Frequent commenter Paul sent me a link to this OED essay by Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at Australian National University, on “Australian English in the twentieth century.” It’s full of interesting facts; here’s the section on the history of the tripartite division of accents:

And then, at the end of the nineteenth century, something curious and largely unpredictable happened to Australian English. In response to a newly-developed concept of Received Pronunciation in Britain, which was closely tied to notions of social prestige, some Australian speakers modified their vowels and diphthongs in order to move them towards the British exemplars. From the 1890s, and well into the 1950s, elocution was in the air, and elocution teachers found a ready market for the teaching of British vowels and diphthongs to the socially-aspirational classes. This modified form of Australian speech came to be called Cultivated Australian.
As if in response against this new British-based Cultivated Australian, a diametrically opposed form of Australian English developed in the first part of the twentieth century. This form moved the Australian vowels and diphthongs even further away from what was now the British standard of pronunciation, and emphasized nasality, flatness of intonation, and the elision of syllables.This second modified form of Australian speech came to be called Broad Australian. While it is true that when non-Australians hear any Australian say ‘mate’ or ‘race’ they are likely to mistake the words for ‘mite’ and ‘rice’, the mishearing is most likely to occur with speakers of Broad Australian.
The majority of Australians continued to speak with the accent that had been established in the first fifty years of settlement, and this form of speech came to be known as General Australian. General Australian was now book-ended by Cultivated Australian and Broad Australian, and these forms of Australian English came to carry with them very different sets of values. Cultivated Australian, for example, came to express a longing for British values and a nostalgia for a country that was still regarded by many as ‘home’. Broad Australian was strongly nationalistic, and carried with it notions of egalitarianism that were antagonistic to a perceived class-obsessed and hierarchical Britain. …
In the second half of the twentieth century… Australian English became ‘naturalized’ in its own country, its accent and vocabulary were accepted as a national norm, and it was celebrated in such works as the Australian National Dictionary of 1988. In the first half of the twentieth century Cultivated Australian had been the socially prestigious accent; by the end of the century its utterance was likely to generate derision and laughter. As a result, Broad Australian, too, has been in decline, as if this extreme form was no longer required now that the imperial elements were dead. General Australian is now to the fore—as it had been before the false dawns of Cultivated and Broad.

Australian English previously on LH: slang, word map, yeah no, swearing.


  1. How funny! A professor of mine pointed out that everyone in my city uses a similar expression. In our case, it can go both ways (“No no yeah” or “Yeah no”). She found it very confusing because she couldn’t figure out which one, yes or no, people meant.
    I’m from a border city in Western Texas. I find myself using similar expressions in Spanish, so I’m not sure from which language it came first.

  2. Odd that the variations across states aren’t mentioned – I’d have thought that the diff between Sydney and Melbourne would have been more significant (or is the writer claiming that the Melbourne accent was cultivated and the Sydney accent broad? 😉

  3. What differences?
    Apart things like South Australians pronouncing ‘dance’ with the long ‘a’ of ‘aunt’ and some Victorians calling their capital ‘Malben’ there are almost no regional variations in Australian accents, especially relative to UK or North American English.

  4. Chris Rusbridge says

    Having lived in Adelaide for 20 years after a youth in the UK, I find the narrowness of the regional accent variation just staggering given the distances and early isolation involved. The speech difference from FNQ to Adelaide is surely far, far less than the speech distance from Texas to New York, for example, and certainly much less than the speech distance between Somerset and Birmingham, some 100 miles by road!

  5. how do you account for the lower degree of regional accent variation? Smaller population?
    I’d say yeahno is less widely spread in British English than the similar yeahbut which you can hear all the time. Have you heard it on Little Britain?
    The French often say ‘oui non’ or ‘oui oui non’ – it’s a way of acknowledging someone else’s point and then making your own.
    Russians say ‘da net’ (pronounced as if one word) meaning ‘absolutely not’, but ‘da’ here is just an interjection (like ‘well, no’). ‘Да, нет’ pronounced with a pause would be used in the same context as ‘yeah no’ – yes to acknowledge what the other person is saying (yes, I’ve heard you) and then making your point (no, but I also think that).

  6. Charles Perry says

    And then there’s the matter of Broad Australian vowels. My copy of “Stewnts! Vistas! Let’s Speak Strine!” gives the pronunciation of “lounge” as “lairnge.”
    I am informed that if you speak Cultivated Australian, you me be instructed to “spit out the plum.”

  7. Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

  8. In the 70s, in the country, in Queensland, I remember a man whose accent was so strong I found it difficult to understand. It was nothing like the three mentioned here, it was a more like a west-country English accent.
    as if this extreme form was no longer required
    That’s the most unlikely explanation I’ve ever heard, though. The late Steve Irwin brandished an accent that could be best described as Broad Australian.

