Broad or posh, we still sound uniquely Australian. Where did our accent come from?

Broad or posh, we still sound uniquely Australian. Where did our accent come from?


What are the key characteristics of the Australian accent? How has it evolved – and is there only one, a couple or many?

We all know an Australian accent when we hear one: the single word “g’day” can be enough to signal that the speaker is either (a) Australian or (b) some Hollywood actor pretending to be Australian. And depending on how they say “g’day”, we might also be able to guess something about their background (or acting skills).

A slowly drawled “g’day” and chances are they’re from the country. A short, sharp “g’day” and they’re probably a city dweller. An overly enunciated “good day” and they likely spent summers on Daddy’s yacht.

But where did this accent come from? What are its key characteristics? And is there only one Australian accent, a couple, or many?

Paul Hogan with a prawn in the 1984 Tourism Australia campaign “Come and say G’day”.

I don’t have an accent … do I?

The first thing to know about accents is that we all have one, even if speakers of what socio-linguists call “general Australian English” might be tempted to think only other people do. As the Linguistic Society of America helpfully puts it, “broadly stated, your accent is the way you sound when you speak”.

There are two different kinds of accent, the society adds: the “foreign” iteration where “a person speaks one language using some of the rules or sounds of another one”; and the local one, “the way a group of people speak their native language, [which] is determined by where they live and what social groups they belong to”.

If you live in Australia and speak English, you will fall into one of these groups. If you were born here, or born overseas and educated here, you will likely fall into the local group – though the scope for variation within that group is pretty wide. If you were born overseas but arrived as an adult, you might speak English either as a first language (if you’re from Britain, say, or Canada) or as a second language (if you were born in China or Vietnam, for instance). Either way, you will be classed as a foreign speaker insofar as accent is concerned.

Hit play to hear a “broad” Australian accent:

So, there’s more than one kind of Australian English?

Too bloody right there is, cobber. Our understanding of the Australian accent owes much to the work of University of Sydney academics Alex Mitchell and Arthur Delbridge, who in the late 1950s began to record and analyse the speech of about 7000 teenagers. Published in 1965 as The Speech of Australian Adolescents, their work discerned three clear strands of Australian English: broad (your classic Dad and Dave-style “strine”); general (which most people spoke, in the cities or the bush); and cultivated (the well-to-do pockets of the major cities).

The vast majority of Australians, then and now, tend to speak a version of general Australian English with only minor regional variations – not enough to amount to dialects, the regionally distinct forms complete with vocabularies of their own, as spoken in different parts of Britain and the United States.

But despite the drift towards homogeneity, linguists have also begun to embrace the idea that Australian English encompasses not just broad, general and cultivated forms – collectively referred to as “mainstream” Australian English – but also Aboriginal and ethnocultural accents (and where they are accompanied by distinct turns of phrase and patterns of speech, these are sometimes called ethnolects, for ethnic dialects).

Former BBC director Bertram Fryer instructs a student at the London School Broadcasting in 1934, when the BBC “general RP” was the last word in “correct” speech.Credit:Getty Images

Is our accent ‘proudly Australian’ then?

The Australian English accent has come in and out of favour – we certainly haven’t always been happy to sound Aussie. From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s, there was a push in Australian education towards a standard accent, based on the RP (received pronunciation) taught in the British public school system. Implicit in that was the idea that there is a correct way of speaking, and that anything non-standard was a degraded form.

But the notion of a standard to which we should all aspire has fallen from favour as part of a general shift away from judging the way people speak to simply recording it. “All dialects reflect Australian identity but, in addition, reveal the cultural affiliation of the speaker,” says Felicity Cox, a professor in linguistics at Macquarie University.

Indeed, Cox says that Australian English may soon come to function not as a descriptor but as an overarching term “embracing these various dialectal types rather than excluding minority forms”. “Such a modification to the traditional concept of Australian English,” she adds, “will help capture the linguistic landscape of the changing Australian culture.“

So, Australian English is this ever-evolving thing?

Yep. As Debbie Loakes, a postdoctoral fellow in languages and linguistics at the University of Melbourne, puts it: “There have been some substantial changes in the last 20 years to Australian English – but it is also true that all languages change, and that’s one of the main things you can rely on with language.” (To get a sense of that change, check out the excellent body of recordings of Australian speakers from the past at, and the Australian Ancestors Project.)

Hit play to hear an accent formed in the late 1800s:

The way we speak isn’t just about accent, though; it’s also about the turns of phrase we use. As Bruce Moore puts it in his book Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English, “The accent in which … words are spoken is an essential part of their meaning.”

