Australian English in a nutshell

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Posted on 
May 4, 2020
Written by 
Line Lalande (About the author) , Language Portal of Canada

Have you ever heard the expression “She’ll be apples”? What about “tracky daks” or “snags on the barbie”? These are just a few of the fascinating colloquialisms that are used in Oz. From its origins to its accents to other common sayings, here’s the lowdown on Australian English.

Background

The origins of Australian English can be traced back to the first European settlers, who began to arrive from the British Isles in 1788. Many of them were convicts sent to the penal colonies for mainly petty crimes; the rest were officers, marines, administrators, farmers and their families. As the children of these settlers became exposed to dialects from different regions of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a new variety of English was created.

Australian English was also enriched by contact with Australian Aboriginal languages, incorporating the Indigenous names of plants, animals and places (such as “bunya,” “dingo” and “Canberra”) into its vocabulary.

As workers from abroad flocked to Australia in the 1850s in search of gold, the language continued to evolve. Later, by the 20th century, North American words, expressions and usage had crept into Australian English, largely as a result of films and mass media. The language was further influenced by military troops stationed in Australia during World War II, and later, by television and the Internet.

Varieties

There are three varieties of Australian English: cultivated, broad and general. These varieties differ in accent and are sociocultural rather than regional; that is, they often reflect the speaker’s social and educational background.

At one end of the Australian English spectrum is Cultivated Australian, a variety that emerged towards the end of the 19th century in response to a British accent called Received Pronunciation. At the time, Received Pronunciation was associated with high social class and education. Thus, many socially aspiring Australians altered their accents to sound more British. This pronunciation was taught to Australians right up until the 1950s. Now, only about 10% of them speak the cultivated variety.

On the other end of the spectrum is Broad Australian, a variety that developed in the early 20th century, possibly as a reaction against the emphasis on Received Pronunciation. The Broad Australian accent is easily recognizable and somewhat nasal; for example, the words “rate” and “buy” are pronounced “rite” and “boy.” Paul Hogan, of “Crocodile Dundee” fame, is well known for his Broad Australian accent. However, fewer and fewer Australians are sounding like the outlandish reptile poacher these days!

Despite the emergence of the “extreme” cultivated and broad varieties, most Australians still speak General Australian, the accent that evolved between 1788 and 1840. It’s the most common of Australian accents, and it’s widely spoken in urban areas. General Australian English is also the standard language for Australian television and movies.

Pronunciation and vocabulary

In general, Aussies stretch their vowels, don’t pronounce “r” in the middle or at the end of words, and speak with a rising intonation at the end of a sentence. They also tend to shorten words and use endings such as “-o,” “-ie” and “-y” (guess where the word “selfie” comes from …). So if you’re ever in Australia and want to fit in, remember this simple rule: abbreviate, abbreviate, abbreviate! Check out the table below for a sampling of Australian English slang words and their Canadian English equivalents.

Examples of Australian English slang words and their Canadian English equivalents
Australian English Canadian English
arvo afternoon
barbie barbecue
footy football
jumbuck sheep
mozzie mosquito
roo kangaroo
snag sausage
sparky electrician
sunnies sunglasses
tracky daks tracksuit pants

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without some colourful Aussie expressions. Here are some common sayings and their meaning in Canadian English.

Examples of Australian English expressions and their meaning in Canadian English
Australian English Canadian English
chuck a sickie pretend to be sick in order to take the day off work or school
come the raw prawn lie; deceive someone
a fair suck of the sav a fair go at something
flat out like a lizard drinking really busy
give the Aussie salute wave flies away from one’s face
good oil reliable information
have a few roos loose in the top paddock be crazy
she’ll be apples everything will be all right
spit the dummy behave in a bad-tempered and childish way (“Dummy” refers to a pacifier.)

How about you? Do you have any favourite Australian words or sayings? If so, please share them in the comments section! Catch ya later, mate!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Line Lalande

Line Lalande

Line Lalande initially worked in the exciting world of marketing before taking the leap into translation. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, she worked as a translator and an editor for several years. She joined the Portal team in 2009, bringing her strong writing skills and fun personality with her. Although she has moved on, she continues to keep up with the Portal from her home base: retirement! Line enjoys outdoor activities, crossword puzzles, family time and her cats.

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Thanks, Line. Great article! Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament over the years, I picked up a few things that Aussies say. My favourites are "Don't die wondering!" and "to go (on) walkabout." The first expression is not exclusive to Australia, but seems appropriate for their culture. It means "Go for it!" The second means "to go on an unplanned trip" or "to go AWOL" or, in a tennis match, "to lose focus."

Hi, Desmond. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I had fun writing it! Once travel restrictions are eased, I think I'll go walkabout! Thanks.

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