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Monday musings on Australian literature: Regional differences in Australian English

January 11, 2016
Thredbo Village

Thredbo Village

While dining in Thredbo this weekend, we were served by a waiter who, when I asked for a certain ingredient to be excluded from my dish, repeated it back with the order, “and no to-mAY-to” she said. Her accent wasn’t strong but this stood out, so when she returned to our table, we asked whether she was from North America. Yes, Vancouver, she said, but sixteen years ago. She thought she’d covered her origins up but, when we explained, she realised she’d make a slip and pronounced that she would not make that mistake again! What a shame I thought …

When we watch movies or television programs from countries like England and the United States, we tend to be very aware of accents and linguistic differences. Is this set in the north of England, we ask? Or, oh, she’s a New Yorker, we’ll say. The accent is a big part of it, but vocabulary and expressions also contribute. Interestingly, despite Australia’s geographic expanse, with some populations quite remote from others, such differences are far less pronounced.

There are some differences, of course. Indigenous Australians can often be distinguished by a particular way of speaking, as can country versus city people. Traditionally, South Australians have had a reputation for sounding more English, for rounding their vowels in words like “dance” and “branch”. (South Australia was not a convict colony like most of the other states!) These differences tend to be subtle, and are probably not well noticed by those from other countries.

Linguistic differences in Australia are, though, something I’ve been aware of, largely because I’ve experienced the impact. You see, as an early teenager, I moved from living in northwest Queensland (Mt Isa to be exact) to the big smoke in New South Wales (aka Sydney). I learnt very quickly to say “recess” at school, not the childish sounding “little lunch” for the first break of the day. I learnt that the bag I took to school was a “case” or “bag” not a “port”. (These days I suppose it’s a “backpack”!). And I learnt that my “togs” were “swimmers”.

I was therefore fascinated to read a recent article titled “Togs or swimmers: Why Australians use different words to describe the same things”. It was written by three linguists at the University of Melbourne, Jill Vaughan, Katie Jepson and Rosey Billington. They provide some maps showing different word usages around Australia, swimwear being one. (If you are interested, they include a link to more maps on their Linguistic Roadshow site).

What is particularly fascinating about this from my point of view is not so much the differences but the fact that different states agree on different words. For example, with some words there’s general agreement in Queensland and New South Wales (“ice-block”) but not Victoria (“icy-pole), while for another word Victoria and New South Wales will concur (school “canteen”) with Queensland (the “tuckshop”) the odd one out. How did/does this happen? The authors don’t cover it – though perhaps they do in a longer academic article.  They do, however, note that some usages align quite closely with state lines, and that this can be observed in border towns, like Albury-Wodonga. Words, they say, become part of one’s regional identity and so Wodonga residents are more likely to use the Victorian-preferred “bathers”, while those from Albury will use the New South Welsh “swimmers”.

The thing is, of course, that vocabulary usage varies (and changes) over time as well as space. When we read Australian novels, it’s the change over time that I suspect we notice, more than the regional ones. One of the aspects I enjoyed in Madeleine St John’s 1950s-set The women in black (my review) is St John’s recognition of new words being introduced to Australians via post-war European immigrants, words like “salami” for example! She also used the word “reffos” which was contemporary Australian slang for “refugees”. Salami is here to stay, but “reffos” has been replaced by new slang.

Current writers like Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas very self-consciously, I think, closely reflect contemporary vernacular in their novels. It’s important to the milieu they are describing. Kristen Krauth’s just_a_girl (my review) is replete with contemporary teenage vernacular, including Americanisms like “skanky”, reflecting America’s influence on contemporary Australian English (if not on contemporary English!). In indigenous Australian writing, we hear the different rhythms and language of (to generalise somewhat) indigenous people. “Deadly”, meaning “great” (and similar), is an obvious example.

Hmm … I’ve moved a little away from what inspired this post but it did get me thinking about how I read Australian writing and what I notice. Works which use contemporary language – words, expressions, grammatical constructions – can seem fresh and alive, and very specifically of their place and time. Historically, but I’m generalising here and it’s a matter of degree rather than being absolute, the vernacular was (and is?) more common in genre writing than in literary works, that is, the works that go on to become “classics”. There are exceptions, of course. Some of Barbara Baynton’s stories in her Bush studies collection are nigh impossible to read for the vernacular she uses, and yet are deemed classics. And CJ Dennis’ Songs of a sentimental bloke remains popular despite its colloquial language.

I’d love to know what you think about the use of vernacular – as against more formal writing – in the fiction you read. When does it engage you, and when not?

37 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2016 00:04

    I quite agree about Barbara Baynton. I can’t remember the name of the story now, but I remember being nonplussed by some of her dialogue.
    I wonder how editors deal with regional differences?

    • January 12, 2016 08:12

      LOL Lisa, I was thinking of you as I wrote that about Baynton. A couple of the stories were tricky, but I think Billy Skywonkie was the one that nearly defeated me.

      Yes, good question about editors and regionalism. I reckon there could be some interesting “discussions”.

