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Australian English

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Australian English is the form of the English language used in Australia.


Differences with other variations of English

Australian English is similar in many respects to British English but it also borrows from American English. (For example, it uses truck instead of lorry, and freeway is the most common word for a high-speed road, though motorway and highway are acceptable.) It is most similar to New Zealand English, although the difference is immediately obvious to a speaker from either country.

There are also influences from Hiberno-English, as many Australians are of Irish descent. Most noticeable is the non-standard pronunciation of the letter 'h' as /heItS/ - although this is by no means universal - rather than the unaspirated /eItS/ found in New Zealand, as well as most of Britain and North America. This is attributed to Irish Catholic brothers and nuns teaching in schools. Others include the non-standard plural of 'you' as 'youse', /ju:z/ (although this is not particularly common), and the expression 'good on you', although these are also encountered in New Zealand English.

Many Americans struggle to distinguish an Australian English speaker from a New Zealand English speaker, or even a British speaker (just as Canadian and other North American English speakers are often indistinguishable to Australasian ears and are only identified as American).

Due to the predominance of foreign mass media products in the country, Australians are familiar with at least some of the variants of modern British English and American English, and many have adopted some of the distinctive vocabulary and idioms of those languages. The exposure to the different spellings of British and American English leads to a certain amount of spelling confusion, for instance "organize" as opposed to "organise", or "behavior" as opposed to "behaviour". Generally, either variant is accepted (though British spelling is more prevalent).

In 1981 the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English was published after 10 years of research and planning. Editions have been published ever since. There is also an Oxford dictionary of Australian English.

Unique Australian traits

Australian English also incorporates several uniquely Australian terms, such as outback to refer to remote regional areas, walkabout to refer to a long journey of uncertain length and bush to refer to native forested areas, but also to regional areas as well. Fair dinkum can mean are you telling me the truth?, or this is the truth!, or even this is ridiculous! depending on context. The disputed origin (see [1] ) dates back to the gold rush in the 1850s, "din-kum" being derived from the Cantonese for "real gold": "fair dinkum" is the genuine article. G'day is well known as a stereotypical Australian greeting.("G'day" is not quite synonymous with "good day", and is never used as an expression for "farewell".) Many of these terms have been adopted into British English via popular culture and family links.

Some elements of Aboriginal languages have been incorporated into Australian English, mainly as names for places, flora and fauna (e.g. Dingo, kangaroo). Beyond that, very few terms have been adopted into the wider language. A notable exception is Cooee (a musical call which travels long distances in the bush and is used to say 'is there anyone there?'), which can also be used as a term for an audible range of distance ("If he's within cooee of here we'll spot him"). Though often thought of as an Aboriginal word, Didgeridoo/Didjeridu (a well known wooden musical instrument) is actually an onomatopoeic term coined by an English settler.

Australian English has a unique set of diminutives formed by adding -o or -ie to the ends of (often abbreviated words). There does not appear to be any particular pattern to which of these suffixes is used. Examples with the -o ending include abo (aborigine - now considered very offensive), arvo (afternoon), servo (service station), rego (annual motor vehicle registration) and ambo (ambulance officer). The Salvation Army is often referred to as "The Salvos". Examples of the -ie ending include barbie (barbecue), bikkie (biscuit) and blowie (blowfly). Occasionally, a -za diminutive is used, usually for personal names where the first of multiple syllables ends in an "r". Barry becomes Bazza, Karen becomes Kazza and Sharon becomes Shazza.

Many Australians start sentences with "Look,...", especially in response to a question. This word doesn't really serve any purpose except as a phatic or a stand in for "umm" or "err" common in e.g. British English.

Rhyming slang

A very common feature of traditional Australian English was rhyming slang, based on Cockney rhyming slang and imported by migrants from London in the 19th century. Rhyming slang consists of taking a phrase, usually of two words, which rhymes with a commonly used word, then using the first word of the phrase the represent the word. For example "Captain Cook" rhymes with "look", so to "have a captain cook," or to "have a captain," means to "have a look." Rhyming slang was often used to create euphemistic terms for obscene words. In recent years this feature of Australian English has declined under the impact of mass popular culture.