This is the stuff of idiom, slang and dialect, and it is informed by region, class, social cohort – and the times. For instance, teenagers today will casually drop terms such as “bae” (slang for “babe” and an acronym for “before anyone else”, to denote a best friend) or “lol” (laugh out loud – not to be confused with Grandma’s Christmas card sign-off, “lots of love”). These terms derive from text messaging and social media but have infiltrated the realm of the spoken word.

And while some older speakers might decry them as corruptions of the language, they are simply part of its constant evolution, no different than the “strike me pink” (an expression of surprise, roughly equivalent to “crikey”) or “avagoyamug” (a somewhat aggressive exhortation to maybe try a bit harder) of earlier times.

But where did the Australian accent come from?

In a word, England. In a few more words, the south-east of England. In a few more, the kids of the kids of the settlers who arrived with the First Fleet, many of whom came from south-east England.

Many languages were already spoken across the continent when the British arrived. This image shows the mouth of Sydney’s Parramatta River c 1801.Credit:Aquatint by Pillement & Duparc after Lesueur/Getty Images

In 1788, 732 convicts (by Governor Arthur Phillip’s count) and a few hundred jailers, administrators and family members settled in Sydney. Many of them came from – or, at least, had been sentenced in – London, but there were a good number from elsewhere in Britain: York in the north, Coventry in the Midlands, Exeter and Dorset in the south-west, Maidstone in Kent and plenty of other places besides (including Ireland, Scotland and Wales). If you’re at all familiar with the range of accents and dialects spoken in the British Isles you’ll realise the Rocks must have sounded a bit like Babel, with a cacophony of different regional tongues struggling for common ground or dominance.

“The mode of speech that emerged then spread from Sydney throughout the rest of the country.”

For a time, it was assumed that the Australian accent was little more than a version of Cockney, the dialect traditionally spoken by working-class inhabitants of London’s East End. But as Bruce Moore writes, “it is now clear that the Australian accent was not ‘transported’ holus bolus to Australia from some part of Britain, but that it developed in Australia”.

Arthur Phillip, who was a Londoner, inspects convicts from a variety of places in the British Isles, at Sydney Cove in 1788. The mix of dialects would be striking to the modern ear.Credit:Artist impression Caton Woodville

The Australian accent emerged in three stages, he suggests. The first involved some voluntary modification of dialect and idiom as the settlers sought to make themselves better understood. The second was an acceleration of that trend as their children strove to sound less like their parents and more like one another (though traces of their parents’ accents necessarily remained). And the third emerged as the children of those children unconsciously selected out yet more regional variation from the Old Country, to arrive at a relatively stable local dialect.

Because there are no recordings, this account necessarily involves a good deal of hypothesising. But it is generally accepted that the process known as “levelling” was completed by the 1840s, and the mode of speech that emerged then spread from Sydney throughout the rest of the country. As Moore writes: “The accent that is established in this second generation will be passed down to future generations, and it will be almost impossible for any later groups of migrants to influence it. The ‘foundation accent’ has now been established.”

But what did it sound like?

Some linguists have argued that the foundation accent was some variant of broad Australian but many are convinced it was, in fact, much more like the general Australian accent most of us speak today. “It would sound different to the modern accent because accents are continuously changing,” says Cox. “But it was the precursor of the modern-day Australian accent.”

Visitors from England were struck by the pleasing uniformity of this “native” tongue. There were, of course, many other native tongues – at least 250, by recent estimates – spoken by First Nations people long before white settlers arrived, and some of their words – kangaroo, galah and goanna, to name a few – found their way into Australian English, although Aboriginal languages appear to have had little impact on the settler accent.

Chances are those early speakers of Australian English had already uttered the distinctive vowels and diphthongs (a combination of two or more vowels, such as “oi” or “ai”) that are the clearest markers of our accent. And if so, it was deemed an improvement on the regional British dialects that preceded it.

Our tendency to drawl was not really identified as a problem until the 1880s.

Moore’s analysis of the historical record shows that “the typical descriptions of the Australian accent for most of the nineteenth century are not adversely critical”. He cites an account from 1822 in which visiting Englishman James Dixon claims the children of the colony “speak a better language, purer, more harmonious than is generally the case in most parts of England. The amalgamation of such various dialects assembled together seems to improve the mode of articulating the words.”

Our tendency to drawl was not really identified as a problem until the 1880s. But by the first half of the 20th century, we were in full shame mode, with our accent regarded, Moore writes, “as impure, ugly, and sub-standard”.

Hit play to hear a “cultivated” Adelaide accent:

So, beauty is in the ear of the beholder?