      • January 12, 2016 11:04

        Billy Skywonkle, that’s the one. I’ve sometimes thought that it was a deliberate attempt to make the dialogue so obscure, to reinforce to her readers that there were people in Australia that they simply had no idea about.

        • January 12, 2016 13:31

          That could have been part of it, Lisa …. In addition to just wanting verisimilitude.

  2. January 12, 2016 00:48

    Yes I agree about Baynton too. I cannot stand novels written in the vernacular, Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang being a particularly egregious example which I was forced to read as part of my course work. I think the CJ Dennis survives because it is intended to be read aloud and so the sounds are as important as the meaning. As for regional differences they are quite odd and it is almost impossible to predict who will say castle or carsle

    • January 12, 2016 08:16

      Oh, I loved True history, Bill. Good example of literary fiction using this approach. You had to get into the flow, but once you did I think it worked beautifully.

      Fortunate writers don’t tend to worry aboutpronunciations like cAstle and cARstle, unless they want a character to tease or ridicule another!

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    January 12, 2016 09:57

    Dialogue must be true to spoken forms – insofar as we may not be able to “hear” (unless a spoken version – then one hopes it is the writer delivering the lines) so that one can gauge the whole character. Regional differences – “cassell” versus castle – “ports” and “double-dinking” let alone “doubling” or “dinking” are very important to setting tone. What I don’t like is an exaggerated representation of differences as if to suggest there is a limited intelligence behind the spoken words when it is merely a class-delineation. Gayle KENNEDY in Me, Antman and Fleabag truly captures the wit and verve of the form of English she employs for the world of her characters. One of the best.

    • January 12, 2016 13:29

      Thanks Jim … As I was thinking about this I was remembering Marie Munkara’s book and her evocation of indigenous Australian language. And I was suspecting that Gayle Kennedy would be similar. Must read her book.

  4. January 12, 2016 12:57

    The book that springs to mind when talking about novels written in the vernacular or a particular dialect is Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, which is written entirely in a post apocalyptic language. It takes a while to get used to it, but when you get it becomes a rewarding read. It’s a remarkable book in fact.

    • January 12, 2016 13:34

      I haven’t heard of that … But I agree that if such language is well done it usually works well once you get into the flow of it.

  5. January 12, 2016 15:47

    Linguistics is fascinating to me – just finished a book by John McWhorter.

    And I love Tim Winton. The South Pacific part of Cloud Atlas is also written in some kind of dialect – I had to listen to it to understand (and I read along in the book, too).

    One reason Faulkner is hard for non-US folks (and US folks!) is because of the language, the rhythm and just the sounds of the Southern story-teller. The new one “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Marlon James) uses the Reggae accent and rhythms in a lot of it – I had to listen to that one, too. I’ve never had to listen to an Australian book to make sense of it but who knows – it might happen.

    • January 12, 2016 17:25

      You make a good point Bekah … Hearing stories with unfamiliar dialects or rhythms, like hearing poems really, can make all the difference.

  6. January 12, 2016 17:03

    Regarding the Australian accent, many years ago (1965) there was a book called Let’s Stalk Strine by a bloke called Afferbeck Lauder which was written entirely in an Australian spoken accent. It’s quite humorous as you’d imagine and clever as well..

    Actually I won my copy of Riddley Walker from Clare Dudman’s Keeper of the Snails blog in a competition which required you to write a passage in a dialect. I composed mine in Strine and it won.

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    • Jim KABLE permalink
      January 13, 2016 13:12

      Alastair Ardoch MORRISON (Professor Alphabetical Order) – (1911~1998) – also of Nose Tone Unturned – and various titles beginning: “Fraffly…”

      • January 13, 2016 14:04

        Thanks Jim … I hadn’t looked that up. I’d heard of him – the pseudonym I mean. Sounds like a real character.

  7. January 12, 2016 17:05

    Oops link didn’t work. Here it is again

    • January 12, 2016 17:31

      Thanks Anne … Clicked the first one and it didn’t work! I have seen the book, but a long time ago. Must say that a lot of them defeat me, particularly when reading them. You have to try to hear them. Now, the link I really want is your winning entry. Can you supply or should I go looking?

    • January 12, 2016 20:49

      Ah, that’s great Anne – and I didn’t need a translation. In story form it worked! Good on you.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 12, 2016 21:11

        Skilful use of vernacular really does make fiction come alive although it can demand a lot from the reader. More than most “poetic” prose it can really boost the importance of language in fiction.

        About dialect/accents I always used to find Daphne’s family in Frasier maddening with their cod cockney (Daphne supposedly comes from Manchester). Still loved the show!

        • January 12, 2016 21:15

          Thanks Ian. I completely agree – it can make fiction come alive but can demand a lot too! I find that I often have an initial negative reaction but, more often than not, find the work worthwhile if I knuckle down and give it a go.