Some of the more colourful examples:

  • Chunder (from a cartoon character in The Bulletin called Chunder Loo): spew (in the sense of vomit)
  • Comic cuts: nuts (as in testicles)
  • A dropkick (from "dropkick punt", a term from Australian Rules football): a cunt (once a very insulting term, but since the derivation has been forgotten, "dropkick" now usually just means a stupid person).
  • A Richard (from Richard the Third): a turd
  • Septic or seppo (from septic tank): a Yank. A derogatory term for an American. This was common slang during World War II, particularly in the Australian Army. The term implies that Americans are "full of shit".
  • A snakes (from snake's hiss): a piss, as in "I'm busting for a snakes". Such slang can and often is further abstracted "I have to see a man about a snake" meaning "I'm going to take a piss".

Phonetics of Australian English

The "cultivated" and "general" accents use 24 consonants, 11 vowels, 8 diphthongs and the schwa. (The "broad" accents employ a myriad of different vowels and diphthongs). Australian English is a non-rhotic language; 'r' is pronounced only before a vowel, otherwise replaced with a schwa. IPA symbols of the sounds are as follows (with SAMPA symbols between square brackets):


plosives/stops: p [p], b [b], t [t], d [d], k [k], g [g]
fricatives: f [f], v [v], θ (theta) [T], ð (eth) [D], s [s], z [z], ʃ (esh) [S], ʒ (ezh) [Z], h [h]
affricates: tʃ (tee-esh) [tS], dʒ (dee-ezh) [dZ]
nasals: m [m], n [n], ŋ (eng) [N]
semivowels: j [j], w [w]
liquids: l [l], ɹ [r]


short vowels: ɪ (small cap i) [I], ɛ (epsilon) [E], æ (ae ligature) [{], ɒ (reversed script a) [Q], ʌ (inverted v) [V], ʊ (upsilon) [U]
long vowels: i [i], ɑ (script a) [A], ɔ (reversed c) [O], u [u], ɜ (reversed epsilon) [3]
special status: ə (schwa) [@]

The symbols /a/, /e/ and /o/ are also used, but only in diphthongs.


 aɪ [aI], eɪ [eI], ɔɪ [OI], aʊ [aU], oʊ [oU], ɪə [[email protected]], ɛə [[email protected]], ʊə [[email protected]]

Note: Schwa /ə/ is the only short vowel that appears at the end of a word


There are many allophones in Australian English. Here are some examples:

  • "Noeline's notes"
/oU/ -> [OU], [@U] (SAMPA)
/oʊ/ -> [ɔʊ], [əʊ] (IPA)
  • "I can open the can"
/{/ -> [{] or [@], [{:] (SAMPA)
/æ/ -> [æ] or [ə], [æ:] (IPA)

Other Phonetic Qualities

Varieties of Australian English (particularly Broad) are rife with elision and assimiliation . Often entire sentences are contracted into a single drawling word. "How are you travelling?" can be truncated to "Ayatravlin?". For this reason, Broad Australian can be difficult to decipher to non-Australians.

This truncated language is sometimes referred to as "Strine", a self-referential truncation of "Australian" made popular in the 1965 book "Let Stalk Strine" (i.e. "Let's Talk Australian").


