Australian English—where the bloody hell did it come from?

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Australian English—where the bloody hell did it come from?

‘There is no such thing as Australian grammar or Australian spelling. Why should there be any distinctive Australian speech? It is sad to reflect that other people are able to recognise Australians by their speech.’

So began Mr S. H. Smith’s opening address at the 1926 annual Teachers’ Conference in Sydney. This attitude prevailed until Alexander Mitchell took up the cause in 1940, working to reshape the public opinion of Australian English though a series of lectures and papers on the subject. He put forward the notion of ‘educated’ and ‘broad’ varieties, which has now been expanded to the concept of a continuum ranging from the thickest ‘strine’ as the ‘lowest’ of the sociolects, through general Australian English to cultivated Australian English. It wasn’t until Mitchell that research on Australian English really began—because until then, people refused to even acknowledge its existence. In the following 70 years, among other things, people sought to explain the general homogeneity of the Australian accent (almost no variation in a country 30 times the size of Britain!), what comprised Australian English (is it more than just the accent?), and its influences—from colonial times to present day. This post will discuss some accepted history which led to the homogenised accent, some more recent ideas on other influences … and a few other interesting elements.

The colonial days

In late January 1788, 11 ships carrying 717 convicts and nearly 300 officials arrived in Botany Bay (According to David Crystal; however, Mollie Gillen put the total number at 1332, though this includes marines and their families; Wikipedia contends 1487). The journey was unpleasant for all involved, particularly the convicts—at least 40 died on the 250-odd days it took to reach Australia. Conditions upon arrival were not much better, with the colony nearly starving in the first few years. By 1838, approximately 130,000 convicts had been sent to Australia. With free settlers flooding in, the convict/free settler ratio fell from 42.7% to 29.6% between 1831 and 1840. These free settlers along with emancipated convicts set themselves up as farmers on land either granted by the Crown, or simply squatted on unclaimed land—this movement away from the urban areas led to the establishment of 36 settlements of more than 100 people by 1846.

While these numbers are impressive, what do they mean? Who were these people? Both convicts and settlers were British, predominantly Londoners. However, of these convict ‘Londoners’, only 17% were London born. The remaining numbers were made up from various British counties, with those from Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire comprising nearly 15%. The Irish constituted 23% of all male convicts transported between 1788 and 48% of assisted migrants from 1829 to 1851. To some extent, these regional dialects would have been mixing and becoming tempered in London, and indeed in prison and on the journey, before these settlers even arrived in Australia.

Data from this time is patchy (as the First Fleet numbers discrepancy demonstrates), making it difficult to draw lines of cause and effect. While different conditions (such as the make-up of a population) and geographic isolation may have, in the early years, created slightly different English variants—these were effectively smoothed over by certain key events; the:

  • pastoral expansion of the mid 1830s (NSW, Tas., Vic., SA, Qld)
  • goldrushes of the 1850s (NSW, Vic.)
  • migration to the WA gold fields in 1880s and 1890s.

These events drew tens of thousands of people from around Australia (and as far away as America), mixing and levelling the Australian English accent further, to the extent that one of the few markers of locality is whether people use /æ/ or/a:/ in words like castle and graph (Adelaide, settled primarily by ‘middle or higher socio-economic status’ people has the highest incidence of the long /a:/; Brisbane, the lowest).

Irish influences

Much is made of the influence of Irish English on Australian English (or lack of it); however, at around 1800, out of an Irish population of five million, two million could not speak English at all. Irish convicts, themselves new to English may have brought words from Irish into Australian English. Dymphna Lonergan suggests sheila—a word meaning ‘female’, unique to Australia—is a derivation of the Irish Síle (pronounced the same) meaning ‘homosexual, or effeminate male’. She also suggests the Irish word bromaigh (meaning ‘young horses’ and pronounced ‘brummy’) as the origin of the Australian brumby. Other claims include chook (from tioc, a homophone meaning ‘come’, used when calling chickens in to feed), and cack, as in ‘I cacked my pants’ (from cac, with the predictable definition of ‘defecate’). Besides these lexical influences, Bradley cites possible phonological and morphological influences, including turning /I/ into schwa in unstressed positions (e.g. the final syllable in ‘naked’), and pronouncing the letter h (aitch) as ‘haitch’. Also, the plural second-person pronoun youse is common to Irish English and cited by many. I read this with conflicting emotion—I am of Irish descent, but tend to develop a slight tic when I hear ‘youse’ or ‘haitch’. Influences on syntax include use of the generic the, as in ‘he likes the drink’ and the adverbial but (meaning ‘though’), as in ‘nice try, but’.