  8. January 12, 2016 23:53

    I’m amazed there are still so many differences in vocabulary and accents between Australian regions, and I rejoice in that. I sometimes wonder if eventually, English will be spoken globally as AmericoBritish, except for those small pockets of the world where there’s no internet. As much as we might cringe upon hearing our unique strine, it would be a shame to lose it.

    When I first moved to Western Australia sixteen years’ ago, I had no idea some of my vocabulary was peculiar to Tasmania. Believing all Australians knew the term ‘rummen’ (I have no idea how it’s spelt because I’ve never seen it written), I used it, only to confuse everyone I was with (for anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a kind of a scallywag). I rarely use it these days, although when I said it recently, the person with me immediately asked if I was Tasmanian—I gave myself away!

    Speaking of accents, a couple of months’ ago, I spent an hour or two (when I had a million other things to do), glued to the website below, listening to these glorious accents from days long gone. I shut my eyes while listening to Mr Hill from Tasmania, and it was like being transported back in time and hearing my grandfather speak. If you visit, be careful because before you know it, a couple of hours will have passed!

    • January 13, 2016 08:04

      Interesting, I agree, Louise, that these variations are still surviving. It took a long time for me to lose all my Queensland-isms.

      Thanks for this site. Now packing up to leave Thredbo, so will take your advice and check it out later. I agree re losing our version of English … And often rail against Americanisms, particularly pronunciations like cereMOAny and territORy and DEEfence, but language changes. It’s what makes it fresh and living, or so I keep telling myself!

  9. January 13, 2016 01:22

    Hello, I am new to your site but I did want to share that I have just finished a book where the use of the vernacular was part of the charm of the book. The Cartographer by Peter Twolhig has an eleven year old boy living in inner city Melbourne in 1959 telling his romping story. I cannot imagine that I would have enjoyed the book so much if the story wasn’t told in the language of the boy and his family and friends. The chaos of the boys adventures is mirrored by the tumble of the language he uses.

    For mine, use of the vernacular allows us to get into the head of the characters where we see and describe the world in their own words.

    • January 13, 2016 08:08

      Lovely to hear from you Jacintah, and particularly about that book. I bought it on spec a couple of years ago for my teenage nephew and he said he really enjoyed it. It looked great. You make a good point about the vernacular making it easier to get into the head of a character. Thanks for joining in, and welcome to the Gums!

  10. January 13, 2016 06:39

    So do you say to-mah-to? I say to-may-to. Let’s call the whole thing off! 😉

    Sorry couldn’t resist that one.

    I don’t mind use of vernacular though sometime it makes reading hard going. A little goes a long way for the most part I think. But if an author is going to go full-vernacular then I expect the book had better darn well be worth the effort that is required to read it.

    • January 13, 2016 08:14

      True Stefanie … Was it a Geraldine Brooks book where she used a few words of the era but didn’t write in the vernacular, her point being (her point or whoever the author I’m remembering was) to give a flavour of the times without bogging the book down for readers. Made sense, particularly given her genre and goals.

      • January 13, 2016 08:18

        Yes, I believe it was Brooks. Good recall on that one! I never would have remembered it 🙂

  11. Jane Doherty permalink
    January 13, 2016 07:41

    Writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain both use the vernacular in the words of their characters. Both do this very accurately to reveal both the class and often the occupation of a character. This gives real authenticity to works that have now become classics and provide historical and literary insight.

    • January 13, 2016 08:18

      Thanks Jane, and welcome. Love your point and glad you made it. I actually had a paragraph about Dickens in my original draft but then decided that this was my Aussie lit post so I wouldn’t. I also had a reference to Jane Austen and the fact that when she used the vernacular, rather than her usual formal English, it was to indicate a less than trustworthy or admirable character, like silly Lydia in Pride and prejudice, the Steele sisters in Sense and sensibility, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.

  12. January 13, 2016 19:48

    I also loved Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. I got into the rythmn of those horses galloping, but I admit it was hard riding in the beginnning! I live in Victoria and when I was at school we always referred to the canteen as the tuckshop. So I think language is transportable and changes with the population. Though, it is a pity we have lost some of our own ‘Australian” words and allowed them to be replaced.

    • January 13, 2016 20:24

      Haha, Meg, love it – I agree it was hard riding to start with, but it didn’t take long once you relaxed. I think you are right that language is transportable – and the more we move around the more the differences probably flatten out, which is sad in a way.

  13. January 18, 2016 10:39

    You might be interested in this study being done by Dr Felicity Cox and her team at Macquarie University

    • January 18, 2016 16:21

      Thanks Beeblu. I have seen that before but will go check about. As a Macquarie graduate with a mother who worked on the Macquarie Dictionary I have a keen interest in what they do!

      • January 18, 2016 16:39

        That’s some pedigree. I’m a mature-age student there. 😄

        • January 18, 2016 18:30

          Oh are you. My Mum was an early mature age student there – mid 70s. I graduated as a young student from there in the mid-70s. I had occasion to visit a month ago and couldn’t believe how much it had changed. I recognised the street names but almost none looked the same!

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