The Development of Australian English

Have you ever wondered where Australian English came from, or what in the world “Scarnon, mate?” means? Well, if you have, you’ve come to the right place! My name is Dan Poole, an Australian and lover of all languages including my own, from Melbourne – Australia’s business and cultural hub. I have my own Chinese language and culture blog called ‘Chinese-Breeze’ that you guys can check out too, where I give lots of language learning tips.


Throughout human history, the ‘world language’ has changed many times. There has been a continual worldwide game of linguistic ‘musical chairs’ as the balance of power shifts and re-shifts between different groups over time. Languages such as Latin or Greek, during the great Roman and Byzantine Empires, respectively, are both examples of long serving lingua francas that have dominated at different points in time. Today, due to globalisation and the current age of technology, the boundaries once separating the East and West and other formerly isolated areas have now been well and truly broken.


If you were to have asked world leaders from only a few hundred years ago which language they thought would become the most spoken language in the world at the dawn of the new millennium, during such an unprecedented time for the human race as the one we live in, it is unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the bastard language originating from England – a small, wet and rocky island on the Atlantic Ocean, would be that language.


And yet, English has taken the position of the lingua franca of the modern world. It enjoys this status in most fields, but particularly in business, but also now in diplomacy, medicine and science, undermining languages such as French and German which once held this status.


Unsurprisingly, an almost innumerable quantity of dialects of English have emerged and developed over time in England and the colonies (and former colonies). It could be argued that the three ‘main’ types of English are the American, British and Australian variants. However, within these categories fall a huge number of sub-variants that vary in pronunciation, vocabulary, accent, spelling and grammar, to the point where communication between certain groups is often quite difficult. Even within Australia, two people from extremely different areas may have some problems communicating.


Today I will introduce you to the evolution of the Australian variety of English, including the variations that occur within this vast country with a comparatively tiny population of only approximately 25 million people.



Australia was first colonised by the English for use as a penal colony (there were, of course, Aboriginal people that already inhabited the continent) – in other words, Australia was an island jail that Britain used as a solution to their problem of having an overflowing prison population. These early settlers were, therefore, primarily convicts, who were sent from all over Great Britain, including Ireland, Wales, Scotland. Later events, such as the gold rush, sparked several waves of immigration from Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. As such, the common belief that Australians are all descendants of criminals is largely untrue – only a small minority are! The reality is that any two given Australians could have wildly different ethnicities and ancestries. Also, in those days, people could be imprisoned or sent to Australia for minor crimes, like the theft of a loaf of bread. Also, today, Australia is home to the largest Greek and Italian communities in the world, outside Greece and Italy. This has given rise to the development of ‘Greek-Australian’ and ‘Italian-Australian’ variants of the Australian accent.


Australian English was created with the first generation of children born in the new colony, who, due to their exposure to a wide range of accents, and also to completely separate languages such as Gaelic and Welsh, began to speak a distinct dialect of English that was to become the language of the nation. These differences were first noted by late arrivals in the early 1800s, and was said to bear a strong resemblance to Cockney English, spoken by the working-class in London.


Soon, elements and words from Aboriginal languages were to become part of the Australian vernacular. In researching for this article, I actually discovered that a lot of words I previously thought to be ‘standard’ English are actually derived from Indigenous Australian languages! Here are some examples:


  • The names of many places and animals – including Canberra (the Australian capital, meaning ‘meeting place’ in a local language), dingo, kangaroo, budgerigar, boomerang, wallaby.
  • Hard yakka – meaning ‘hard work’, derived from the Jagera language of the Brisbane area.
  • Cooee – a high-pitched call used traditionally by Aboriginal Australians to attract attention, used due to its ability to travel long distances.
  • Bung – meaning ‘dead’, but also used to mean broken or useless, for example “He has a bung eye”.


Other Common Australian English Words and Expressions

  • ‘Tradies’, ‘sparkies’, ‘chippies’, ‘brickies’, ‘rangas’ – meaning tradesmen, electricians, carpenters, bricklayers and people with red hair, respectively. Note that this last one is derogatory and its use is frowned upon.
  • ‘Thongs’ – are what American’s refer to as ‘flip-flops’. Get your mind out of the gutter.
  • ‘Macca’s’ – is the commonly used name for McDonalds in colloquial speech.
  • The ‘big smoke’ – used primarily by people from the country to refer to big cities, usually Sydney or Melbourne.
  • ‘Ankle biters ‘– children.
  • A ‘bludger’ – a lazy person.
  • ‘Fair dinkum’ – real or genuine, i.e. “a fair dinkum Aussie”.
  • ‘Off one’s face’/’smashed’/’para’ –  refer to being drunk, “I was off my face last night”.
  • ‘Shithouse’ – something of very bad quality.  “That parma is shithouse!”
  • To be ‘spewin’ – To be very angry or disappointed.


Variations of Australian English Within Australia

Within Australia itself are many different variations of Australian English, as well as many Creole languages that have emerged since colonisation through contact with Aboriginal people. Despite being such a large country, the variations in Australian English occur primarily between different sociocultural groups, however there are also some differences between the States (although this is mainly limited to small differences in vocabulary).


One interesting example of different vocabulary between the States is the use of the slang terms ‘tight’ in Victoria and ‘slack’ in New South Wales to mean the same thing, despite the fact that, literally speaking, these two words are opposite in meaning. They are both used to describe someone who is behaving in an unfair or mean way (“dude, don’t be tight”).


According to linguists, the main sociocultural variants of Australian English are the broad, general and cultivated ones. The ‘broad’ accent is what you imagine when you think of what a stereotypical Australian accent sounds like, for example, the accents of Steve Irwin or Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee). It is spoken nationwide, however it is most common in rural areas. The ‘general’ accent is used primarily by people living in metropolitan areas (I would classify myself in this category), an example of which would be Hugh Jackman. ‘Cultivated’ Australian English is much less common now than it was in previous generations, perhaps due to a change in social values. It historically denoted high social class or education, however it is often considered to be pretentious nowadays.


Anyway, guys, I hope you enjoyed the post! Hopefully you all learnt something about Australian English. We’re still a small country, but our population is rising rapidly, especially due to immigration. Australia is a popular destination for migrants due to our relatively stable economic condition. It may be that we may become one of the big players in the future!

Thanks for reading! If you want some more information about me, you can check out my blog Chinese-Breeze .

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Dan is a University student from Melbourne, Australia, studying Law and Arts with a Chinese major. He has been in love with languages ever since spending a semester living with a French family back in High School, and thinks everyone should speak another language. He speaks English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, with varying ability, and runs his own language blog about learning Chinese (Chinese-Breeze). Next year, he will be studying Chinese full time in China at Nanjing University.

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