History of Australian English

By: | Post date: 2009-11-16 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics
Tags: , , ,

This post is not about Greek, although there are parallels with a couple of phases of the history of Greek.

I picked up Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English, while in Sydney. It’s a history of Australian English for the general audience, written by Bruce Moore, a lexicographer at the Australian National Dictionary Centre. It’s a bit more laundry-list lexicon-heavy than other linguists might do, but it’s a very entertaining read, and has some interesting theories.

Moore puts forward the formation of an Australian English as a dialect koine in Sydney, within two generations of settlement, and then diffusing out of there rapidly. (There were no administrative barriers between provinces like in the States, hence the astonishing regional homogeneity of Australian English.) This is common sense, and reflects other koineisations (and creolisations). New Zealand has done a better job than Australians of tracking their linguistic history, and the accent data from the first generation of native born New Zealanders, available through recordings done in the 1940s, was critical to proving that contention. Their accents were not yet fully levelled, and even children growing up in the same small town had slightly different accents. It was only the second generation of native born colonists who had a local norm to peer pressure themselves into, and knock out any deviation.

In line with that, it was only after the second generation that dialect loans from Northern English and Scots into Australian English were possible. In the first generation, such words were still sensed as outliers from the emerging Southern-England based koine, and ruled out.

It was also good to see a serious treatment of how attitudes towards Australian English developed in line with attitudes to Australian identity. The rush of Australian republicanism in the 1880s accompanied the first scholarly interest in the version of English spoken here. The long sleep of my country’s identity, as Federation transformed it into an Imperial lickspittle, also saw noone bother to look at Australian English between 1900 and 1965.

Australian English was traditionally stratified by class, divided into Cultivated, General, and Broad. Lawyers on 70s TV dramas all spoke Cultivated—which is pretty close to RP English. With the resurgence of Australian nationalism in the 80s, it is now unsafe to speak Cultivated Australian in public. Anything that drives a stake into the heart of Lickspittle Australia is OK in my book. (Or rather, *that* tradition of Lickspittle Australia. We are obeisant to other masters now. And it’s not primarily the US any more either.)

General and Broad are still around, with Broad the Australian you’ll hear from stereotypes on TV, and politicians in parliament (for similar reasons): “mɨstə spɜɪkʰə, ðɪ ɔnərəbl mɛmbə fə bæŋstæən ɪz ə bɐm”. Moore reports Broad is on the decline, which is a bit of a surprise.

Moore’s guess about the origin of Broad Australian is intriguing, though on flimsy evidence. What little longitudinal data we have from country speakers may suggest Broad Australian is newer than General Australian; his guess is that Broad arose in the World War I trenches, as a reaction against the British English the diggers heard around them. It was certainly also a reaction against the Cultivated Australian that started to be promulgated in the 1890s.

The funny thing is, commenters until the 1890s kept saying how Pure the Australian accent is. By that, they meant it didn’t sound like any English accent in particular. It also didn’t sound like Received Pronunciation, but that adverse comparison couldn’t be made until RP itself became mainstream in British education, just before then.

Moore predicts Broad Australian will vanish because the Cultivated Australian it reacted against has perished, and the ideological dispute between Lickspittle and Patriotic Australia has settled down. (You may have discerned I have a slight bias in this matter.) I think Moore is underestimating the fissures in Australian society. But he rightly points out that now that the Australian linguistic situation has settled down somewhat, the emergence of a second generation immigrant koine (“wogspeak”), which defines itself against Anglo norms, can be seen more clearly. (The link is to an interview Simon Palomares did in 2004, and Moore cites it too: it’s quite insightful. Some readers may recall Palomares as the Spaniolo in Acropolis Now.)

That’s a different fissure though. In fact, even that fissure may be starting to play itself out, as the Mediterranean immigrants’ children assimilate, and a new generation of immigrants take their place.

Oh, and that’s Acropolis Now as in the ’90s sitcom about Mediterranean-Australians, not as in the radio sitcom set in Ancient Greece by renowned Punctuation Nutjob Lynne Truss. (Obligatory Approving Link to the Great Smackdown by Louis Menand.) Here’s hoping she does radio comedy more effectively than she does pedantry…


  • opoudjis says:

    Lots of google hits for this post lately, searching for "attitudes towards australian english". Is there a school assignment on Australian English on or something?

  • kirsten says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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