The Australian Dialect

A Very Special Form of English

Term Paper, 2004

23 Pages, Grade: Good


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. History
2.1 Structure of the early Australian society

3. Development of a ‘new’ English
3.1 Language adoption
3.2 Words from Aboriginal languages

4. Variation in Australian English
4.1 Social background
4.2 The Mitchell and Delbridge survey
4.2.1 The vowel variants

5. Uniformity of AusE

6. Bias against AusE

7. Vocabulary
7.1 Example of Waltzing Matilda
7.2 The need for a National dictionary

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction

When a language is spread all over the world, it naturally is not exactly the same everywhere. The language takes different forms in different places and these forms are distinguishable from each other by certain characteristics. These forms are dialects. In the case of English there are extraordinarily many dialects since the English language is spoken in many countries and functions as the lingua franca of the world. English has achieved global status. It is the language which is most prevalently taught and used as a foreign language in more than a 100 countries. Apart from that, there are several nations which have large numbers of the people speaking English as their mother tongue, i.e. the USA, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Among these, Australia is said to be one of the most monolingual countries. However, this is not the only reason why investigations about Australian English are interesting. Since Australia is a very young nation, the dialect which has developed there, started its way up only 200 years ago. In addition, many linguists have referred to the striking homogeneity of Australian English (AusE). Subjective opinions about this dialect cause great deals of controversy and although this reaction might be observed with many dialects, AusE is in some way predestined for evoking controversial feelings. In this paper I will try to give comprehensible explanations why the Australian dialect is a very special form of English.

2. History

In 1770 the Royal Navy’s seaman James Cook sighted the east coast of Australia and in less than twenty years Britain had established its first penal colony at Sydney. In 1788 the first 750 convicts and a nearly identical number of free British people starting from Plymouth, landed at Botany Bay, Sydney. In order to relieve the pressure on the overcrowded prisons in England, about 160.000 convicts were transported to the ‘new’ continent within the next sixty years after the arrival of the “first fleet”. Australia was “a gaol without walls” (Horvath 1985: 32) and the prisoners served as labour supply for the build-up of the colony. Convicts were also given by the government to wealthy men and landowners for whom they had to work almost as slave-labourers.

2.1 Structure of the early Australian society

It is justifiable to say that there was a trisection of the society at that time, since three major social groups can be identified. There was the so-called ruling elite, which consisted of military officers, mercantile capitalists and large landowners. These people looked down on the “rough, uneducated, vice-ridden mass” (Horvath 1985:34) meaning the prisoners. Most people from this group conceived England as their home and in particular “they looked to London for their supplies, their pleasures, the education of their children...They paid little attention to strictly local or regional affairs” (Horvath 1985:34). Up to the 1830s the children of the ruling elite were either educated by tutors or send to England to ensure an adequate education. After that time elite private schools were established for these children.

The second social group were the convicts. It is assumed that in 1820 three-quarters of the population of New South Wales (NSW) which then included today’s Queensland was made up of convicts and their descendants. These people were seen as outcasts and were regarded as sinful by the elite. Even when they had served their sentence and became then known as ‘emancipists’, it was almost impossible for them to get rid of their stigma of being criminal. Yet their children were considered as holding the alleged bad features of their parents. Among that group, the Irish had a particularly tough act to follow, because they were not only seen as sinful, but in addition as disloyal to the Crown. In sharp contrast to the elite group members, these people did certainly not look to England as home, but regarded themselves as Australians instead. What is also worth remarking about this group is the fact that it was overwhelmingly male. For example, the ratio of single males of fourteen years or more to single females of the same age was 38 to 1 in rural areas in 1841.

The members of the government wanted the convicts to be kept separate from the other settlers, because they did not want to use ‘criminals’ to lay the foundations of an empire.

The third group of that society was the free immigrants. Many of that group came from Ireland and worked as wage labourers, clerks and tradesmen. However, the number of free settlers, who also began to enter the new country from the beginning, did not reach a considerable size until the mid-nineteenth century. Only from this time on has there been a rapid increase of immigration which is based on the first gold rush during the 1850s in NSW. In addition, the system of transporting convicts to Australian colonies was abolished in 1851 so that in time the population structure of NSW shifted and developed into the direction of a ‘freer’ society. The other three colonies, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, which were settled later, had no convicts send to them anyway.

At that time, most overseas migrants were from Southern England (especially London) and Ireland and came to settle predominantly in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. But also internal migration started its way up and New South Welshmen and people from Tasmania (which was another convict colony founded in 1803) moved to these centres. Internal migration had two culminant periods which coincided with the first and the second gold rush, which happened to be in the 1890s in Western Australia. The majority of the gold seekers came from within Australia.

However, the early Australian society happened to be “a polarized patriarchal society with a deep gulf of status, property, and power separating the workforce from the rulers.” (Horvath 1985:35)

3. Development of a ‘new’ English

It is interesting to take a closer look on the historical and sociolinguistic basis of the early settlers, inasmuch it is likely that the first generation of a new speech community tends to establish new norms and standards which will heavily influence the language development.

“Every language is a living record of its past. Historical linguistics is like archaeology in many ways: languages, like ancient sites, retain the traces of precious generations. Australian English (AusE) is no exception. The nature of the dialect at this time and in this place reflects the history of Australia and the people who colonised it.” (Collins and Blair 1989:171)

The question where AusE has its origins has been answered in various ways. Some suggest that the dialect started as an amalgam of regional varieties belonging to the early settlers. Some see London and Irish influences as the predominant components and others think, London English alone is the most influential factor in this amalgam. Another thesis disagrees with the amalgam-theory: Peter Collins (1975) explains that “no mixing bowl (...) operated here - the mixing had already taken place in the southeast Midlands, and the complex mixture that came to Australia was then ‘pidginised’ through a reduction of phonological rules and variants.” (Collins and Blair 1989:171)

Others simply see the London English as the only basis for AusE. Arguing with the fact that one third of the convicts who were transported before 1819 were from London and considering the experience that immigrants language tends to be conservative, Göran Hammarström states that “Australian pronunciation is not an amalgam but simply the pronunciation of London towards the end of the 18th century.” (Hammarström 1980:66) Additionally, Hammarström argues against the amalgamation hypotheses by referring to the circumstance that there are no phonetic characteristics of British Western or Northern dialects in Australia. In this respect it is also interesting to pay some attention to what J.R. Bernard noticed: considering the fact that during the 1830’s almost half of the prisoners came from Ireland, he finds it surprising that they had no influence on the Australian pronunciation. This lack of influence can be supported, for instance, by comparing the speech of Tasmania, which received no Irish convicts at all, with that of N.S.W., which received most of them. According to Bernard, the two do not differ, which backs the assumption “of Australian pronunciation establishing itself quite early in Sydney town. Once established by whatever means, the local form would have been impregnable and the Irish must simply have been too late.” (Hammarström 1980:55)

Hughes and Trudgill (1979) had undertaken a study with the aim to support the regional mixing-bowl proposition. But by comparing AusE with a range of British accents, they discovered a great congruence between Australian and London English at the level of segmental phonology. “Vowel for vowel and consonant they match with only an occasional marginal difference.”(Collins and Blair 1989:176)


Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Australian Dialect
A Very Special Form of English
University of Hannover  (English Seminar)
English and its dialects
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
638 KB
Australian, Dialect, English
Quote paper
Susanne Zolke (Author), 2004, The Australian Dialect, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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