Monday musings on Australian literature: Regional differences in Australian English
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 theconveration.com 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?