what is the origin of the general australian accent (3)

What Is The Origin Of The General Australian Accent?

People of different ages have different accents, and this is because change constantly occurs in the language. This is because the accent of a community changes alongside social and political change. The sounds of speech make up an automated and constantly in flux system. Change can be external (social/political) or internal (linguistic/phonetic). Changes usually enter a dialect through the speech of teenagers or pre-teens who desire to express their identity independent of the previous generation.

Timeline Of Accent Change

This timeline shows key events in Australian history which have influenced how our accent has changed since colonisation.

History - A New Dialect Of English

Australian English is a relatively new dialect of English and is over 200 years old. Australian English can be described as a new dialect that developed due to contact between people who spoke different, mutually intelligible varieties of English. The children would have first spoken the very early form of Australian English of the colonists born into the early colony in Sydney. This first peer group would have spoken in similar ways to help bind the peer group and express their group membership. This very first generation of children created a new dialect that became the nation's language.

The children in the new colony would have been exposed to a wide range of dialects from all over England but mainly the southeast, particularly from London. They would have created the new dialect from elements present in the speech they heard around them in response to their need to express peer solidarity. Even when new settlers arrived, this new dialect of the children would have been strong enough to deflect the influence of new children.

There is evidence from early written sources that a new and distinct dialect was present in the colony by the 1830s.

  • Early Australian English
    • Although we can't know exactly what early Australian English sounded like, we can make some educated guesses based on audio recordings of people born in the 19th century, from written sources, and historical records of the dialect mix present in the colony.
  • Broadness
    • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the "proto" SAusE differentiated into a continuum of broadness based primarily on the realisation of the diphthongs. Accents varied, ranging from the most local type (Broad Australian) to a more British sounding type (Cultivated Australian). An intermediate category, General Australian, was the most common type.
    • Speakers were assigned to the Broadness categories mainly according to their pronunciation of six main vowels. These are the vowel sounds in words "beat, boot, say, so, high, how".
    • Over the past 40 years, Australian English speakers have gradually moved towards the centre of this broadness continuum. The majority of younger speakers today use a General type of Australian English.
    • The move away from the Cultivated type is probably related to a shift in linguistic affiliation from a British external standard to an Australian internal standard of English. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Australian English became increasingly accepted as the standard form of English used in this country. This acceptance was paralleled by Australian independence in a global marketplace.

Story Behind 'australian English'

Tracing the changes in Australian English from the First Fleet to the present day is about exploring the nation's story, author Kel Richards says. The English language arrived in Australia a little more than 200 years ago, and since that time, it has been levelled, sculpted and adapted to give Australians a specific dialect. So when you trace the story of Australian English from 1788 to the present day, you find yourself tracing the story of the whole nation.

Beyond the influences and movements that shaped our use and understanding of English, Richards said we first needed to consider our concept of language. They now say there is no such thing as English. The English language doesn't exist. There are only Englishes, only dialects. We have our dialects, and as it happens, quite by coincidence, it is the best, most colourful, most inventive English dialect on the planet. Richards has studied and interpreted the language's history and documented it in his new book, The Story of Australian English.

The Beginnings Of The Australian Accent

According to Richards, the beginning of our Australian accent emerged following the arrival of European settlers in 1788. It emerged from a levelling process because you had all these people who came here on 11 ships from different dialect areas and regional dialect areas across England. They all spoke differently, and they used different words and what they had to do to communicate with each other was to level their dialect variations down.

Around 50 years after the colony was established, Richards said English people arriving in Australia started to claim that Australians spoke the "purest English on earth". This discovery period of speaking and other words for things brought an acute awareness of the language and sound.

What our accent is, is English with the dialect variations taken out. We now think of it as being our dialect, and it is, but that's what happened in those early [days]. It happened fast. Language' ambushed' by elocution movements, bout 100 years on from the First Fleet, Richards said the arrival of the elocution movement in the 1880s and 1890s "ambushed" our language and changed it for good.

FAQs About The Origin Of The Australian Accent

From whether love, at first sight, exists to what the point of table manners is, Explain That answers some of our age-old burning questions. And after a long fascination with accents, a senior culture writer has delved into what is behind the Australian accent and some of the biggest misconceptions about it.

Many people think Australian English is Cockney when the London, or East End of London, the accent is just one of the components. In an early settlement, people came from all over the UK and the British Isles - Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Midlands - and in the 1780s, they would have had enormous difficulty understanding each other.

