Foreigners may think all Aussies are supposed to sound like Kath & Kim. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Foreigners may think all Aussies are supposed to sound like Kath & Kim. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Odd fact about Aussie accents

THERE'S more to sounding like an Aussie than abbreviations and friendly c-bombs.

In some circles, saying "afternoon" instead of "arvo" is a cardinal sin. In others you'd be considered lowbrow if you didn't pronounce ev-e-ry sin-gle syll-a-ble, and a rogue "youse" would have you socially ostracised for life (fack 'em!)

We also know different states use different words. Sydneysiders wear "swimmers", Queenslanders wear "togs". East coast residents eat "potato scallops", while Victorians enjoy "potato cakes". Thirsty? Head to your nearest bubbler - or is it a drinking fountain?

It's as if the C-word is the only thing we can all agree on.

But what about the way we actually speak? Why is it that we change the way we speak over time, or don't automatically inherit our parents' accents?

There's more to linguistics than opining on what it means to sound Australian. Experts analyse acoustic characteristics of the sounds using ultrasounds and high-level audio recordings to literally study how people's mouths move as they speak.

Here's what a couple of them had to say.

HOW AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS HAVE CHANGED

You've probably heard of three basic categories of Australian accent: Broad (Steve Irwin), General (Chris Hemsworth) and Cultivated (Cate Blanchett).

But according to linguistic experts, this is an outdated model of looking at the way Aussies speak.

"In the 1960s, it was probably quite accurate to think about the Australian accent as being on a continuum from broad to British-based, like Malcolm Fraser," explained Linguistics Associate Professor Felicity Cox from Macquarie University. "But after the 60s the social or economic advantage of using the British-type form was lost. Australian English came into its own, so that now we have our own internal language standards without having to look outwards across the globe.

"We used to think of Australian English as varying from broad to cultivated or somewhere inbetween, but now there are many other types of Australian English. There are multicultural varieties, and of course many Indigenous varieties of English, so it's much more nuanced," she told news.com.au.

"You just have to travel around Sydney to hear all different kinds of Australian-English varieties."

The way we speak is an expression of who we are - and three neat boxes aren't enough to accommodate that diversity in today's Australia.

"An accent is quite a personal thing - it can carry a lot of subtle information about who we are, and the life we've lived," Dr Rosey Billington, a postgraduate researcher in linguistics at the University of Melbourne, told news.com.au. "A lot of it comes down to the individual level - who we feel we are, in essence, and which groups we want to show we're part of, or not part of, consciously or otherwise."

 

HOW OUR ACCENTS ARE SHAPED

There's all sorts of generalisations about where our speech comes from. Does pronouncing "water" with a strong "T" rather than a "D" suggest your upbringing was more affluent than someone who says "Sundee" and "Mondee"?

Not necessarily. It's less tied to wealth and education, and more to the people you grew up with and the social groups you wanted to fit into.

"Friends play a large part, particularly with children," said associate professor Cox. "As children we use the accents that our friends use and as we move through our childhood and teenage years our accent changes along with the people we spend time with."

Yes, your accent can change as you age - particularly as you move through work and develop new social groups.

"As your friendship groups change, there's the potential for accent variations to emerge," she said. "Once you reach your 20s, your accent doesn't change nearly as much as it did when you were younger."

This explains how two people can grow up in the same neighbourhood - or even be members of the same family - and develop different ways of speaking. "They'd probably have had different friendship groups and aspirations, and maybe now as adults they've moved into different spheres of work, life and location."

Dr Billington noted that people can almost immediately change the way they speak without even realising it. "One really important thing to understand is that no-one has just one way of speaking - people are very good at adjusting the way they speak depending on the social context, the particular people they're speaking to, and the extent to which they do or don't want to fit in with some particular group."

 

ARE WE GUILTY OF 'FAKING' OUR ACCENTS?

We've all been there. You're making small-talk with some holier-than-thou stranger who sounds like Queen Lizzy herself. When you ask where they were born, they trill, "Just in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, ahaha!" For real?

The truth is, most of us don't consciously change how we speak on a day-to-day basis.

"For most people, I don't think it's particularly conscious," said associate professor Cox. "But the way we speak can change depending on who we're talking to. This can be quite an automatic process."

Travel is an exception for this, where one might emphasise their Australian accent as an assertion of identity, or even over-articulate in a country where English is not the native language.

"If you travel overseas, you might find yourself sounding even more Australian if you want to express that part of your identity," said Prof Cox. "Or else, you might take on some of the characteristics of the people that you're speaking with, even if they're not necessarily Australian."

 

WHAT ABOUT CELEBRITIES?

In general, many celebrities who travel overseas retain their native accents - give or take a cringeworthy Madonna interview. But you may have noticed Australian celebrities occasionally tend to sound … not all that Aussie.

Portia de Rossi, for example, has lost her native accent entirely. Singer Sia and 13 Reasons Why actress Katherine Langford have this kind of "halfway" sound - Australian-ish with the occasional drawled-out "R" thrown in. Rebel Wilson and Rose Byrne have retained their Aussie tone, while Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman sound relatively posh.

There are unconfirmed reports of aspiring Australian actors changing their accents to sound more American, solely for the purpose of employment. But Prof Cox notes this would be unlikely nowadays, with the Aussie accent increasingly sought after for roles.

Dr Billington suggested some celebrities may simply be more attached to their Australian identity and accent than others. "The amount of time makes a difference, and so does the people you spend time with - if you've been living in a different country for a long time, and mostly speaking to people who don't share your accent, you may have moved further away from the accent you had before," she said. "But it's very individual."

 

ARE WE ALL A BUNCH OF 'LINGUISTS'?

We all have that mate who cringes when you drop a "youse" into conversation.

But jokes aside - accent snobbery and lingual discrimination in Australia isn't as pronounced as you might think.

"I'd say it used to apply more in the '50s and '60s than it does today," said Prof Cox. "Sixty years ago, you might have expected a barrister, for example, to have a more cultivated type of accent. There was an expectation that people from certain professions would have a more British manner of speaking, and so there was possibly some social and economic advantage to it.

"That's definitely not the case today. It may even be a social disadvantage for Australians who are not British to use the British-based variety today, because it may be considered pretentious."

But because our accent is an expression of our identity, it could be used to justify other forms of discrimination.

"A lot of the time, linguistic discrimination is actually a proxy for discrimination on the basis of some other characteristic," said Dr Billington. "For example, in Australia it is no longer socially acceptable, or legal, to discriminate against people on the basis of things like race or gender.

"However, often you will find that there are particular groups of people who are disproportionately subject to linguistic criticism - these include minority groups, women, and people on lower incomes. When someone criticises the accent or speech style of people who are different to them in some way, it's often a tactic for disparaging them on the basis of something that's not linguistic at all."



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