  9. book-ended by Cultivated Australian and Broad Australian
    These probably map quite well on to the “wowser” vs “larrikin” spectrum.

  10. FWIW, I noticed on my last visit back home that the ABC newsreaders had fairly standard Australian accents. A couple of decades ago my feeling is that newsreaders had more identifiably “cultivated” accents.
    As for regional pronunciations, there are people who say they can hear them. My biggest shock was some years ago when I was doing the translation/voiceover for the evening news on a Japanese TV channel. An Australian told me later that the first thing she thought when they heard me was: “Hey, there’s a Queenslander reading the news!” And at the time I was definitely striving for a “cultivated” accent since I felt that a standard Australian accent wouldn’t go down well in Japan.

  11. When I lived in Adelaide twenty-odd years ago I listened to a programme on ABC radio: interviews with survivors of WWI. It struck me that these old soldiers mostly spoke in various regional English accents. There was only a little “Australian” about their speech that I could detect; it was entirely different from that of the postWWII generation, which was different again from that of The Young. When I remarked to a middle-aged colleague that I found The Young hard to follow, he whispered “Me too, mate”.

  12. I’ve had at least one linguist acquaintance roll their eyes at Moore’s proposal, particularly his suggestion that Broad Australian was born in the World War I trenches, when Australians first has mass exposure to British English. I don’t think Moore has good quantitative backup, and I vaguely recall some work is being done by linguists in response.
    Broad Australian certainly still prospers in emblematic use (like Steve Irwin—and like parliament, where politicians have to prove their populist bona fides). I think predictions of the death of Broad Australian are exaggerated. Cultivated Australian, OTOH, is definitely stigmatised now.
    As Moore’s book (which I’ve reviewed) points out, the old three-way split is not the only game in town now: immigrant lects of English have reached into the second and third generation.
    Moore’s explanation for the dialect uniformity: two generations of koineisation in Sydney, followed by rapid diffusion to the rest of the country, and not enough time subsequently for regional variation to develop. Sounds plausible to me.
    There’s only a couple of regional differences, as Leinad noted; the vowel of castle is a difference inherited from regions of England, but “Melbourne raising” (ɛ > æ / _l) is new. (And—ssssh, don’t tell anyone—is shared with New Zealand English.)

  13. marie-lucie says

    “Melbourne raising“? the shift from the mid front vowel ɛ to the low front vowel æ is an instance of lowering – unless the rule has been written backwards.

  14. Marie-Lucie: I know. My impression is that it the merger of “salary” and “celery” is a lowering of ɛ to æ; whoever coined the term thinks it’s instead a raising of æ to ɛ. Hence, in the Wikipedia link, mention of the popular suggestion that Albert is pronounced as Elbert. That’s not what I hear; I hear Melbourne pronounced as Malbin. (And so does Leinad above.)
    But of course the whole point of a merger is its speakers can’t hear the distinction any more. 🙂

  15. I don’t think it’s just Wangaratta. I’m guilty of “Melbourne raising”. I would normally pronounce “Go to Hal” the same as “Go to hell”, unless I make a conscious effort to differentiate them.

  16. Hey, this is interesting!
    I have been looking at all the vowel mergers and splits documented in Wikipedia and elsewhere (especially those that occur in North American English) hoping to find some that might apply to me (in Melbourne, Australia), but I was largely unsuccessful, except for the trap-bath split and the bad-lad split (and the latter is so subtle I am not even sure about it).
    For example, I don’t have the father-bother, cot-caught, pin-pen or coil-curl mergers or any of the “mergers before intervocalic r” (e.g. Mary-marry-merry listed in the Wikipedia article.
    But now I find I do have the /ɛ/ to /æ/ before /l/ e.g. salary-celery, Hal-hell etc. merger! And I never knew before that this was confined to New Zealand and Victoria, Australia. Really? How weird I never noticed before that non-Victorian Australians pronounce “el” like /ɛl/ not like /æl/?
    And do they also pronounce “Melbourne” like /mɛlbən/ rather than /mælbən/? Surely not!? I can clearly hear the difference between /ɛl/ and /æl/, but /ɛl/ sounds very upper class British to my ears.

