Aussie accents on the march

Sydney Opera House and the city's skyline

The Sydney skyline. Locals' accents are not - yet - dramatically different from those of Australians from elsewhere - Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on why Australians haven't developed regional accents... yet.

Reader David Handley recent wrote to The New European in response to my column about the origins of Australian English (TNE #225), commenting on its regional uniformity. How, he asked, has Australian English failed to develop distinct regional accents?

He is quite right to point to the remarkable homogeneity of Australian English. In Britain, you can usually tell where people come from by their accent, often to within 15 miles or less. Even if people do not have marked regional accents you can still, unless they are very posh, tell roughly where they grew up – Home Counties, West Midlands, South Wales… But in Australia, people with childhood homes 2,000 miles apart may demonstrate no appreciable differences between their accents. 



It’s true that Australians can often tell whether someone has rural or urban origins; social-class differences may also be apparent – even if Australian mythology tells us theirs is a classless society. Also, people tend to say France, dance, plant, grant with the long vowel of father in South Australia, while Aussies elsewhere rhyme them with romance and ant. There are, too, a few individual words which are regionally restricted. But compared to Britain, Germany, Spain or Norway, Australia has extraordinarily few regional linguistic variants.

To answer David’s question, however, this is not surprising when we remember that Australian English is the result of the mixing together of regional varieties from different  parts of Britain and Ireland. If you make cakes from similar ingredients, mixed in similar proportions and baked for a similar time, you get similar cakes. New Zealand English is also very homogeneous for the same reason, as well as very similar to Australian English because the same mixture of ingredients was involved.


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It is extremely revealing, too, to note that the New Zealand and Australian accents are now slowly getting increasingly dissimilar. This is exactly what dialectologists would predict, as regional dialects come into being because languages change through time, and, crucially, they change in different ways in different places. 

Today people in northern England pronounce bath with the short vowel of bat, while southern speakers have the long vowel of father. You can draw a line across a map from the Welsh border to the Wash indicating this. The north and south differ because everybody used to have the short vowel but then, in the 18th century, London English speakers started lengthening the vowel in words like path, laugh, and grass, and this innovation gradually spread northwards until it stopped at the Wales-Wash line. (If anyone wants to know how and why that happened, I will need another column or three.)

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The way this process works – dialect mixture followed by changes of over time – can be seen in the linguistic geography of North America. On the east coast, while you cannot tell where somebody comes from to within 15 miles, you certainly can to within, say, 150 miles. The accents of Halifax (Nova Scotia), Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Charleston are significantly different from one another, because mixed colonial east-coast American English has had 400 years to develop regional differences. On the west coast, however, it is very hard to hear much difference at all between the accents of San Diego and Seattle, which are 1,200 miles apart: the west coast started being settled by English speakers only 170 years ago.

Even if you start off with a totally homogeneous language, regional differences will develop, given time. This will happen rather more slowly today than in the past, because there is more mobility and fewer barriers to communication. But it is now beginning to happen in Australia, with initially rather small pronunciation differences setting in. Already younger people may say of someone “I can’t tell where she’s from – but she’s not from here”.  

If Mr Handley can wait around for another three centuries or so, it is rather certain that he will be able to enjoy hearing different Australian regional accents. 

Accent

The word accent has multiple meanings, including. ‘a way of pronouncing a language that is distinctive to a country, area, social class, or individual’. It is derived from Latin accanere ‘to sing’ ,which comes from ad- ‘to’ plus cantare ‘to sing’, the latter being also, via French, the source of our word chant.

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