Britain was not very mobile, and people would grow up and live and work in the same place. They spoke regional dialects and had their pronunciations, so someone from Cornwall would have had enormous difficulty understanding someone from Newcastle or the East End of London. During the early years of settlement, they had to adjust to understand each other, modify local expressions, and accommodate each other's way of speaking.

For that first wave of settlers and convicts, their kids made more of that accommodation, and by the third generation, you've got kids who are all sounding pretty much the same. This is what linguists call 'levelling'. Around the 1820s, we have emerged something like an Australian-English accent. It probably would have been more English than our accent now, but it has continued to evolve.

There is only one type of Australian accent, or the idea the Australian accent is more 'ocker' is becoming increasingly uncommon. What constitutes an Australian accent is far broader than we might have previously understood.

There is more than one Australian accent, and it could be the Indigenous Australian accent or the ethnic Australian accent you hear in Sydney's western suburbs. However, the accent is far broader than typically thought to be the case.

There are a whole bunch of things. The accent uses a lot of vowel sounds, probably the largest number of vowel sounds in any version of English around the world. There's also that duration in the Australian accent where we drag them out at the end of the word. So, for example, a cry might sound like a 'cry', and a boy might sound like a 'boyyy'. That's pretty unique to Australian English.

We also have a non-rhotic articulation —where the letter R is not pronounced unless a vowel follows it — so we don't pronounce the R's in the way they do in Scottish or American English. We often drop the R at the end of a word like the car. That's a marker of Australian English.

The Australian accent also has very pronounced T's at the beginning of words but then a flapping T in the middle of a word, so cattle sounds like 'caddle'. While many of these markers are not individually unique to Australian English, they are still distinctive of Australian English.

We think it's just a cultural thing where we tend to shorten or lengthen things for semi-comical purposes. It is a marker of the informality of the Australian accent.

You certainly know the difference when you hear them. Most Australians who live in the major urban centres tend to speak the general Australian English accent, which has all those markers such as softened middle T's and softened pronunciation of the R at the end of the word.

If you then go to what's known as the broad accent, there are much longer vowel sounds. This is what we think of as the stereotypical regional accent.

It is always evolving, and it will continue to evolve. It's a living thing, responding to the environment and inputs. It is increasingly ingesting the speech and patterns of English speakers from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa. Those patterns of speech will have and already have had an impact. The western Sydney accent is probably the most dynamic and a perfect melting pot of influences in some ways.

Other Explanation:

'There is no such thing as Australian grammar or Australian spelling. So why should there be any distinctive Australian speech? It is sad to reflect that other people can recognise Australians by their speech.'

So began Mr S. H. Smith's opening address at the 1926 annual Teachers' Conference in Sydney. This attitude prevailed until Alexander Mitchell took up the cause in 1940, working to reshape the public opinion of Australian English through a series of lectures and papers on the subject. He put forward the notion of 'educated' and 'broad' varieties, which has now been expanded to the concept of a continuum ranging from the thickest 'strine' as the 'lowest' of the sociolects, through general Australian English to cultivated Australian English. However, it wasn't until Mitchell that research on Australian English began—because until then, people refused even to acknowledge its existence. In the following 70 years, among other things, people sought to explain the general homogeneity of the Australian accent (almost no variation in a country 30 times the size of Britain!), what comprised Australian English (is it more than just the accent?), and its influences—from colonial times to present day. This post will discuss some accepted history that led to the homogenised accent, some more recent ideas on other influences, and some interesting elements.

The Colonial Days

In late January 1788, 11 ships carrying 717 convicts and nearly 300 officials arrived in Botany Bay (According to David Crystal; however, Mollie Gillen put the total number at 1332, though this includes marines and their families; Wikipedia contends 1487). The journey was unpleasant for all involved, particularly the convicts—at least 40 died on the 250-odd days it took to reach Australia. Conditions upon arrival were not much better, with the colony nearly starving in the first few years. By 1838, approximately 130,000 convicts had been sent to Australia. With free settlers flooding in, the convict/free settler ratio fell from 42.7% to 29.6% between 1831 and 1840. These free settlers, along with emancipated convicts, set themselves up as farmers on land either granted by the Crown or squatted on unclaimed land—this movement away from the urban areas led to the establishment of 36 settlements of more than 100 people by 1846.

