“…Sydney,” I replied.
He looked at me blankly.
To an American who isn’t familiar with other English accents, Australian English can easily be confused with British English. If someone hears a person speak Australian English and they’re unfamiliar with it, they seem to default to thinking, this person must be British. They are closely related. However, to speakers of these two varieties, they are VERY different!
So, what’s the difference between British English, or English English, if we want to be precise, and Australian English? Let’s take a look at a few phonological (sound-based) and dialectal (grammar and vocabulary-based) similarities and differences between the two varieties of English. (Please note that this list is not exhaustive.)
Both varieties of English are non-rhotic. This means that speakers drop the ‘r’ sound at the end of a word unless it is followed by a vowel. So, people from both England and Australia don’t pronounce the /r/ at the end of butter but would probably pronounce the /r/ at the end of “butter” in the phrase butter extract, because the “r” sound is followed by a vowel. These are called linking r’s. (I go into some detail about them here.)
Also, both Englishes use the French spelling of certain words. For example, Aussies and English people spell color as “colour”, jewelry as “jewellry”, theater as “theatre” and moisturizer as “moisturiser”. They typically use -our where Americans use -or (e.g., favour/favor) and -re instead of -er (e.g., centre/center).
Australian English and British English have different words for the same things. For example, the English say crisps while Australians say chips. Here’s a short list of different vocabulary items that are different across the two dialects.
British English Australian English
Australian English is famous for abbreviation and adding an -ie, -o, or -y to the ends of words. For example, football>footy, afternoon>arvo, mosquito>mozzie, lipstick>lippy, laptop>lappy, chocolate>choccie, McDonald’s>Maccas, sunglasses> sunnies, documentary>doco. These are called diminutives or hypocoristics. Diminutives certainly appear in other Englishes, but not as commonly as they do in Aussie English (and New Zealand English).
Many Australians also use a rising inflection in their speech called a High Rising Terminal (HRT), but more popularly known today as “uptalk”. This is a speech pattern in which a statement ends with a rising sound, making it sound like a question. Many people think this originated with 1980’s Valley girl speak as found in the San Fernando Valley of California, although the phenomenon can be traced back to Australia and New Zealand several decades before and is found elsewhere too.
There are some accent differences as well. Consonant sounds tend to be the same, as we’ve seen with /r/, while the most famous difference is the glottal stop found in Cockney English where butter is pronounced similar to ba-uh. Most accent differences are in the way Aussies and English people pronounce their vowels.
In British English, the /a/ in chance is a long vowel that sounds something like chaans, while in Australian English most speakers pronounce the /a/ like the short vowel in cat, as speakers of American English do.
Aussie English has some very interesting diphthongs. For example, the way many Aussies say “ear” sounds like ee-uh because the vowel sound has merged with a schwa. (This is the vowel sound found at the start of the word about).
/ɪə/ is the phonetic representation of this “ee-uh” sound and it appears at the end of words like appear, and beer and fear.
Aussie English has a few other diphthongs that are quite unique to this variety of English. Some speakers may say buy in a way that sounds more like boy, but this depends on their social accent.
Social accents are based on the speaker’s social group while regional accents are based on the area where someone lives. (I discuss these types of accents here.)
According to linguists, there are three main social accents in Australia which are labeled as broad (like Steve Irwin’s accent), general (the average Aussie accent) and cultivated (that sounds a bit more “posh”, like Cate Blanchette’s accent). There are no regional accents that reliably tell you where someone is from, so for the most part, people in Perth don’t speak any differently to people living in Sydney.
In England, however, there is considerable variation within the accents of English.There aren’t as many as there used to be, but there are still many distinctive regional accents that can suggest that a speaker is from London, Liverpool, or Yorkshire, or from another part of the country.
Just because I’ve included more differences than similarities in this list, don’t think that there are more differences than similarities. Overall, there are more similarities, and that is why we are ultimately able to understand each other across the different varieties of English…for the most part.
And in case you were wondering, Sydney is not a town in England…
It’s probably best to ask, “Where are you from?” than to assume someone is from somewhere because you might be wrong…