Sociolinguistics of Australian English
by Emily Trekell
Behind every language lies a fascinatingly intricate structure, which contains much more than a simple set of symbols. Language is not merely a code used to switch a text from one idiom to another, but an entity with its own complex, intriguing characteristics. In fact, exact translations do not even exist from one language to another because every dialect possesses unique aspects that have come about from centuries of social change and interaction. In return, language, through everyday speech, as well as literature, shapes society. Therefore, “language is one of the most powerful emblems of social behavior.” From this idea emerged sociolinguistics, one of the most important fields of study in today’s world of increasing international relations. Sociolinguistics studies the relationships between the way a society functions and its language. Areas of the field include, but are certainly not limited to, pidgins and creoles, gender relations, economic status, and age. Researchers examine both the effects of social factors on language, and the effects of language on society. The contemporary world is bringing many people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds together, perhaps more than any other period of history. Thus, the study of fields such as semiotics, linguistics, and sociolinguistics is crucial to gain a better understanding of how languages are created and how they bring meaning to the world.
Australian English, referred to hereafter as AE, exemplifies the mutual influence exerted upon language and society. AE is not only a unique manner of speaking, even from other English dialects, but also an entirely distinct manner of individual and social expression. A trademark of AE, noted by practically all English-speaking visitors to the country is its lexis. Books such as A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms and the national Macquarie Dictionary contain thousands upon thousands of examples of jargon not found in any other English-speaking nation. However, the linguistic properties of AE are much more profound than vocabulary. In order to examine this issue more thoroughly, this study poses questions including the following:
· How and when did AE originate?
· What are AE’s unique characteristics, and of what are they the results?
· What are the linguistic differences of AE within Australia, particularly with respect to geographical region, gender, and age?
· What social consequences and attitudes arise from AE?
Compared to that of many other dialects, the history of AE is relatively young. British colonization of Australia did not begin until the late eighteenth century; however, the characteristic Australian accent appeared within only one generation of the 1788 establishment of the first penal colony. The fact that “white” Australia has its roots in the penal system undoubtedly affects Australian culture, including language. Even today, tourists can visit the historic gaols of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and many other towns and cities. Australian convicts of the early years, like Ned Kelly, still possess a place in popular culture through films, television, literature, and artwork. Obviously today Australia is a country full of educational and cultural opportunities, far from the situation of the beginning years. Nevertheless, many feel that Australia’s reputation has been forever marred by its convict birthstain. Linguistics is one source of evidence as to the nature of this birthstain. For instance, the lexis of English in the new penal colonies began to transform. Expressions such as “gaol gang,” “iron gang,” and “prisoner of the Crown” appeared. Even words that already existed were given new meanings or connotations. For example, “short-sentenced” usually referred to those prisoners condemned to a period of seven years; and an “abolitionist” advocated the termination of transporting convicts to Australia. What does this terminology reveal about Australia’s history? Life was very difficult during the establishment of modern Australia. Through language, events of the past, like flogging, iron gangs, treadmills, hard labour, iron collars, road gangs, and Crown labourers, became a reality. “The language of Australia convictism thus reveals the complex nature of this fundamental period in Australian history. It illustrates the importance of words in shaping understandings and perceptions of a society, especially one still in its formative years.”
Not surprisingly, AE contains much evidence of British influence. Within a very short amount of time, people from all over the United Kingdom were thrown together during the settlement of Australia. The result was a curious mixture of linguistic tendencies, such as the plural second person pronoun “youse,” which came from the Irish and can still be heard throughout Australia. Also common is rhyming slang, which has its roots in Cockney English. These remnants of influence from the United Kingdom reveal much about Australia’s history. The United States was also once a British colony; yet, American English does not demonstrate the same correspondence with British English as does AE. The reason is that “the United States revolted against England and Australia did not. All Australia’s major institutions of parliament, bureaucracy, education […], and even common language are modeled on British lines.” Therefore, Australia’s convict history, along with influences from British, Irish, Aboriginal peoples, and, more recently, immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, have all created what most recognize today as AE.
As mentioned earlier, the vocabulary of AE is one of its distinguishing features. The existence of the Macquarie Dictionary, considered the national dictionary of Australia, proves that AE is indeed real. However, dictionaries such as the Macquarie have not always been in publication; in fact, the birth year of AE is considered to be as late as 1987. As Donald Horne explains, in the past, “any straying from standard usage as ordained in the United Kingdom was not Australian English. It was bad English.” Today, Australians have at their fingertips many dictionaries of AE, as well as countless dictionaries of Aussie slang. The AE lexis has finally achieved an identity of its own, as opposed to that of its British immigrants. This solidarity has resulted in the ability of AE to absorb foreign influences without being completely reshaped by them. In fact, today “possibly Australians have the biggest passive vocabulary of any people.” This “passive vocabulary” indicates that the meanings of many foreign words are understood when heard on television or radio; however, said words do not make their way into the active, quotidian vocabulary of AE. For instance, if watching a British program on television, a typical Australian would understand the term “silencer.” Yet, she would not introduce the term into her own vocabulary; she would continue to use the term “muffler” when speaking about her car.
