Why do Australians speak English?

by Ciaran Donnelly

In 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon was the first European recorded to set foot in Australia.

Australia was originally called New Holland Bestow Education

English explorer James Cook became the first British person to find and chart the east coast of Australia, arriving at Botany Bay in 1770.

In 1788, French explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup also sailed into Botany Bay.

So, why is it that the native language of Australians isn’t Dutch, French or one of the estimated 250 indigenous languages spoken across Australia in 1788?

Why do Australians speak English? The answer is colonisation by the British.

But why is Australian English so different to British English?

“Tracing the changes in Australian English from the first fleet to present day is really about exploring the story of the nation”

Kel Richards (1)

A history of the English language in Australia

1788 was a pivotal year in Australian history.

On January 26th, 1788, Captain Arthur Philip raised the flag of Great Britain and began the formation of a new colony at Sydney Cove (now called Sydney Harbour). The British proceeded to set up many colonies in Australia.

However, these colonies the British were establishing were penal colonies.

The British literally shipped their convicts out of Britain and sent them thousands and thousands of miles on a one-way trip to Australia.

Convicts from all over Britain were forced onto these ships and this led to a wide variety of English dialects and accents coming together.

In addition, there were may Irish put on these ships because they were rebelling against British rule. Most of the Irish didn’t even speak English, they spoke Gaeilge (Irish). In order for people on these ships to understand each other, they had to speak very clearly and slowly. People had to adapt their accents, change how they spoke, and some even had to change their language.

Interestingly, English people arriving in Australia started to claim that Australians were speaking the ‘purest English on earth’ because of this.

Another factor that shaped the English language in Australia was the Australian environment. These people arriving in Australia were in a completely different land to the one they had come from. They were isolated and encountering animals, plants, and climates they had never experienced before.

The words kangaroo, wallaby, and koala, are all believed to have come from indigenous languages and Aboriginal languages influenced the names of places such as Wollongong, Boolading, and Jundalee. Australian English was influenced by the language of the indigenous people originally in Australia before colonisation.

Over the next 80 years, Australia was the destination for many convict ships with the last one reaching Western Australia in 1868. However, another factor was influencing the English language at this time and it was the Australian Gold Rush.

Now many people from different nations such as Germany, Italy, China, America, Ireland, Scotland, and England, were arriving to Australia by choice. Free settlers started to vastly outnumber the convicts in Australia. This added to the different influences shaping the English language in Australia and variations in the accents across the country.

Australian English Gold Rush Bestow Education

Finally, there was the Elocution Movement of the late 19th century. The British aimed to standardise English and decided that standard Southern English was the ‘correct’ way English should be spoken. This led to three main varieties of Australian English accents known to be Broad Australian, General Australian, and Cultivated Australian.

So, what differentiates Australian English?

Pronunciation and vocabulary are two of the biggest factors that differentiate Australian English from other English dialects.

Australian pronunciation

Depending on the Australian English dialect, Australian English can be described as a non-rhotic dialect. This means that the /r/ sound is not retained before consonants or if it is the last syllable of a word. For instance:

  • The word card is pronounced /ca:d/. The /r/ sound is dropped.
  • Meanwhile, the /r/ sound ending of words like better and wetter is lowered to sound similar to an ‘ah’ sound. So, an Australian might say bett-ah, wett-ah, riv-ah, and so on.

The letter t is also pronounced differently depending on the Australian accent.

Cultivated Australian Accent: The /t/ is softened and sounds more like a /d/.

General and Broad Australian Accents: The /t/ is softened or completely ignored.

Example: ‘What’s the matter?’ may become ‘Whas de medduh?’

The letter i is one of the most distinctive sounds of Australian English.

A diphthong is a sound formed by the combination of 2 vowels e.g. square, heard.

In Australian English, these vowels become a lot longer and the first sound is generally longer than the second one. Examples include night (pronounced like noight).

Australian vocabulary

Australia also has its unique vocabulary for certain objects and slang that is completely different from British or American English. Have a look at the below:

  • G’Day – Hello (Good Afternoon)
  • Maccas – McDonalds
  • No wuckas – No worries
  • Tinny – Can of beer or a small boat
  • Crikey/Blimey – Euphemisms used to communicate amazement or surprise
  • Put a sock in it – Shut up

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the terms sanz (for sanitiser) and quaz (for quarantine) have become unique to the Australian English dialect.

Conclusion

This is a very broad topic and this blog has touched on numerous points of Australian English. It is impossible to cover everything and in detail. Please comment below on anything important you felt was left out or if you have anything to add. I hope this has increased your interest in Australia and the English language.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy some of the other blogs we have written.

Further reading

  1. Cleopatra in 2020 – Emojis vs hieroglyphs for blogging
  2. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest . . . Poet!
  3. How did the oceans get their names?
  4. What is the origin of the name Bluetooth?

Credits

  1. The story behind ‘Australian English’: why we talk the way we do – by ABC News

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