TT: Speak Like An Aussie

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for a look at anniversary dates.  Then come back here and learn to speak like an Australian!

ALAN: G’day, Jane.

Drowsy Wombat

JANE: G’day back attcha, cobber.   Hey…  I need to jerk your chain.  A couple weeks ago in the comments to my blog (WW 1-11-12) you said you prefered when writers didn’t transcribe accents.  I believe you particularly protested the use of apostrophes.  Now I catch you in the act.

ALAN: Jerk my chain and I’ll flush with embarassment. Oh, look! We’re back to toilet humour again…

JANE: <grin> I’d like to ask about how I might best use language to get across an Australian character.  As I said last time, I remembered something else “Australian” about the Outback Steakhouse.  The menu was full of what was apparently Australian terms like “bloomin’,” “wee dinkum,” and “bonzo” or something like that.  Sadly, I can’t give you direct quotes because on our last visit I noticed they’d rewritten the menu and eliminated most of these.  About the only thing left was a steak called a “Victoria” and a cocktail with “wallaby” in the name.

Do Australians really use expressions like the ones I mentioned or have they fallen out of favor?

ALAN: Well, they do and they don’t. Certainly you will hear phrases such as “fair dinkum” and “bonza” in everyday speech, but often they’ll be used for comic effect,  playing to the stereotype as it were. Nevertheless the everyday speech patterns can sometimes be quite colourful. One of the reasons that the film Crocodile Dundee was so successful is that it only exaggerated the truth a little bit. Robin came home from work one day, raced into the house, and yelled “I need a cup of tea! I’m as dry as a dead dingo’s donger!”

JANE:  Let’s say I wanted to write a modern Australian character.  What language elements would you recommend?  And, maybe more importantly, what should I avoid because those terms have become as old-fashioned as “groovy” and “right-on”?

ALAN: That depends on whether your story would be set in a city or in the country. The distinction between the two is vast. People in the outback are very isolated and tend to have a broader, some might say richer, vocabulary than the city dwellers who, being rather more cosmopolitan, tend to speak much like the rest of us, albeit with a distinctive twang. So vocabulary, as is so often the case, tends to be an indicator of both class and profession.

In other words, I don’t know…

JANE: All right.  I’ll be more specific.  I used the term “cobber” above, but I really don’t know what it means.  I’ve simply seen it used as a friendly greeting.  Would that still work?

ALAN: “Cobber” just means “mate” or “friend.”   However, you’d commonly use it to address someone you’d never met in your life before. If the person you were talking to really was a friend, you’d call them by their name. It’s perhaps an informal equivalent of “sir” or “madam.”  Though having said that, I’m not sure you’d use the term when talking to a woman. It probably corresponds quite closely to “amigo” in your neck of the woods.

JANE: Actually, probably not!  I certainly wouldn’t call a stranger “amigo,” but I might with a friend.  I don’t know if it’s different with guys or people who have lived in New Mexico longer.

“Mate” seems almost classically Australian.  So it’s still in use?   Is it used for friends as well as strangers?

ALAN: Yes, it certainly is.

JANE: Okay.  I’m getting a feel for this.   The Outback Steakhouse had restrooms labeled “Sheilas” and “Bruces.”  Are those terms still in common use today?  Would you say “Who’s that Bruce who just came into the room?”

ALAN: No you wouldn’t say that. Though, interestingly, if a woman came into the room you would say “Who’s that Sheila?” But if you talked to the man who just came in, and you didn’t know his name, you might call him Bruce.

Interestingly, people from Glasgow (in Scotland, which is about as un-Australian as you can get) have the same idea except they call strange men “Jimmy.”  Robin claims that one of the reasons that she moved to England in the 1980s was that she was fed up of the average Australian male’s idea of foreplay: “You awake, Sheila?”

English men, she claimed, had more finesse.

Hopefully, Australians are a bit more sophisticated these days…

JANE: Last week you ended with the the phrase “She’ll be right.” Do Australians use gender specific language then?  Most types of English I’m familiar with that use “she” in that fashion are usually the result of direct translation from another language.    An example would be the Italian who says “The pizza, she will be ready in a short time.”   Stuff like that.

ALAN: The idea of gender specific language is so foreign to English these days that it always raises eyebrows, though it’s very common in other European languages.. Your Italian example is a good one. The general answer to your question is no, we don’t have any real gender specificity. The phrase “She’ll be right” just means “Everything will turn out OK.”  Quite why the female pronoun got attached to it is a complete mystery to me. But then I don’t know why ships are always referred to as “she” either. It’s just one of those things.

JANE: How about the Australian accent?  When my sister studied in England for a year her friends begged her not to try to speak with a British accent (they didn’t say what flavor) because they said an American with a British accent sounded like an Australian.  So what characterizes an Australian accent?

ALAN: Robin claims that Australians sound the way they do because they speak out of the side of their mouth with the teeth clenched and the lips tightly closed, so as to stop the flies getting in. I’ve tried speaking that way and she’s right! I immediately sound Australian. And so will you…

JANE: Hmm…  Let me try that…  There’s something to what you’re saying, but I think I’d need a British accent to get the full effect.

Now, while language and slang are important, as you noted in those same comments, getting the spirit of the character right is more important.   Let me warn you!  I can already feel the questions piling up!


5 Responses to “TT: Speak Like An Aussie”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    The amusing thing about accents, which is quite noticable in ‘Strine’, is how limited the actually appearance of the ‘classic’ version tends to be. Back in the days when I encountered numbers of Australians in one place, I think that about 1 in 4 actually sounded like a Strine. That’s in large part, I think, because, the classic accent is usually a regional one and often rather narrowly distributed. As another example, the most perfect Scots brogue I’ve ever encountered came from a Persian kid who grew up in the Outer Hebrides.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I love the image of a Persian kid speaking with a perfect Scots brogue…

      Next time I read Mary Renault’s _The Persian Boy_, you’re going to have contaminated the voice.

      • Peter Says:

        The most striking example of this phenomenon I’ve seen personally was a pair of teenage girls walking down the street in Montreal in full hijab (Muslim modest dress) having a conversation in French, with perfect East End Montreal accents (the accent in question, for those unfamiliar, is quite distinct, instantly recognizable, and very localized – think Cockney, or Bostonian).

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I like that, the trying-to-keep-the-flies-out accent. Gives bugger a whole ‘nother meaning, it does.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    It is interesting how in our highly mobile world we still judge what accent a person should have by appearance.

    My dad was good friends with a couple, the wife of whom was ethnically Chinese. She was regularly complimented on how well she spoke English. Her reply was “I was born in Texas.”

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