Aboriginal influences

The most apparent Aboriginal influence in Australian English is its enrichment of the lexicon. In particular, the plethora of place names of Aboriginal origin. As David Crystal points out, you just need to look at a map—they are unmistakeable. These names contrast markedly with those of British origin—in Brisbane alone, names such as Indooroopilly and Woolloongabba create havoc for those trying to enter a spelling into a GPS (and me … I missed an L on first attempt at Woolloongabba, just then). There are also the obvious ones—animal and plant names (koala, dingo, coolabah, etc).  Yabber (to talk incessantly), and kylie (a type of boomerang—and popular girls’ name) are Aboriginal words. Speaking of Kylie, Kylie Minogue, at the start of her singing career, was given the epithet ‘the Singing Budgie’ by detractors (Times Online), which is a derivative of budgerigar (type of parrot), another Aboriginal word. Finally, one last tenuously connected point—without budgerigar, we wouldn’t have the euphemistic term budgie smugglers (men’s Speedo-style swimmers).


In The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language, Crystal discusses the ‘Great Australian Adjective’, bloody, stating that it lost its pejorative sense in Australia around the 1940s, at a time when it was still quite taboo in England. He paraphrases Charles Darwin, who visited Australia in 1835 and commented that convict servants exposing children to ‘the vilest expressions’ was one the ‘serious drawbacks’ of life in Australia. Crystal goes on to imply that the large convict base, made up of those of low socio-economic status, swore a lot and hence desensitised Australians to this kind of language. I would go further and suggest, more than colouring our language (apologies for the pun), the influence of convicts has helped to shape the Great Australian Irreverence—or ‘larrikin culture’, if you will—and our predilection to champion the underdog.

In conclusion (or, why we just don’t know)

Little concrete information on the origins of Australian English exists—predominantly because primary sources are not available from before the twentieth century. Sound recording did not exist, and there are no ‘printed texts that reproduce or attempt to reproduce non-standard Australian English’. Louis Stone’s novel Jonah did not appear until 1911—well after the formative period of Australian English—and the dialogue intended to represent the speech of the working class has been shown to be affected with Stone’s native Leicester dialect. In Taylor’s ‘Englishes in Sydney around 1850’, he analyses non standard Englishes recorded in newspaper court reports, but these seem more like caricature accents contrived and exaggerated for the purpose of satire. Applying linguistic analysis to a source is all well and good, but any findings are only as reliable as the transcription of the original source. Trying to find the origins of Australian English is like trying to judge the size and shape of a thrown stone by the ripples it left in a pond.


Bradley, D (2003) ‘Mixed sources of Australian English’, Australian Journal of Linguistics, 23:2, 143–150

Cox, F (2005) ‘Australian English pronunciation into the 21st century’, (PowerPoint) AMEP national conference 2005, Macquarie University

Crystal, D (2003) The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language (2nd edn.) Cambridge University Press

Delbridge, A (1999) ‘Standard Australian English’, World Englishes, 18:2, 259–270

Fritz, C (2004) ‘From Plato to Aristotle—Investigating early Australian English’, Australian journal of linguistics, 24:1, 57–97

Gillen, M (1989) The founders of Australia: A biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Library of Australian History, Sydney

Johnston, C. Verico, L (2005) ‘Kylie: from Singing Budgie to sexy superstar’, Times online, accessed 15 June 2010.

Leitner, G (2004) ‘Beyond Mitchell’s views on the history of Australian English’, Australian journal of linguistics, 24:1, 99–125

Leitner, G. Sieloff, I (1998) ‘Aboriginal words and concepts in Australian English’, World Englishes, 17:2, 153­–169

Lonergan, D (2003) ‘An Irish-centric view of Australian English’, Australian journal of linguistics, 23:2, 151–159

Mitchell, A (2003) ‘The story of Australian English: users and environment’, Australian Journal of Linguistics, 23:2, 111–128

Taylor, B (2003) ‘Englishes in Sydney around 1850’, Australian journal of linguistics, 23:2, 161–183

Various, Macquarie Dictionary Online—<>, accessed 15 June 2010

Various, Wikipedia—<–1850)>, <>, accessed between 12 and 15 June 2010.

By | 2017-05-19T08:20:32+00:00 June 16th, 2015|Did you know, Etymology, Grammar, Linguistics|0 Comments

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