Ken oath, it is. Take the way we pronounce the word “dance”. Today, we tend to assume that someone who says “darnce” (imagine Cate Blanchett saying it) is either posh, pretentious or from Adelaide. (It is impossible to say definitively, but it is possible that “darnce” and “charnce” may have gained in popularity in Adelaide as a way of distinguishing it as a free settlement – a place where people were subjects of England rather than subject to it.)

But it was not always so.

In 1791, John Walker’s influential Critical Pronouncing Dictionary made it clear that pronouncing the vowel in words like “plant” with a long vowel (as in “car”) “borders very closely on vulgarity”. By that measure, saying “darnce” might have been deemed exceedingly common back then.

If it’s true that both the broad and the cultivated accents really did emerge after general Australian, it’s likely they did so in response to our relations with the mother country. “They were both aberrations driven by social elements,” says Moore. “Think of them as conflicts with Britain that were played out verbally.”

Cultivated Australian was embraced as an expression of loyalty to Queen and country.

Cox says there is evidence to support the idea that broad Australian gained ground during World War I, spoken in the trenches by Diggers as a marker of difference from, and disdain for, the British officers who commanded them. Cultivated Australian, by contrast, was embraced by others as an expression of loyalty to Queen and country.

Speaking a cultivated “Queen’s English” was once seen as terribly important by some but Queen Elizabeth herself looks unfussed during a visit to Randwick racecourse in 1970.Credit:Getty Images

Jenny Price conducted her PhD on the changing speech patterns of Australian newsreaders between 1951 and 2005. Examining the recorded speech of 80 newsreaders, she detected a gradual shift from cultivated towards general Australian. “My starting point was this old-fashioned accent that came from the UK and is linked to our colonial origins,” she says, referring to that particularly rarefied voice heard on old newsreel accounts of, say, the arrival of Charles Kingsford Smith’s plane in Australia, or Bradman’s latest knock (“the Orstrellyuns are getting in plenty of precktice by way of metches for the Sheffield Shield”).

Hit play to hear “received pronunciation”:

The arrival of radio in Britain in the 1920s, Price says, “presented fantastic opportunities for linguistic education and influence”, an opportunity to standardise speech and eradicate stigmatised regional accents. “So the BBC deliberately defined what they wanted their accent to be, and they settled upon general RP.”

When the new technology arrived in Australia, where our general accent was similarly criticised “for being careless, lazy and excessively nasal”, we followed suit. Price cites one account of the typical broadcaster voice of the era as “presenting a news report as though they were reading the Ten Commandments with Divine permission”.

“Don’t come the raw prawn with me!” Barry Crocker as Bazza McKenzie.

Television followed much the same template when it arrived in 1956, but later advances in technology were crucial in turning the tide away from the cultivated accent. Smaller, lighter cameras and tape recorders allowed reporters and crews to get out of the studio and into the street, and to bring the voice of the ordinary Australian into living rooms. Ordinary Australians soon realised they weren’t alone in not speaking like a BBC (or ABC) announcer.

A 1972 performance of David Williamson’s Don’s Party, a satire set at a middle-class barbecue in the suburb of Lower Plenty.Credit:Fairfax Media

A rising sense of national pride from the late 1960s further reinforced the idea that there was nothing to be ashamed of in sounding like an Aussie. There was a surge in popularity of what you might call a “performed” version of the broad accent in popular culture from this time right through to the late 1980s, from Bazza McKenzie (“Don’t come the raw prawn with me!” ) through Ted Bullpitt (“You’re not taking the Kingswood!” ) to Crocodile Dundee (“That’s not a knife”) on screen; Dave Warner (“Just a Suburban Boy”) and The Angels (their anthemic “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?“ famously drawing the audience response, “No way, get f—ed, f— off!“ ) in song; and John O’Grady (They’re a Weird Mob, under the pen name Nino Culotta) and David Williamson (Don’s Party, The Club) on the page and stage.

“Am I ever gonna see your face again?” A roadie rescues Angels’ singer Doc Neeson from his audience in 1986.Credit:Staff

Which is not to say the broad accent didn’t also exist in the real world. It did, and it served as a marker of both class (lower) and location (generally regional). These days, it mostly survives only as a geographical marker. Outside of places such as “Brahton” (aka the Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton, stomping ground of Prue and Trude from the TV comedy Kath and Kim), the cultivated accent has also largely disappeared. “That suggests to me that the old conflict with Britain has been almost completely resolved in Australian society,” observes Moore.

Hit play to hear satirical cultivated and broad accents:

What does this general Australian accent sound like?

