As an Australian born English teacher I am often asked by my students to teach them about Australian English and slang. This document explains the main features of Australian English (AusA) and compares to British English (BrE) and North American English (NAmE).
The differences between all three varieties of English can be found in four main categories:
- Pronunciation differences
- Spelling differences
- Grammar differences
Australian English is closer to British English but it still has many unique characteristics and differences. But first, a brief history of English in Australia.
The British Government established a convict settlement in Sydney in 1788. English was therefore the language of the colony and got adapted by the convicts and free settlers, by twisting meanings of existing words and borrowing new words.
Convicts were also transported from Ireland after the 1798 Irish rebellion. Many Irish migrants arrived after the Irish famine in 1840 and their language has had an influence. The word sheila is an Irish girl’s name adapted to mean a woman.
Words from the native Aboriginal languages have been incorporated into Australian English to name things native to this continent:
- Animals: kangaroo, koala, wallaby, wombat, dingo
- Plants: mallee, jarrah, coolibah.
- Birds: kookaburra, currawong, budgerigar
- Fish: barramundi, wobbegong, yabby
- Environment: billabong (waterhole), bombora (treacherous current over a submerged rock), willy–willy (suddent twisting gust of wind).
- Tools and instruments: boomerang, didgeridoo.
The growth of the goldfields in the 1850s brought an influx of people from all over the world, including UK, Ireland, Europe, North America and Asia. Many British and American slang and colloquial expressions came into existence, e.g. Fossick (dig through a heap of dirt for any leftover gold).
Digger is a word brought from American and originally meant miner but took on the meaning of mateship during World War 1. The movie Gallipoli shows mateship in action.
During World War 1 soldiers contributed some slang – a furphy (‘rumour’) is the name of a water cart manufactured by John Furphy and would be a place where rumors could spread.
During the Great Depression a battler was someone struggling against all odds, often surviving on susso (‘sustenance payments’). Nowadays you will hear the expression little Aussie battler.
Americanisation of Australian English began after World War 2 through tourism, the media and military activity. American words are being absorbed into Australian English and co-exist with the more British words for example: cookie and biscuit. Men can be referred to as dudes instead of guys.
Australian English is often quite informal and speaking informally is very important in Australia. For Australians, being informal increases the desirable attributes of mateship, equality, solidarity and colonial escapism from the class-ridden society of England.
A characteristic of information Australian English is to shorten words (Diminutives). Often the ending of ‘o’ is used (bottle-o for bottle shop, compo for compentation, rego for registration) or ‘ie’ (breakie for breakfast)
- Chocolate chockie
- Biscuit bicky I am eating a chockie bickie
- Breakfast brekkie Have you eaten brekkie?
- Woolworths Woollies
- Football Footy I’m going to the footy tonight.
Many items have different names in England, Australia and North America and this can lead to confusion. Here is a selection of words.
|British English||Australian English||American English|
|House||1st floor||1st floor||2nd floor|
|cooker||stove / cooking range / cooktop||stove|
|flat||unit / apartment||apartment|
|Ground Floor||Ground Floor||1st Floor|
|petrol||petrol||gasoline / gas|
|petrol station||service station||gas station|
|Cities||city centre||city centre / CBD||downtown|
|high street||main street|
|phone box||phone box||phone booth|
|number plate||number plate||license plate|
|candy floss||candy floss / fairy floss||cotton candy|
|crisps||potato chips / chips||chips|
|ice lolly||icy pole||popsicle|
|lemonade||lemonade||Sprite / 7-UP|
|off-licence||bottle shop||liquor store|
|potato chips||hot chips||French Fries|
|soft drink||soft drinks||soda pop / pop|
|sweets||sweets / lollies||candy|
|take-away (adj)||take-away (adj)||to go|
|Dining Out||the bill||the bill||the check|
|main course||main course||appetiser|
|trousers||pants / slacks||pants|
|jumper / pullover||jumper / sweater / pullover||sweater|
|Emotion / Feeling||pissed off (angry)||pissed|
|chemist||chemist / pharmacy||drugstore|
|film||film / movie||movie|
|mobile phone||mobile phone||cell phone|
|pocket money||pocket money||allowance|
|rubbish||rubbish / garbage||trash|
|rubbish bin||rubbish bin / wasterpaper bin||trash can|
|Sellotape||sticky tape||Scotch tape|
Surprisingly, there are minimal regional differences in pronunciation so a person from Western Australia will speak the same as someone from New South Wales. This is a huge contrast to America where each state has different accents. Think of the big differences between Californian, Texan, and New York .
There are a few exceptions – Victorians say castle as “cassel” but in NSW we say “car-sel”.
The main difference in pronunciations is that people from the country (rural) usually speak slower and broader than the urban speakers.
Australia has three recognized accents:
- About 10 percent of Australians speak like ex-prime minister Bob Hawke with what is known as a broad Australian accent. This accent is usually used by men.
- 80 percent of the population speak like Nicole Kidman with a general Australian accent.
- 10 percent speak like ex Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser with British received pronunciation or cultivated English. This accent is used by both men and women, although the source I checked claims more women speak like this.
Compared to American accent
The letter “r”. In American English the letter r is pronounced much stronger than in British or Australian accent. For example shirt – Australians wont say the “r” but Americans accentuate the “r” with a more rounded sound.
Syllable stress can be different for example the word adult . Australians will emphasise the first syllable but the Americans emphasise the last syllable.
Most consonants are pronounced differently.
The letter r. In the middle position it is dropped in British English but American keeps the sound. For example birth, turn, learn , work.
The letter t. Americans tend to drop at the end of the word What, Cut. When t is in the middle it can sound like d. This happens when the t between two vowels or between r and a vowel party, Saturday, waiter, matter, butter, water. Sometimes “t” is dropped after “n” in the middle of a word. centre interview internet.
Common words with different pronunciation: The letter z, new, adult, brochure, garage, address, laboratory, route, advertisement, controversy, patent, apricot, vase, hurricane, enquiry, leisure, either, neither.
This is just an overview of the differences and more detailed phonetic studies can be found online.
Some words have different spelling airplane (NAmE), aeroplane (BrA) and many words follow a pattern of spelling differences.
Words ending in –our get changed to an or ending in NAmE: colour, flavor and honour
Words ending in –re (BrE) get changed to –er ending: theatre -> theater,
Words ending in –ise (BrE) get changed to –ize (NAmE): prioritise, prioritize
Words ending in –ue sometimes lose the ue ending. catalogue (BrE) and catalog (NAmE)
The past participle of to get in NAmE is gotten whereas Australia uses got. You have gotten fat instead of You have got fat.
American tend to use adjectives as adverbs. I’m doing great instead of I am doing well.
Spelling Differences List