Besides its lexis, another notable aspect of AE is the infamous Aussie accent. Throughout English-speaking nations, especially the United States, one constantly encounters the Australian accent in movies or advertisements. There is a fascination with anyone employing Australian pronunciation, as well as with the confusion that sometimes ensues. A certain tale, which appears in just about any book concerning linguistics in Australia, speaks of such a mishap. A young British author was traveling across Australia, visiting bookstores to promote her latest work. In one town, she set up a table where her fans could bring up a copy of the new release to have it signed by the author. One woman made her way through the queue and handed the book to the author. “To whom should I write?” the author asked with a smile. The customer relplied, “Well, Emma Chisit.” The author wrote a quick note for Emma, signed the book, and handed it back. The customer read the page and glanced up with a confused look. “My name’s Mary. I just wanted to know how much the book was before I decided to buy it.” After that, Emma Chisit became a staple character in any AE study.
So what exactly is the Australian accent? The Pronunciation of English in Australia describes the chief features that distinguish AE from the Educated Southern English of England. For instance, “-es,” found either in the plural form of a noun or in the third person, singular, present tense of a verb, transforms into an unstressed vowel, a schwa. This characteristic of AE can create confusion among those who speak in the first form, for in AE, there is no distinction in pronunciation between “dances” and “dancers.” Other forms that transform [I] into a schwa are adjectives in the superlative, words that terminate in -ate, -ed, -ess, -est, -et, -less, -let, and –ness. The prefixes be-, de-, e-, pre-, re-, and se- are represented by the sound [I] in Educated Southern English. However, in AE, they may take on the form of either [i] or [I] preceded by a schwa. Words ending in –y, and –ity also see this change. One particularly notable difference between British English and AE is that endings like -ial, -ius, -ium, -ions, and –eous, remain disyllabic in Australian speech, rather than being shortened.
Some of the most palpable pronunciation differences for Americans studying AE are those in words of foreign origin, including brand names. For instance, a buffet in Australia sounds more like “buff it” to an American traveler, and a “fillet” or steak more like a “fill it.” Also, an American might not realize when seeing a television commercial that the Australian “knock-ee-uhr” phone is the same as his Nokia back home. Adding “-r” to open final syllables is a common practice in AE, made even more frequent by the fact that it applies to so many ordinary words, like “Australia.” Another commonality among Australians is the tendency to nasalize the majority of vowels. Finally, High Rising Terminal (HRT), also called Australian Questioning Intonation (AQI), is an anomaly in the English-speaking world. In this trait, a statement is given the intonation of a question, sometimes, making it sounds as if one question were asked to answer another. Although not as popular as comic films would have the public believe, HRT can be heard in AE, particularly among the younger population.
For a country almost the size of the United States, the Australia has an English that is remarkably uniform. Traveling from one end of America to the other, one would encounter wildly different accents from places like Boston, New Orleans, New York, Dallas, Memphis, and San Diego. Yet, across that same distance in Australia, the pronunciation of the residents would remain virtually unchanged. In a visit to Melbourne, a waiter at a local restaurant said, “You’re studying linguistics. Tell me, why is there only one Australian accent?” According to most linguists, his observation was correct. George W. Turner asserts that the Australian language community has no regional dialects at all, an idea that goes against regional pride, a widespread attribute of many Australians. “One of Australia’s abiding national characteristics is the inability of the States and Territories to agree on almost anything […]. This territorial independence and diversity is not, paradoxically, recognised in Australian speech.”
Despite the general consensus that the Australian accent is homogeneous, there always remain certain linguists who beg to differ. In her 1985 study, Pauline Bryant claims that there are, indeed, clearly defined regions of linguistics variation throughout the country, although they do not coincide with political borders as other had previously asserted. Bryant’s found linguistic zones are South-West, South-Centre, South-East, and North-East Australia. However, for most observers, evidence of variation from one of those zones to the next is extremely difficult to discover. For example, many believe that the pronunciation of “school” in South Australia has an exclusive sound, but in reality it follows that of the other regions of the country. Even Bryant acknowledges that most regional differences are synonymy. One state might refer to what another calls a pillowcase as a slip. As a note in the Macquarie Dictionary testifies, although there is only a single Australian dialect, AE does have several speech varieties. Most often, linguists define these speech varieties as Cultivated Australian, which is closest to Educated Southern English, General Australian, and Broad Australian. One study in 1965 estimated that the percentages of the population in the speech varieties were 11 percent, 55 percent, and 34 percent, respectively. One division that is more easily observed is that between rural and urban Australia. In general, the speech of rural areas and small towns falls further on the spectrum toward Broad Australian than does that of heavily populated urban areas.
