Fossick to Tracky Daks

Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English by Bruce Moore. OUP, 2008, $29.95. 

Film-makers who sprinkle multicultural accents around Australian history gild the lily. Ned’s broad Irish in Kelly films is the characteristic culprit, but graziers, politicians and officials from colonial times and later are typically given posh English accents and anything European is likely to be grasped loudly.

Expert opinion varies over how Ned, whose last utterance was nearly 130 years ago, spoke. Kellyana doyen Ian Jones has opted for the Irish accent, which lingered in the “Kelly country” backblocks, but Bruce Moore, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University, concludes that Ned spoke with the accent of a native son.

Both estimates rely on the memory or folk memory of Kelly kin—who themselves differ. One told Jones that Ned had a “clear, ringing brogue”, but Ned’s younger brother by five years, Jim, who died only in 1946, was remembered as having a broad Australian accent.

Neither seems to allow for the possibility of a slight Irish accent, which has been reported occasionally to have survived into the first Australian-born generation in remote, strongly Irish districts. This phenomenon is more commonly recorded of the German accent in some heavily German rural clusters. Ned’s boyhood was more varied than that, however.

Moore’s estimate is based, as well as on Jim Kelly, on substantial evidence that the Australian accent has been pervasive since early colonial times and that children get their speech from other children, not their parents, much as film-makers would like to think otherwise.

This has been fairly well known for a long time, but Moore’s clincher is a New Zealand study during 1946–48 of 350 people born there between 1850 and 1900. This confirmed a three-step process, still observable in part today. In a new country, immigrants modify their speech when mixing with other English-speakers with a variety of dialects and accents. Their Australian-born children, in earlier colonial times, eliminated many of the variants of their parents’ speech. A new, more stable accent emerged in the second generation born in the colony. Thus, according to Moore, by about 1840 the Australian accent would have been established and spreading rapidly from Sydney around the newer colonies.

And it was not as ungainly as might be thought. In the nineteenth century it was often described as “pure”, meaning it was free of the ubiquitous dialects of British Isles speech. Criticism of it as “nasal”, “drawling” and so on came later. BBC-style “Received Pronunciation” arose among educated Britons only towards the end of the nineteenth century. It brought a drive here for more cultivated speech, but the results were meagre, despite the efforts of educationists and elocution teachers.

There were few Menzies and ABCs. Uptake was limited and instead “Broad Australian” arose about the same time, possibly in reaction to “Cultivated Australian”. The First World War diggers, for example, tended to broaden their speech, perhaps emphasising their Australian identity while abroad. In the 1930s, even at Melbourne’s up-scale Scotch College, boys based their speech on that of the rural boarders, not the cultivation expected.

(Even American radio announcers between the wars were accused of adopting Anglicised accents.)

All this makes the trendy notion of a past Anglicised elite and a staunchly Strine-speaking working class suspect. It is more likely that most have always spoken what Moore calls “Standard Australian”, as they do today. Moore notes that the extremes are now fading and “Standard Australian” is becoming even more common, possibly not so different from that of 150 or more years ago.

Moore’s book is the latest and most comprehensive of many on Australian speech and is packed with information reflecting ANU-backed research over more than twenty years. It tracks the evolution since Captain Cook’s expedition first recorded kangaroo at Cooktown in 1770 through to, for example, barbecue stopper, first noted in 2001.

Moore estimates that there are more than 14,000 distinctive words and expressions in Australian English, about 440 of them of Aboriginal origin. This number excludes the indigenous languages themselves and the thousands of place names. Absorption of indigenous words is less than in New Zealand, probably because Maoris spoke only one language, against about 600 indigenous languages and dialects here.

Not all words that seem to be Aboriginal are. Jumbuck is more likely to be the Aboriginal rendering of “jump up”—sheep jumping up in a tight flock.

It is also disappointing that some words are not as pristinely antipodean as we would like. Billy came from the Scots billycan. Wowser, knockabout and skite are other examples of regional British words that became more mainstream here.

The pattern, says Moore, was for a general Australian English to develop in the early colonial period up to 1850, based on the south-eastern English and Irish speech of most of the early settlers and convicts. As people from Scotland, Cornwall and midland and northern England became more numerous in the population, a nifty process developed between about 1850 and 1910 of selecting, adapting and popularising words from these dialects, which remained regional at home. Larrikin (first recorded in Australia in 1868) meant a “mischievous or frolicsome youth” in Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Nugget, fossick and mullock came from Cornwall with the gold rush. Stoush came from Scotland about 1903; miserable in the sense of stingy, from Britain, also about 1903.

Moore finds little difference in vocabulary across the country, even less in pronunciation. Brook, in the English sense of a small stream, has survived in Western Australia to this day, whereas the rest of Australia uses creek. Port (short for portmanteau) for what Melburnians call a case (as in suitcase) soars in popularity north of Sydney. Tasmania retains a few early nineteenth-century English expressions no longer used at home and South Australia has several words of its own.

While American words have flooded in, the USA has had little impact on the accent. First-generation Australians from clusters of Greek and Lebanese families have a distinctive accent, which disappears in the next generation, in a pattern going back two centuries.

This book necessarily relies on recorded usage, which is often well behind spoken usage. I could remember several words, shown here as first recorded in recent decades, having been spoken much earlier. The written record also cannot pick up the normal variation between well-spoken and less-well-spoken people.

Not only American usage is increasing. The English field has in recent years just about replaced paddock, first recorded in Sydney in 1809 for an enclosed agricultural space. Radio National has pioneered high street for a street shopping strip and it is becoming general. Customary Australian usage, at least for country towns, has been the main street, as distinct from the American Main Street. Almost any multicultural word is likely to be seized on.

There has been some great Australian slang over the years and as some words fade out, others seep in (tracky daks for tracksuit pants, 1993). But the greatest enemy of effective speech is the recent tendency for the various categories of dictionary language, colloquialism, slang, jargon and swearing to meld indistinguishably into a soup. Here, at least, a bit of disunity imparts strength.

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