Australian English in the twentieth century

By Professor Bruce Moore

Australian English differs from other Englishes primarily in its accent and vocabulary. The major features of the accent were established by the 1830s. In the period between colonial settlement (1788) and the 1830s, when the foundation accent was being forged, new lexical items to describe the new environment, especially its flora and fauna, were developed either from Aboriginal languages (coolibah, wombat, wallaby, waratah, and so on) or from the ‘transported’ English word stock (native bear, wild cherry, and so on). Many more vocabulary items were later added in response to the nineteenth-century process of settlement and pastoral expansion. All of this seems at once predictable and inevitable—this is the way a colonial society imposes its linguistic footprint on a subjected land.

Pronunciation: cultivated, broad, and general Australian

And then, at the end of the nineteenth century, something curious and largely unpredictable happened to Australian English. In response to a newly-developed concept of Received Pronunciation in Britain, which was closely tied to notions of social prestige, some Australian speakers modified their vowels and diphthongs in order to move them towards the British exemplars. From the 1890s, and well into the 1950s, elocution was in the air, and elocution teachers found a ready market for the teaching of British vowels and diphthongs to the socially-aspirational classes. This modified form of Australian speech came to be called Cultivated Australian.

As if in response against this new British-based Cultivated Australian, a diametrically opposed form of Australian English developed in the first part of the twentieth century. This form moved the Australian vowels and diphthongs even further away from what was now the British standard of pronunciation, and emphasized nasality, flatness of intonation, and the elision of syllables.This second modified form of Australian speech came to be called Broad Australian. While it is true that when non-Australians hear any Australian say ‘mate’ or ‘race’ they are likely to mistake the words for ‘mite’ and ‘rice’, the mishearing is most likely to occur with speakers of Broad Australian.

The majority of Australians continued to speak with the accent that had been established in the first fifty years of settlement, and this form of speech came to be known as General Australian. General Australian was now book-ended by Cultivated Australian and Broad Australian, and these forms of Australian English came to carry with them very different sets of values. Cultivated Australian, for example, came to express a longing for British values and a nostalgia for a country that was still regarded by many as ‘home’. Broad Australian was strongly nationalistic, and carried with it notions of egalitarianism that were antagonistic to a perceived class-obsessed and hierarchical Britain.

All three forms of Australian English included most of the vocabulary items that had developed in the second half of the nineteenth century: billy ‘a cooking utensil’; swag (transferred from the underworld sense of  ‘booty’) as the collection of belongings of a bush traveller, and swagman as their bearer; fossick—perhaps a variant of the midland and southern English fussock (to bustle about)—meaning ‘to search for gold’, and then ‘to rummage around for anything’; the outback and the never-never to describe country far from urban areas; brumby ‘a wild horse’; larrikin ‘an urban hooligan’; and so on.

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The rise of an Australian lexis

In lexis, a number of the most culturally important Australian terms developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, at precisely the time that Australian English was generating its Cultivated and Broad forms. Battler (especially in its present manifestation of little Aussie battler) is one of the most positive words in Australian English, and it usually refers to a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances. Initially, the battler was a person who scrounged a living on the edges of society: an itinerant and irregularly employed rural worker struggling to survive (1898); a person who frequented racecourses in search of a living (1895); a prostitute (1898). Battler eventually divested itself of the associations of the mug punter and the prostitute, but even in its earliest uses there is evidence of strong sympathy and admiration for working-class people who eke out their existence with resilience and courage.

The opposite of the battler is the bludger—one of the most derogatory of Australian words. The bludger is a person who lives off the efforts of others, a cadger and an idler, a person who expects others to do all the work.  The history of this word helps to explain something of the moral condemnation that bludger and its verb to bludge typically carry. Australian bludger is a form of Standard English bludgeoner ‘a person who is armed with and doesn’t hesitate to use a bludgeon, a short stout club’. In Australia the bludger became a pimp who was prepared to protect his financial stake in a prostitute by resorting to the violence of the bludgeon. The salient feature in this, and all later senses, is that the person who is called a bludger is living off the work of another and, from this sense, it is a short step to the use of bludger as a generalized term of abuse.

Dinkum emerges at about the same time. Dinkum is from British dialect, where it meant primarily ‘work; a fair share of work’. The notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum, and it is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was also at this time that the collocation fair go appeared, an important expression of egalitarian principles. The continuing significance of this phrase in Australian society is evidenced by the fact that a recent Federal Government booklet Life in Australia (2007), aimed at new migrants, explains what is meant by a fair go in Australia: ‘Australians value equality of opportunity and what is often called a “fair go”. This means that what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work and effort rather than their birth or favouritism. Australians have a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance and fair play. … The aim is to ensure there are no formal class distinctions in Australian society’. Although dinkum (and its variant fair dinkum) appeared in the 1890s, the evidence indicates that its really widespread use occurred during the First World War.

It was out of the First World War that Anzac (an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and digger (originally a soldier engaged in the digging of trenches, echoing its earlier use for a person digging for gold) emerged in the sense ‘an Australian soldier’. By the end of the war both terms were being used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those who served in the Gallipoli campaign, especially as these virtues were seen as national characteristics. Such terms are part of a rich tradition of Australian colloquialisms that became established in the first half of the twentieth century: bonzer ‘excellent’; Buckley’s chance ‘no chance at all’; cobber ‘mate’; crook ‘dishonest, unpleasant, ill’; dag ‘a character, an entertaining eccentric’ (later ‘an unfashionable person, a nerd’); plonk ‘cheap wine’ (an example of a word of Australian derivation adopted in Britain, and elsewhere, with little awareness of its origin); pom ‘an English person’; rort ‘an act of fraud or sharp practice’; wog ‘a flu-like illness’; wowser ‘a puritanical person, a killjoy’, and so on.

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Australian English and national identity

These Australianisms were very much a part of Broad Australian and General Australian. They were certainly not a part of Cultivated Australian, the prestige form of Australian English in the public domain where, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Australian accent and the colloquial elements of the Australian vocabulary were condemned, with reference to putative and actual British standards. Here was a paradox: the Australian accent and the core words that carried and embodied Australian values (and which were therefore central to notions of nationhood and identity) were judged to be substandard and second-rate.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the weakening ties with Britain (especially as a result of Britain’s joining of the European Economic Community) and the emergence of new forms of nationalism, this situation was gradually reversed. Australian English became ‘naturalized’ in its own country, its accent and vocabulary were accepted as a national norm, and it was celebrated in such works as the Australian National Dictionary of 1988. In the first half of the twentieth century Cultivated Australian had been the socially prestigious accent; by the end of the century its utterance was likely to generate derision and laughter. As a result, Broad Australian, too, has been in decline, as if this extreme form was no longer required now that the imperial elements were dead. General Australian is now to the fore—as it had been before the false dawns of Cultivated and Broad.

Suggested reading

  • Bruce Moore, Speaking our Language. The Story of Australian English (OUP, 2008)