One school of thought maintains that gender is a field in which linguistic variations occur. Anne Pauwels, in a study of this topic, discovered that female speakers were more or less evenly distributed across the three abovementioned speech varieties, whereas male speakers were almost all within either the General or Broad Australian categories. She also found that the women in the study used the prestigious or standard variants more often than men where phonological and grammatical changes had developed in the language. There even exist dictionaries of female Australian slang, such as Lily on the Dustbin. Feminists occasionally cite linguistic studies to demonstrate a social issue, such as oppression of women. For example, some have said that women tend to use the standard language forms, as opposed to modified ones, as a way of acquiring a social status of which they have been deprived due to less education, income, and other factors. However, Pauwels and most other linguists refute such subjective analyses. In fact, most observations in the field of gender-related linguistic variations in AE tend to be highly subjective, and are later refuted by other linguists. In brief, although certain linguists insist otherwise, most contend that gender is not a particularly defining factor of linguistic variations in AE.
While strictly linguistic elements of a dialect like AE are important, also extremely important are the sociolinguistic elements, for these bring true significance to the dialect and its role in society. One interesting social aspect of AE is the attitudes and prejudices that have plagued the dialect since is birth. Just as Australia’s history was tainted by its convict birthstain, so was its English. Early AE was often referred to as “colonial speech” or “colonial parlance,” insinuating that the language and lives of those living in the settlement were inferior to the more distinguished way of life in the mother country. Almost two centuries later, in a mid-twentieth century study, general impressions of AE were that the dialect is “ugly, lazy and slovenly, nasal, drawling, not clear, Cockney, monotonous and flat, and marred by lip-laziness.” One linguist points out that this lack of prestige haunts AE throughout the world. Abroad, AE brings to mind the least distinguished British dialects, as well as inebriated barbarians. Some may toss aside such opinions as insignificant. Why should they matter if they are not even true? However, such prejudices can and do affect Australian society. For instance, the speaker of AE tends to be able to fluctuate between all three speech varieties. In a formal situation, to avoid culture cringe and identifying himself with one of the abovementioned stereotypes, the Australian might “upgrade” to the cultivated category; but in a relaxed and friendly environment, he might “downgrade” to broad AE. This tendency proves that there exists among AE speakers a certain sociolinguistic consciousness. They recognize that the manner in which they speak affects their social role, and vice versa.
AE is a major component of the national identity of Australia. A national language coincides well with the country’s desire for individuality. Linguist George W. Turner explains the need for a distinct Australian form of English:
Australians do not look for a ruling class of authorities to prescribe for them; it is not our way, either in language or in politics. In fact, the two are deeply linked, and full access to the language which controls the communication of decisions and the process of making decisions in all other activities, political, cultural, economic, and scientific, could be called a democratic right.
On a global scale, Australia is a relatively young nation. Therefore, the struggle to establish a national identity is still sometimes present. For instance, like many other nations, Australia has felt the pressure of Americanization. Fast-food chains, clothing brands, automobiles, and numerous other American imports appear everywhere. Practically any news report or publication at least mentions the current events in the United States; in fact, sometimes, entire show schedules are devoted to the topic. This overwhelming influence from the other side of the world also manifests itself in language. In a column for City Weekly, Phillip Adams sardonically criticizes the enormous amount of American culture that has made its way into Australia, including language. For instance, virtually every neologism from the White House surfaces soon afterwards in Australia’s Parliament House.
Today’s Australian culture has undoubtedly evolved from that in which AE had its roots. Australia has proven to be a force that contributes greatly to education, science, art, economy, and countless other spheres of world culture. As a result, AE has established its place in society as a reflection of the ideas and values of the Australian people. Donald Horne explains:
Since language is one of the ways we find reality, all these activities determine for us much of the shape of existence. […The Macquarie Dictionary] must tell us what words mean now, whether we like it or not. And a dictionary of Australian English must tell us what words mean now, in Australia. […] A dictionary’s job is to record that series of choices so that, if we use a dictionary, we can understand ourselves, and each other, and some of what it means to be Australian.
Thus, the 1987 birth of the national language of Australia, could be considered the overdue official establishment of a culture. Since that establishment, Australians have maintained pride in their lifestyles and the way in which their language reflects them. For instance, in a country known for casual, friendly people, it is much more common to hear informal speech. A cab driver might say, “No worries, love!” to a customer; an employer might end a business meeting with, “See ya later.” In the United States, Canada, or other English-speaking nations, these remarks might be considered inappropriate because of their lack of formality, whereas in Australia they are perfectly acceptable because they simply follow a tradition of affability. Sociolinguistics creates a link between society and its language; as seen by AE and every other dialect around the world, a reciprocated influence exists between the two. Only through detailed analysis of language is one able to truly gain understanding of a culture. For instance, on one hand, language can exacerbate unwarranted stereotypes; on the other hand, it can lead to a strong sense of national identity. Therefore, just as laws or governments do, language has a great deal of social power. The link between society and language must be understood in order to comprehend a culture’s role in the world.
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