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AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH Short form AusE. The English language as used in Australia. It has a short history, reflecting some 200 years of European settlement, and an even shorter period of recognition as a national variety, the term being first recorded in 1940. It is only since then that features of AusE have been regarded as distinctively and respectably Australian, instead of as evidence of colonial decline from the norms of the STANDARD ENGLISH of England.


Initially, and uniquely, a majority of the British colonies in Australia were penal. As they expanded and as free colonies were developed, immigrants using languages other than English were insignificant. Relations with the Aborigines were generally poor and after an initial intake of words from their languages (such as boomerang, dingo, kangaroo, koala, kookaburra, wombat) were not conducive to extensive borrowing. The settlers were almost all Anglo-Celtic and geographical isolation was of great importance. The preoccupations of the colonists were the discovery and exploration of a new land, rich in exotic flora and fauna, and pastoral occupations such as raising sheep and cattle under circumstances vastly different from ‘the Old Country’. In the late 20c, however, Australians are predominantly urban and increasingly multicultural. The major areas of lexical growth are international, as in computing and surfing. In the 19c, the situation was the reverse.


The most marked feature of the Australian accent is its homogeneity, with no regional differences as marked as those in BrE and AmE, though recent studies have associated particular phonological characteristics with state capitals. There is, however, a social continuum in which three varieties are generally recognized: Broad Australian, General Australian, and Cultivated Australian. Of these, Cultivated Australian most closely approaches British RP and Broad Australian most vigorously exhibits distinctive regional features. It is generally assumed that the Australian accent derives from the mixing of British and Irish accents in the early years of settlement. However, although most convicts and other settlers came from London, the Midlands, and Ireland, the influence of the original accents cannot be conclusively quantified. The present spectrum was probably established by the early 19c.

The major features of AusE pronunciation are: (1) It is non-rhotic. (2) Its intonation is flatter than that of RP. (3) Speech rhythms are slow, stress being more evenly spaced than in RP. (4) Consonants do not differ significantly from those in RP. (5) Vowels are in general closer and more frontal than in RP, with /i/ and /u/ as in tea, two diphthongized to /əɪ/ and /əʊ/ respectively. (6) The vowel in can't dance may be /æ/ or /a/. (7) The schwa is busier than in RP, frequently replacing /ɪ/ in unaccented positions, as in boxes, dances, darkest, velvet, acid. (8) Some diphthongs shift, RP /eɪ/ towards /ʌɪ/, as in Australia, day, mate, and /aɪ/ towards /ɒɪ/, as in high, wide. (9) Speakers whose first language is not English or who have a bilingual background (Aboriginal, immigrant) often use sounds and a delivery influenced by the patterns of the first or other language. (10) The name of the letter h is often pronounced ‘haitch’ by speakers wholly or partly of Irish-Catholic background.

Grammar and vocabulary

There are no syntactic features that distinguish standard AusE from standard BrE, or indeed any major non-standard features not also found in Britain, but there are many distinctive words and phrases. However, although AusE has added some 10,000 items to the language, few have become internationally active. The largest demand for new words has concerned flora and fauna, and predominant occupations like stock-raising have also required new terms. Because of this, AUSTRALIANISMS are predominantly naming words: single nouns (mulga an acacia, mullock mining refuse, muster a round-up of livestock), compounds (black camp an Aboriginal settlement, black tracker an Aboriginal employed by the police to track down missing persons, black velvet Aboriginal women as sexual objects, red-back a spider, redfin a fish, red gum a eucalypt), nouns used attributively (convict colony a penal colony, convict servant or convict slave a convict assigned as a servant).

The penal settlements.

The first settlements were penal colonies and until 1868, when transportation ceased, a vocabulary similar to that in a slave society described the life of the convicts. A major distinction was maintained between bond and free, as in free emigrant, free native, free labourer, free servant, and the distinction between free and freed. The settlements were populated in part by convicts and the attendant military forces, in part by free settlers. Though convicts who had served their sentences or obtained pardons (known from 1822 as emancipists) became free in their own eyes and those of the law, they often had difficulty escaping the stigma of servitude and obtained only a measure of freedom, being known by the exclusives or exclusionists as free convicts or freed men.


Concomitantly, the land was explored and opened up for settlement and the stock-raising industry was developing. Squatters (stock-raisers or graziers occupying large tracts of Crown land under lease or licence) moved inland from the limits of location (the frontier of settlement) into the back country or back of beyond in search of land suitable for runs (tracts of grazing land) or stations (ranches). They looked for open land (free from forest or undergrowth), seeking open forest or open plains, and using words like brush (dense natural vegetation), bush (the distinctive Australian natural vegetation), mallee or mulga (forms of natural vegetation giving their name to their habitat), and scrub (generally, poor vegetation) to describe features of an unfamiliar environment. The stock industry employed overseers or superintendents (both convict terms), stockmen, and rouseabouts (general hands). Drovers travelled stock long distances overland, the original overlanders driving stock from New South Wales to South Australia. The importance of sheep in opening up the country and establishing a frontier society was such that the occupational vocabularies of droving and shearing figure largely in Australian literature.

The goldfields.

