“G’day, ya here to vote?” was the greeting I got from the consular official at the Australian embassy in Berlin. Yes, I was there to vote, but why was he being so matey about it? And it wasn’t just him. As I listened to the various conversations going on around me I realised that the embassy was staffed exclusively by Paul Hogan’s and Steve Irwin’s mates.
Why were these DFAT officials so Aussie? Perhaps they want to make it clear that you’ve stepped into a little piece of Australia in some far-flung corner of the world. The embassy is a lot like Australia — it’s an island distinct from its surroundings and there’s a queue you have to stand in to get in the door. Presumably if you jump the queue you have to go and wait in the East Timorese embassy — I didn’t ask. The matey dialect is perhaps just another way of asserting their Australian identity.
Of course the way everyone speaks is determined to a certain extent by their social identity. Some of the best-known studies of the effects of social identity on speech were conducted in the 1960s in New York City by William Labov, and in Norwich, England, by Peter Trudgill.
In both cases they looked at the distribution of various features of pronunciation that were associated with the local working-class dialects. The subjects in New York and Norwich evaluated their local dialects negatively — they said they felt that it was not really the proper way of talking, in contrast to the standard language.
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The question that then arose is: why do people continue to talk this way if they think it’s not the best way of talking?
A possible factor is what Labov first called covert prestige. The people talk this way because they want (largely subconsciously) to identify themselves as members of the local working class. They maintain a certain pride in being a part of this social group, even though it might be considered “lower class”. In fact, Labov and Trudgill found that among some sections of the community the use of the local forms was actually increasing.