Did the Australian English accent evolve from “heavy drinking”?


The Telegraph UK reports that the “‘Lazy’ Australian accent [was] caused by [the] ‘alcoholic slur’ of heavy-drinking early settlers.”

This is not a “new theory“. I’ve heard this one before, and it’s bullshit, mate.

Australian English has some unique features. We have a penchant for abbreviating words like football to footy, biscuit to bikkie, documentary to doco, musician to muso, and, of course, Australian to Aussie.

We have a love of nicknames, where Gary becomes Gazza, Barry becomes Baz and my name, Karen, becomes Kaz.

There is also our use of the HRT (High Rise Terminal or Tone, not Hormone Replacement Therapy) where we use a rising intonation at the end of a statement rather than a falling tone which can make the statement sound like a question. (A lot of these features apply to New Zealand English too, in fact, the HRT comes from NZ.)

One of the most distinctive features of Aussie English is the accent. We don’t have regional accents like American Southern accents or the Yorkshire accent in England. We have social accents instead. These are typically placed into three categories: broad, general and cultivated. (A few linguists claim there are more.)

Blog-Ausie-LingoAustralia is famous for an accent known as Strine. The word itself is an abbreviation of “Australian” that mimics an exaggerated broad Australian accent.

Broad Australian English might be best described as Steve Irwin’s accent, Paul Hogan’s accent in Crocodile Dundee, or the accents portrayed in the Aussie comedy Kath & Kim.

Some examples include the phrase “Emma Chisit” which is Strine for “How much is it?”, the way “mate” is pronounced as “mite”, and the reduction of good day to g’day!
Elisions (omissions of sounds or syllables when speaking) are widely regarded as distinctively Australian, although they are common to all Englishes.

Some claim that Strine is on the decline because it is so stigmatized as common and ocker. Australians have also moved away from the other extreme, the “posh” English accent, so the general accent is most commonly found across the country.

There has been some controversy over the source of the Aussie English accent given the recent Telegraph article, which reports on a talk given by Dean Frenkel who is a public speaking and communication lecturer and not a linguist. His quest is to promote prescriptivism in schools.

I had so many people post this article to my Facebook page and the theory is already listed on Wikipedia (See “Drunkenness and language evolution”) so I felt I must address it.

An early theory is that Australian English is a form of Cockney. Cockney was once a label to describe a person born in London, but it came to mean the speech of people from lower socio-economic classes of London. It’s now understood that the Australian accent was not transported directly to Australia from some part of Britain, but that it developed in Australia.

The most accepted theory today is that the Australian English accent was born of a leveling of various accents (Irish, Scottish, and Cockney, etc.) found in the new colony. The Australian English accent was established in Sydney between 1820-1840 and spread out to other areas of settlement across the country.

Australian English formed because people who spoke different accents were brought together in a new colonial settlement from 1788. These people modified their accents in order to make communication easier. Then, when the first generation of children were born they took bits and pieces of the accent developing around them and eventually a stable accent formed. (A similar process takes place when pidgins and creoles are formed.)

This accent has since evolved and continues to do so with influence from many different varieties of English and other languages.

Another_1e6363_1050211This accent didn’t develop because new Australians were drunkards and their children imitated their drunken speech and passed it down the generations. Whether they were or weren’t drunkards is beside the pint. I mean, point. But really, that’s a stereotype. There’s a similar stereotype that the “slowness” and “slurring” of Aussie English developed because of the hot weather. You’ll hear that one said about people who speak Southern American English too.

The Telegraph notes that it’s a myth that Australians mumble to avoid swallowing flies, but they fail to spot the “drunken Aussie English” as yet another myth.

Frenkel also adds that Australians are “lazy” and don’t use their vocal “muscles”properly. He believes that this accounts for the “missing” “t” in important. But “t” is the letter representation of a sound, and it really isn’t missing at all. Australians use a different phoneme here, but that’s for another post.

Broad Aussie English accent developed in part because speakers tried to delete or level off any sounds that were too distinctly marked as belonging to a particular accent. These people were trying to make themselves more easily understood, not to make it harder.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

4 Comments on "Did the Australian English accent evolve from “heavy drinking”?"

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  1. Petra says:

    I’m aware that this could be construed as pedantic, but many people from South Australia are made acutely aware that their accents differ from most other Australians whenever they travel interstate or overseas. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked which part of England/Canada/wherever I come from – and I know I’m far from alone!

    For that matter, I personally think that there are other regional dialects and accents in other parts of the country – but I agree that when you open your mouth, what is overwhelmingly conveyed is your socio-economic background.

  2. I have heard this from some South Australians and Victorians, but I think these slight differences in usage are dialect based, not usually accent based. I’m from Sydney and in the States I’m often asked if I come from England. I’ve even been asked if I’m from Ireland, Scotland, and other countries whose Englishes are more closely related to US English than OZ English!

  3. MichalDobry says:

    I like imitating the many and varied accents of English, and have always been fascinated by theories of their origin. Why does Australian sound so different to American? It seems to me that the source mixture for Australian English stemmed from the largely “r”-less city accents of England after the Industrial Revolution was well underway. I mean cities like Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, and of course London. The Industrial Revolution caused a population explosion in the north, which along with the social disruption, provided a rich source of convicts. I can hear a strong echo of the north country in some of the Australian vowels, where the tongue is arched towards the roof of the mouth, and not left flat on the floor, as in cockney. American speech sprang from a time before the Industrial Revolution was well underway, and is a mixture of predominately rural English accents from the saxon south with its strongly expressed “r”. The Irish were earlier converted to English by English speakers from the south. The Scottish lowlands were predominately saxon from centuries before. It’s ironical that when american actors play Shakespeare, their accent is closer to Elizabethan English, than the RP used in the English theatre of today.

    • Interesting points! The most obvious difference between Australian English and U.S. English is the rhoticicism of most American speakers while both varieties use vowels differently. U.S. English is much closer to Irish English and Scottish English than Aussie English.

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