated accent because it is more likely that their parents will send them to a finishing school to cultivate a manner of speaking associated with elegance. The elegant image will be beneficial for the women because, as the characters of Kath & Kim and Effie show, there is ridicule associated with Australian women who lack elegance when speaking.
Unlike Australian women, Australian men will rarely be sent to finishing schools in order to improve their speech. This is probably because elegance is not an admired masculine quality in Australia. An Australian man that speaks like Prince Charles or Malcolm Fraser is likely to find himself the target of school yard bullies.
The broad Australian accent has cultural prestige for men because it creates an image that the man has the ability to relate to people from all walks of life, and will treat everyone with a sense of equality. For example, even though the late billionaire Kerry Packer was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he used a broad accent his entire life. The broad accent helped create a perception that Packer had an egalitarian ethic, which contributed greatly to his popular appeal amongst average Australians. Of course, not all Australians (i.e, Malcolm Fraser) believe that the broad accent has a positive image. As a result, they prefer to speak like an Englishman.
Kath and Kim - Stereotype bogan accent
Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside using cultivated accents to talk about Australian values.
Features of the Australian English
Use of idiomsIn stereotype, "g'day" is a word that helps define the Australian version of English but in truth, it is not common used. The use of idioms like ‘have a crack’ and ‘play a straight bat’ are more defining. In addition, Australians are prone to use similes like 'mad as a gum tree full of galahs' and 'he has kangaroos lose in the top paddock' to add more expression to sentences. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was a noted inventor of similes and metaphor as an instrument of ridicule and humour. Some of his expressions included:
Keating on Former Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson:
On Former Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Peacock
On John Howard
On Independent, Steele Hall:
On the press
On the coalition party
On former Prime Minister Bob Hawke
On Former Labour politician, Jim McClelland:
On Fund Managers:
The Convict Influence?
Nearly two generations after the First Fleet, 87 per cent of the population were either convicts, ex-convicts or of convict descent. With such strong convict foundations, it was inevitable that Australia's linguistic traditions would be different from the mother country. As argued by Sidney Baker in The Australian Language:
In 1869, Marcus Clarke described how locals devised language to ' convey a more full and humorous notion of all his thoughts' or to conceal 'the idea he wishes to convey from all save his own particular friends'. The most notable method of concealment was cockney rhyming slang. Rhyming slang created an idiom type sentence out of two or more words, the last of which rhymes with the intended word. For example, "plates of meat" were "feet" and "hit the frog and toad" was "hit the road." Although few Australians use rhyming slang today, its legacy may be the prevalence of idioms in Strine.
The abbreviation of words might be another legacy of rhyming slang. As rhyming slang involved the addition of new words, sentences became long-winded. In order to compensate, long words might have been shortened. Thus "have a Captains Cook" which is rhyming slang for "have a look", was abbreviated down to "ava Captains." Pomegranate, which is rhyming slang for "immigrant", was abbreviated to "Pom."
The skills that were acquired when abbreviating rhyming slang clauses may then have been applied to also economise ordinary clauses. So words such as "good day" were economised to "g'day", "afternoon" to "arvo", "politician" to "pollie" , "journalist" to "journo" and "barbecue" to "barbie."
Aside from rhyming slang, another method the convicts used to conceal their true meaning was to turn the meaning of a word upside down. For example, "bastard" or "ratbag" were used a terms of endearment as well as insults. The only way to know up from down was to infer from the tone of the sentence.
Has Chinese influenced the Australian accent?
The Australian strain of English is very musical. Tones are very important, and with the abbreviation of words to emphasize the stressed syllable, Australian English follows the general pattern of how English sounds when it is sung. In 1911, an English woman, Valerie Desmond, released a book titled The Awful Australian. In the book, she speculated that the tonal aspect of Australian English may have been the result of Australians mixing with Chinese:
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