  17. Thinking about it, of course I have plenty of mergers that most Americans don’t. Australian English speakers are non-rhotic! Homophones for me include: panda-pander, area-airier, cheetah-cheater, formally-formerly, manna-manner/manor, rota-rotor, schema-schemer, tuba-tuber, custody-custardy, father-farther, alms-arms, balmy-barmy, lava-larva, spa-spar, pawn-porn, awe-or, caulk-cork, gnaw-nor, laud-lord, stalk-stork, talk-torque, taught-tort, thaw-Thor, caught-court, awe-or-ore/oar, bawd-board, flaw-floor, fought-fort, law-lore, paw-pour/pore, raw-roar, sauce-source, saw-sore/soar, Shaw-shore, calve-carve, aunt-aren’t, fast-farced, taw-tor-tore, Shaw-sure, tawny-tourney, yaw-your. batted-battered, arches-archers, chatted-chattered, founded-foundered, matted-mattered, offices-officers, sauces-saucers, splendid-splendo(u)red and tended-tendered. When I think about it at all, I think how bothersomely tongue-twisting and jaw-aching it would be to have to pronounce the ‘r’ in these words. I would love to hear a phenomenological account from a rhotic speaker about how they view these mergers!

  18. There used to be an advert on the telly in Oz with the wonderful rhyme:
    I must say your scones are
    Absolutely bonzer
    None of the “r”s were pronounced.

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    To this day, it looks like easily over 10% of the current Australian population was born outside of Australia in an Anglophone country of origin (with the U.K. as by far the largest component of that), and I expect that percentage was higher in the decades following WW2. Obviously if you came from, say, Scotland at age 3 you will assimilate to Australian linguistic norms much more so than if you come at 30, with all sorts of gradations in between. I would think that continued influx would have interfered in all sorts of ways with the development of a stable AusE equilibrium, in a way that immigrants from Italy/the former Yugoslavia / Vietnam arriving with (one assumes) comparatively minimal English might not have. I don’t know how different sorts of immigrants (linguistically speaking) may or may not have been concentrated in different parts of Australia and how that might play into regional dialect variations.

  20. J. W. Brewer says

    By contrast the foreign-born-in-Anglophone-country %age of the U.S. population was down to circa 5% by 1900 and has declined thereafter, even assuming (implausibly) that none of the Canadian-born were Francophones (and treating Canadian-born speakers as meaningfully “foreign” for dialect-of-English purposes) and none of the Irish-born Gaelic-speakers.

  21. To be honest, I don’t think the high proportion of immigrants has contributed to instability in the way that J.W. suggests.
    When I was growing up, there was strong pressure in Australia to speak like “an Australian”. There was no incentive to speak like any of the immigrant groups. The “Poms” were accepted as part of the “family” (as it were), but part of the Australian identity was not to speak like a Pom. The seductive qualities of American English were much larger, but there was no significant immigration of Americans in the 20th century, so that doesn’t count.
    I think that one thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is that “Cultivated Australian” seems to have been more popular among women than men. This would fit in with experience in other places, that is, women are more susceptible to regular standardising influences, whereas men are more susceptible to “reverse” standardising influences involving a rejection of standard language. That is, women are more susceptible to exhortations to “speak correctly”. Men are more susceptible to pressure to “speak like one of the boys”, which might mean rejecting “cultivated correct speech”.
    As for “Hal/hell”, I’m not a Victorian at all. Does iching really feel that Queenslanders usually preserve the distinction? I certainly don’t.

  22. @barhrobe: As I indicated in my previous comment, I was quoting the Wikipedia article which confined the salary-celery, Hal/hell merger to NZ and Victoria. I expressed surprise, as I had thought it to be an Australia-wide phenomenon. But then I considered the possibilty that I was an unreliable observer. If you are a native Queenslander, then that is one data point in favour of my intuition that Wikipedia is wrong.

  23. Ahah. An article from some Malbin Uni phoneticians I know (including one I’ve RA’d for):
    About time linguists actually paid attention to the phenomenon in Melbourne, as opposed to the NSW–Victoria border. The linked paper, , points out the obvious phonetic correlate to the æl/ɛl merger: the l is consistently velarised.
    See also . Blow me down, New South Welshwomen really do pronounce helicopter with an /ɛ/.

  24. Well, well, well. When I listen to the sound clips for helicopter and Alps for Victoria and NSW on the Map of Regional Australian accents (via the link provided by Nick) I have to admit I can’t hear the difference. Yet I swear I could produce an /ɛl/ sound if I really wanted to. But the NSW sounds are not the sounds I would produce. Very confusing! Oh, and who says this is a recent phenomenon? My 83 year old Melburnian born Mum says “al” for “el” and I’m sure she always has.

  25. The problem is not just one of pronunciation (phonetics), it’s whether people draw a distinction or not (phonology). Even if they don’t “raise” (lower) the vowel sound, are New South Welshmen pronouncing “al” and “el” differently?

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