While these numbers are impressive, what do they mean? Who were these people? Both convicts and settlers were British, predominantly Londoners. However, of these convict 'Londoners', only 17% were London born. The remaining numbers were made up from various British counties, with Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire comprising nearly 15%. The Irish constituted 23% of all male convicts transported between 1788 and 48% of assisted migrants from 1829 to 1851. To some extent, these regional dialects would have been mixing and becoming tempered in London, and indeed in prison and on the journey, before these settlers even arrived in Australia.

what is the origin of the general australian accent (2)

Data from this time is patchy (as the First Fleet numbers discrepancy demonstrates), making it difficult to draw lines of cause and effect. However, while different conditions (such as the make-up of a population) and geographic isolation may have, in the early years, created slightly different English variants—these were effectively smoothed over by certain key events; the:

These events drew tens of thousands of people from around Australia (and as far away as America), mixing and levelling the Australian English accent further, to the extent that one of the few markers of locality is whether people use /æ/ or/a:/ in words like castle and graph (Adelaide, settled primarily by 'middle or higher socioeconomic status' people has the highest incidence of the long /a:/; Brisbane, the lowest).

Irish Influences

Much is made of the influence of Irish English on Australian English (or lack of it); however, at around 1800, out of an Irish population of five million, two million could not speak English at all. Irish convicts, themselves new to English, may have brought words from Irish into Australian English. Dymphna Lonergan suggests sheila—a word meaning 'female', unique to Australia—derives from the Irish Síle (pronounced the same), meaning 'homosexual, or effeminate male'. She also suggests the Irish word bromaigh (meaning 'young horses' and pronounced 'Brummy') as the origin of the Australian brumby. Other claims include chook (from tic, a homophone meaning 'come', used when calling chickens in to feed), and cack, as in 'I cacked my pants' (from CAC, with the predictable definition of 'defecate'). Besides these lexical influences, Bradley cites possible phonological and morphological influences, including turning /I/ into schwa in unstressed positions (e.g. the final syllable in 'naked') and pronouncing the letter h (aitch) as 'haitch'. Also, the plural second-person pronoun youse is common in Irish English and cited by many. I read this with conflicting emotion—I am of Irish descent but tend to develop a slight tic when I hear 'youse' or 'haitch'. Influences on syntax include the use of the generic the, as in 'he likes the drink' and the adverbial but (meaning 'though'), as in 'nice try, but.

Aboriginal Influences

what is the origin of the general australian accent (1)

The most apparent Aboriginal influence in Australian English is its enrichment of the lexicon. In particular, the plethora of place names of Aboriginal origin. As David Crystal points out, you need to look at a map—they are unmistakable. These names contrast markedly with those of British origin—in Brisbane alone, names such as Indooroopilly and Woolloongabba create havoc for those trying to enter a spelling into a GPS (and me … I missed an L on the first attempt at Woolloongabba, just then). There are also the obvious ones—animal and plant names (koala, dingo, coolabah, etc.). Yabber (to talk incessantly) and kylie (a type of boomerang—and popular girls' name) are Aboriginal words. Speaking of Kylie, Kylie Minogue, at the start of her singing career, was given the epithet 'the Singing Budgie' by detractors (Times Online), a derivative of budgerigar (type of parrot), another Aboriginal word. Finally, one last tenuously connected point is that we wouldn't have the euphemistic term budgie smugglers (men's Speedo-style swimmers) without budgerigar.


In The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language, Crystal discusses the 'Great Australian Adjective', bloody, stating that it lost its pejorative sense in Australia around the 1940s, when it was still quite taboo in England. He paraphrases Charles Darwin, who visited Australia in 1835 and commented that convict servants exposing children to 'the vilest expressions' was one of the 'serious drawbacks' of life in Australia. Crystal implies that the large convict base, made up of those of low socioeconomic status, swore a lot and hence desensitised Australians to this kind of language. I would go further and suggest, more than colouring our language (apologies for the pun), convicts' influence has helped shape the Great Australian Irreverence—or 'larrikin culture' if you will—and our preference to champion the underdog.


Little concrete information on the origins of Australian English exists—predominantly because primary sources are not available from before the twentieth century. The sound recording did not exist, and there are no 'printed texts that reproduce or attempt to reproduce non-standard Australian English'. Louis Stone's novel Jonah did not appear until 1911—well after the formative period of Australian English—and the dialogue intended to represent the speech of the working class is affected with Stone's native Leicester dialect. In Taylor's 'Englishes in Sydney around 1850', he analyses non-standard Englishes recorded in newspaper court reports. Still, these seem more like caricature accents contrived and exaggerated for satire. Applying the linguistic analysis to a source is all well and good, but any findings are only as reliable as the transcription of the source. Trying to find Australian English's origins is like judging the size and shape of a thrown stone by the ripples it left in a pond.

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