How Australian English Grew Its Wings

How did Australian English become distinct from British English? We explore its history from 1788 until today.
Author's Avatar
How Australian English Grew Its Wings

Australian English: It begins with a g’day and gets lost in translation at the Bottle O’ — or the liquor store, as you may know it. The origins of Down Under English may point directly to England, but a lot has happened to the language since it sailed across the sea in 1788.

New words and phrases are a dime a dozen, and even words shared between Australia and other English-speaking countries have different meanings. A packet of “crisps” to a Brit is a packet of “chips” to an Aussie; a British “banger” is a sausage, while an Aussie “banger” is a good song, and so on. Even if the language is largely the same, the accent couldn’t be more different. And it’s not as though the “Australian accent” is all the same, either. Modern Australian accents vary between individuals, much like how the accent of a New Yorker differs from a Texan.

Modern linguists have tentatively agreed on there being roughly three forms of the Australian accent: Broad Australian, General Australian and Cultivated Australian. All three differ from the British accent and lie on a spectrum with “Broad” being the most removed from the British accent, and “Cultivated” being the closest comparison. If you’ve ever met an Aussie who sounds a bit “posh,” you could safely assume they have the “Cultivated” accent. And if you’ve met a bloke or a Sheila with an accent that would put Crocodile Dundee to shame, you can bet on them having the “Broad” accent.

In order to understand how the same language could change so drastically, we’ve created a simple timeline to document the history of Australian English, starting from when settlers from Europe first reached Australia’s shores:

1788: The Australian accent, at least according to modern experts, began developing right after the arrival of European settlers and convicts. Blimey!

The Australian accent developed through a process known as dialect leveling, which is when different dialects merge and assimilate until their distinct characteristics are removed. Convicts aboard the ships sent to Australia are believed to have spoken a variety of English accents, due to hailing from different areas of England.

When they all came together, their accents slowly lost their unique characteristics. Ever noticed how your accent can change when you spend a long time overseas? (Or even slightly change when you’re speaking to a British friend?) This is that same process on a smaller scale. 

1855: Reports from school inspectors in the various colonies (and later, states) reported mispronunciation of vowels and diphthongs by the younger students. A diphthong is a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, where the sound begins as one vowel and moves towards another (as in coin, loud, and side). There are diphthongs in every English accent, but they are very pronounced in the Australian accent.

Documents accused settlers of mispronouncing “maountain” for “mountain,” “taown” for “town,” and so forth. Another common criticism levied against the settlers was the “corruption” of -ing words, pronouncing them with the ending -en instead of -ing. Instead of saying writing, fishing, reading, the words more closely resembled a pronunciation of written, fishen, readen.

The 1890s: Evidence suggests elocution teachers, or instructors that taught a particular way of speaking, became sought after for lessons in British vowels and diphthongs within the socially aspirational classes. This “sought-after” form of speech is said to have become what is now known as Cultivated Australian.

1893: The Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir John Madden, is recorded to have admonished young Australians for mispronouncing their diphthongs — encouraging them to instead “pronounce the English vowels as they were intended.”

1916: Evidence points to an initiative within schools to teach the “correct” pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs, in words such as: day, go, cat, eat, school and cow. These lessons were said to include correct lip and tongue placements.

1976: The first general Australian dictionary was published with Graeme Johnston’s Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary.

The 1980s and onwards: Remember those three pesky Australian accent categories we spoke about before? Well, individuals with “Broad” and “Cultivated” accents are dwindling, and the majority of Australians are adopting the “General” accent instead.

Australian English may not have entirely bucked its British English roots, but the accent that has since developed is truly unmistakable. Next time you’re out and about at your local, try listening to the accents of the Aussies around you. Are your mates speaking with a Broad accent, or are they more Cultivated? Either way, shout a round and have a good night!

Want to speak a new language with confidence?
Try Babbel for free
Pick a language to speak