  • Anglo-Celtic - Australian of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish descent
  • Asian - usually East Asian rather than South Asian
  • banana bender - Queenslander
  • bastard - "the great Australian endearment" (e.g. Come and have a drink with me, ya bastard!), but can also be used as an insult; interpreted according to context.
  • bloke - generic term for a man (also common in British English)
  • bludge - waste time either doing nothing or something else.
  • bloody - "the great Australian adjective" (e.g. The price of beer nowadays is bloody outrageous!)
  • bushwalking - nature hiking
  • bushranger - highwayman
  • carn - Assimilation of 'Come on'. Usually used to either goad someone "Carn, have another" or to cheer on a sporting team "Carn the 'Doggies!"
  • chook - chicken, also used in New Zealand
  • Clayton's - not the real thing, ersatz (from a brand of zero alcohol mixer)
  • dob - to tell on; dibber dobber is commonly used by children.
  • dole bludger - workshy person living on welfare
  • crow eater - South Australia (possibly from the piping shrike , the crow-like faunal emblem of that state, and found on South Australian registration plates)
  • footy - football, Rugby League in New South Wales or Queensland, Australian Rules in other states, but not soccer
  • mate - friend. A term that is used affectionately to address friends and acquantances ("How's it going, mate?"), to address strangers ("Excuse me, mate..."). Also used as a noun ("He is a good mate"). Sometimes deliberately used as an obscenity (hostile overfamiliarity) directed towards a hostile or indifferent stranger. The term is also common in British English in all these respects.
  • New Australian - 1950s term for immigrant, usually from continental Europe, becoming obsolete
  • Pom- (also pommy) mildly derogatory word for English person. The origin of this term is somewhat obscure, and many erroneous theories abound. The Macquarie Dictionary (which published the first ever dictionary of Australian English in 1981) states that it is a contraction of pomegranate, rhyming slang for immigrant ("imme-granate"). (see also fake etymology)
  • poofter or poof - homosexual man (Offensive) (also common in British English)
  • Premier - elected head of a state government
  • rort - scam
  • sandgroper - Western Australian
  • smoko - a short break from work (even though smoking is banned in most inside workplaces)
  • 'tothersider (obs.), Eastern Stater - someone from eastern Australia (used by Western Australians)
  • tall poppy - someone who (through hard work, natural ability, or simply luck) rises above the average, and so attracts the resentment of others.
  • ugg-boot - sheepskin boot. This word has been trademarked by Deckers Outdoors Corporation in some countries, however, it has always been regarded as a generic word in Australian English.
  • wag or wagging - to skip school or work to do something else on someone else's time.
  • wog - derogatory (partially reclaimed) term for Italian, Greek or other southern European.

Many distinctive Australian words have been driven into extinction or near extinction in recent decades, under the homogenising influence of mass media and imported culture. This process is widely regretted but seems to be irreversible.

Some examples:

  • bonzer - really good (almost extinct)
  • chunder - to vomit (ridiculed to death by Barry Humphries, now replaced by "puke/puked/puking")
  • cobber - friend, mate (almost extinct)
  • digger - originally used to denote an ex-soldier, particularly for First World War ANZAC veterans (all such soldiers have passed away). Now used widely in military circles to denote an enlisted soldier without rank.
  • drongo - an idiot, from the name of a very slow racehorse (survives, but in decline)
  • dinkum - genuine (still used but in decline), used as "fair dinkum"; dinky-di also means genuine, usually to do with Australia
  • galah - a fool (survives, but in decline), from the bird
  • sheila - young woman (driven out by the American English "chick")
  • struth! - expression of shock or dismay (replaced by stronger expletives such as "fuck!" or "shit!"). Possibly of Shakespearean origin, "God's Truth"

Spoken Australian English

According to stereotype, spoken Australian English is thought to be highly colloquial, possibly more so than other spoken variants. Various publishers have produced "phrase books" to assist visitors. These phrasebooks reflect a highly exaggerated and outdated style of Australian colloquialisms and they should partially be regarded as amusements rather than accurate usage guides. Perception has it that a common trait is the frequent use of long-winded similes, such as "Slow as a wet weekend", "Built like a brick shit-house", "mad as a cut snake" or "flat out like a lizard drinking". Whether this perception is based in reality or has been produced by popular culture items of fiction such as television series Neighbours and the films of Paul Hogan remains in question.

A substantial collection of unique or unusual words is in common spoken usage, e.g. "dacks" (trousers, Most likely derived from the London clothier DAKS founded in 1894), "dag" (unfashionable person), "bludge" (to shirk or to idle), "ute" (a utility vehicle or pickup truck). Another well-known Australianism, "wowser" (a killjoy), is not as popular as it once was, but is still used. An even larger vocabulary is derived from recognisable words with entirely new meanings - "to bag" (to criticise), "blue" (either a fight or heated argument, or an embarrassing mistake), "crook" (unwell, also unfair), "to wag" (to play truant), "cactus" (non-functional), "cut" (angry or upset) and especially "root" (a euphemism for sexual intercourse, which has caused social embarrassment for American women who innocently declare that they "root" for a particular sports team). Also, the term Australians use for "fanny pack" is "bum bag" since in Australia fanny is a slang term for a vagina.

Spoken Australian English is also generally far more tolerant of expletives than other variants: the former Prime Minister Paul Keating would openly refer to his parliamentary opponents as "mangy maggot pissants". This has been theorised to be due to the phenomenon known as tall poppy syndrome, itself an Australian English term.