Australian English is all about vowel movements. “And the thing is, vowels operate in a system,” says Cox. “So, when one vowel changes it can impact on the entire system.” To illustrate, she offers an example from New Zealand English. “The vowel in their ‘pat’ sounds like the vowel in our ‘pet’ so when they say ‘pet’ it sounds to Australians like ‘pit’. It’s like dominoes – one thing changes and other things have to change as well. And in New Zealand, the vowel sound in ‘pit’ had nowhere else to go, so it had to go to a central sound, like ‘puht’.” (Linguists call this type of unstressed central vowel sound a “schwa”.)

In Australia, Cox says, “what’s happened in the last 30 years is that the vowel sound in ‘pat’ is now really low in young people, so ‘laptop’ sounds like ‘luptop’. So the next one, the ‘e’ comes down too, so ‘pet’ sounds much more like ‘pat’.” Australian English, she adds, has a very high number of vowel sounds – 19, in fact. “But there’s change going on all the time.”

Anna McCrossin-Owen, an accent coach whose clients include actors, radio professionals and immigrants, says we have some very long vowel sounds “and we like to emphasise a lot of our words”. Compared to American accents, which she says are particularly “muscular” (meaning they involve considerable use of the facial muscles), she says, “Australian articulation requires a more subtle awareness of movement, and I think this is what can make it difficult for Americans and other speakers”.

The biggest challenge for a non-Australian speaker trying to emulate our accent, notes opera singer and speech therapist Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez, is probably our diphthongs. “Any time we have two vowels that sync together in a word like ‘rain’, ‘boy’, ‘how’, the challenge is finding the duration because Australian vowels tend to have a very strong, long duration on the first vowel,” she says.

Vocal fry (where the ends of sentences are under-aspirated, leading to a kind of drawn-out croaking sound) is gaining ground in both male and female speakers.

While that is particularly pronounced in the broad accent, she says we all tend to deliberately change our accent depending on circumstance and company (it’s what’s known as “speech accommodation”, and it’s common across speakers of all languages).

“You could have a QC, say, who’s very proper in court but then he could be at the pub with his mates saying, ‘Howzitgarn?’” When we communicate, we’ve got neurolinguistic processes going, with how we move our jaw and mouth and muscle movements; we’ve got the cultural speech patterns from early childhood in the home and school and colleagues and friends; but then we also have a pragmatic system, what words will I use for my message, giving eye contact, using hand gesture or perhaps sarcasm.”

Some other markers of the modern general Australian accent are more seasonal in nature: upspeak (where we go up at the end of sentences) is in decline; vocal fry (where the ends of sentences are under-aspirated, leading to a kind of drawn-out croaking sound) is gaining ground in both male and female speakers; and the phenomenon of “L-vocalisation” – in which “noodle” is pronounced “nooduh” – is on the march from Adelaide, where it appears to have first emerged.

The Australian accent encompasses the sub-dialects of immigrants, such as these people arriving at Melbourne’s Station Pier in the 1940s and sometimes those of their children and grandchildren. Credit:Archives

So, do we all speak general Australian English now?

Not quite. Although the trend is towards a homogenised general accent, linguists are increasingly looking to codify the wide variety of other accents found in modern Australian English. “There are changes occurring now, really over the last 10 to 20 years, where sub-dialects and sociolects are strongly established,” says McCrossin-Owen. “For example, first-, second- and even third-generation European accents such as Greek, Lebanese, Turkish and Italian all have their own sub-dialects.”

There are also clear markers of difference in the way Australian-born
English speakers from Asian backgrounds talk; likewise with the descendants of people from the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, whose accents “establish themselves through generational imitation of the family accent blended with the social accents that are heard”, McCrossin-Owen says. Aboriginal English also has its own distinctive patterns and sounds.

“There’s nothing inherently correct or incorrect about language – it’s all about the use to which it is put in its community.”

Where once upon a time these variations might have been seen as failings to speak standard English, they are increasingly celebrated by socio-linguists as part of the rich tapestry of modern English in Australia.

“There’s nothing inherently correct or incorrect about language – it’s all about the use to which it is put in its community,” says Cox.

That said, stigmas do still exist. Just ask Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez. Many of her clients are fluent speakers from countries where English is an official language but they still struggle to make themselves understood here. As a consequence, they lose confidence, become reticent about speaking, have trouble finding employment and the problem only intensifies. Our perception of accent, in her view, is political – and effort is needed on the part of listeners as well as speakers to achieve an equitable outcome. “Accent is always relative to the listener; there’s no such thing as a strong accent,” she says. “I tell clients, ‘You’ve got a relevant voice. You are the sound of modern Australian English more than I can ever be,’ because we’re not a nation of monolinguals.”

And that, says Cox, is something we should all be celebrating.

“We haven’t seen this type of diversity before, ever,” she says. “We’re seeing the birth of new varieties of English, in Australia and across the world. And that’s really exciting.”

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