Gold was discovered in the 1850s, leading to movement between the Californian, Australian, and New Zealand goldfields. Rushes (first used of the sudden escape of a number of convicts and then of the sudden movement of a number of miners to a particular place or goldfield) followed when a prospector (gold-finder, gold-hunter, gold-seeker) made a find and established a claim. A number of mining terms originated in Australia, but many are shared with other varieties of English, and the importance of the discovery of gold, and of the rushes that followed, lies in the mobility it encouraged and the effect of this on the homogeneity of the accent.


A growing sense of national identity was fostered by involvement in the First World War. The line between formal and informal usage is perhaps less rigidly drawn in Australia than elsewhere, colloquialisms being more generally admissible than in Britain. In informal usage, the suffixes -ie or -y and -o or -oh are freely attached to short base words (roughie a trick, tinnie a can of beer, bottle-oh a bottle merchant, plonko an addict of plonk or cheap wine, smoko a work break) and clippings (Aussie an Australian, arvo an afternoon, barbie a barbecue, Chrissy Christmas, compo workers' compensation, derro a derelict or down-and-out, reffo a refugee).

Kinds of Australianism

In terms of origin and structure, Australianisms fall into six categories: (1) Words from Aboriginal languages: boomerang a throwing weapon, corroboree a ceremonial dance, jackeroo a trainee farm manager, kangaroo a large hopping marsupial, kookaburra a kind of bird, wombat a burrowing marsupial. (2) Extensions of pre-existing senses: bush natural vegetation, or rural as opposed to urban life, station a garrison, colonial outpost, tract of grazing land, ranch. (3) Novel compounds: bushman someone skilled in traversing the bush, bushranger an armed bandit; convict overseer a convict appointed to supervise other convicts, convict police convicts appointed as police; cattle/sheep station station for raising cattle or sheep, station black an Aboriginal employed on a station; stock agent someone buying and selling livestock, stockman someone employed to tend livestock. (4) Novel fixed phrases: black bream, black swan; colonial ale, colonial tobacco; native plum, native potato; red ash, red cedar; white box, white cockatoo; wild banana, wild spinach. (5) Coinage: emancipist a freed convict, go slow a form of industrial protest in which employees work to rule (now international), woop-woops remote country. (6) Words with greater currency in Australia than elsewhere include new applications of words from British regional dialects: dinkum reliable, genuine, dunny a privy, larrikin a hooligan, wowser a killjoy.

Style and usage

By and large, printed English is much the same as elsewhere. The authoritative style guide is the Australian Government Printing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, first published in 1966 and in its 4th edition. The manual was intended to set standards for government publications, but is widely used and has received input from the community at large through the Macquarie Style Councils. An informal guide is Stephen Murray-Smith's Right Words: A Guide to Usage in Australia (Viking, 1987, revised edition 1989). Where BrE and AmE spelling norms differ, BrE is preferred: honour, but Labor the name of the political party, centre, licence. The -ise spelling, as in realise, is generally preferred to -ize.

Strine and stereotyping

Australian usage has attracted comic stereotyping. The term STRINE refers to a kind of stage Australian in which vowels are distorted and syllables reduced, as in strine itself, collapsing the four syllables of Australian to one, and in Emma Chisit, a joke name derived from How much is it? The usage of the comedian Barry Humphries (b.1934), created by exaggerating certain features of pronunciation, delivery, or vocabulary, reflects a longstanding deference to BrE models combined with a new-found and exuberant recognition of national identity. Humphries' use of English has contributed both to colloquial idiom and a widespread perception of AusE as casual and vulgar. His characters include Dame Edna Everage (Average), a suburban Melbourne housewife turned megastar, Sir Les Patterson, an Australian ‘cultural ambassador’, and Barry McKenzie, an ocker (uncultured Australian male) in a comic strip in the British satirical magazine Private Eye.

Social issues

Until recently, Australia was determinedly assimilationist. Although immigrant languages such as Greek and Italian are now accorded the status of community languages, and bilingualism is actively encouraged by the government, the impact of these languages on AusE has been negligible. Two issues currently dominate the linguistic scene:


The arrival of immigrants (locally known as migrants) is slowly converting a homogeneous Anglo-Celtic society into a multilingual, multicultural society that is more or less tolerant of difference. A recent development has been the publication of a National Policy on Languages ( J. Lo Bianco, 1987), a report commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Education in 1986, a key document for federal and state initiatives to improve the teaching of English as a first and a second language, promote bilingualism, especially in those whose only language is English, and preserve and foster the teaching of community languages, including Aboriginal languages. Important also has been the increased prominence of ABORIGINAL ENGLISH within the spectrum accessible to the average Australian.

American, British, and New Zealand influence.

Despite a new-found sense of independence (including the export of Australian films and television series), AusE is subject to the media-borne influences of BrE and AmE. By and large, because of traditional ties, there is less resistance to BrE than to AmE, particularly in pronunciation and spelling. Although it is 1,200 miles away, New Zealand is considered to be a close geographical, cultural, and linguistic neighbour. The constant movement of labour between the two countries ensures continuing exchange and sharing of features with NZE. See AUSTRALASIAN ENGLISH, DIALECT, NEW ZEALAND ENGLISH.

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