Australians are known for their directness or "why call a spade a spade, when you can call it a bloody shovel!", which can lead to misunderstanding and offence on the part of Australia's Asian neighbours. Another notable trait of Australian English usage, inherited from Britain, is the use of deadpan humour , in which the joker will make an outrageous or ridiculous statement without explicitly indicating they are joking. Americans visiting Australia have gained themselves a reputation for gullibility and a lack of a sense of humour by not recognising that tales of kangaroos hopping across the Sydney Harbour Bridge are examples of this propensity. See Drop Bear.

Myths about Australian English

Negative evaluations of Australian English, like those of many other English dialects, tend to centre on the belief, or come from the perspective that other forms of English (especially Received Pronunciation British English) are superior for some reason. These evaluations of Australian English are simple value judgments and essentially meaningless.

Australian English is sometimes described as high-pitched, nasal, lazy, or drawling. The charges of high pitch and nasality are not entirely true, as many Australian English speakers perceive much of American English to be nasal; while laziness and drawling are impossible to test objectively. If anything, the tendency for Australians to turn pure vowels into diphthongs requires more work from the speech organs.

Similarly, the ridiculing of the Australian accent in Britain for its supposed 'questioning intonation' (known in linguistics as high rising terminal) is not entirely justified. Many Australians' speech patterns do not conform to this stereotype, and the 'questioning intonation' is often found in many regional speech patterns in the south of England, Northern Ireland, and in some American ones.

Talking about food

With foodstuffs Australian English tends to be more closely related to the British vocabulary, eg. biscuit for the American cookie. However in a few cases such as zucchini, snow pea and eggplant Australian English uses the same terms as the Americans, whereas the British use the equivalent French terms courgette, mangetout and do not care whether eggplant or aubergine is used. This is possibly due to a fashion that emerged in mid-19th Century Britain of adopting French nouns for foodstuffs, and hence the usage changed in Britain while the original terms were preserved in the (ex-)colonies. For some uncertain reason, Australia uses the botanical name capsicum for what both the British and the Americans would call (red or green) peppers. Perhaps this is in order to contrast table pepper (berries of genus Piper) from so-called "hot peppers" (larger fruits of genus Capsicum).

Regional variation

It is sometimes claimed that regional variations in pronunciation and accent exist, but if present at all they are very small compared to those of British and American English - sufficiently so that linguists are divided on the question. Overall, pronunciation is determined less by region than by social and educational influences.

However, there used to be a significant regional variation in Australian English vocabulary between different states. For example, Queenslanders say "port" (short for "portmanteau") while New South Welshmen and Victorians say "school bag", "backpack" or "knapsack". "Football" refers to the most popular code in the state. Victorians start a game of Australian rules football with a "ball up", Western Australians with a "bounce down"; New South Welshmen and Queenslanders start a game of Rugby League with a "kick off".

Another example is the word used for what is a fairly bland, thick, german sausage, usually eaten cold, which is a common filling (sliced with tomato sauce) in a sandwich. In South Australia it is Fritz, in Victoria it is Stras (Strasburg), in New South Wales it is Devon, in Western Australia Polony, in Queensland Windsor and in Tasmania, Belgium.

The steadily increasing effect of centralised film, TV and even radio production, however, is rapidly blurring these distinctions.

Regional Phonetic Variation

Studies have shown that there are limited regional variations in Australian English. This chart shows the percentage of speakers from different capital cities who pronounce words in a certain way, concentrating on the usage of /æ/ vs. /a/. This is probably the most significant regional phonetic variation in Australian English.

  Hobart Melbourne Brisbane Sydney Adelaide
graph græf (100%) græf (70%) graf (56%) graf (70%) graf (86%)
chance tSæns (100%) tSans (60%) tSæns (75%) tSans (80%) tSans (86%)
demand dəmænd (90%) dəmand (78%) dəmand (78%) dəmand (90%) dəmand (100%)
dance dæns (90%) dæns (65%) dæns (89%) dæns (60%) dans (86%)
castle kasl (60%) kæsl (70%) kæsl (67%) kasl (100%) kasl (86%)
grasp grasp (90%) grasp (89%) grasp (89%) grasp (95%) grasp (100%)
contrast kəntrast (100%) kəntrast (100%) kəntrast (100%) kəntrast (100%) kəntrast (71%)

Source: David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge UP, 1995

See also: Distinguishing accents in English - Australia for accent description.

External links

Last updated: 12-17-2004 01:52:10