Debbie Loakes, John Hajek and Janet Fletcher write:

A curious transformation is happening to Victoria’s vowels, and it’s not going unnoticed. For a while now, many Victorians have been confusing “el” sounds with “al” sounds, so that celery sounds like salary, pellet like palate and telly like tally.  In other words, Victorians don’t know if they’re Allan or Ellen.

The tendency to pronounce “el” as “al” has been heard before in places like New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Linguists call this the /el/-/æl/ sound change, and from a physiological point of view it’s not such a strange occurrence — when the tongue moves to form an “l” sound this encourages a change to the vowel that precedes it. But this is far from the whole story.

This sign on a business in South Melbourne draws attention to
A sign in southeast Melbourne. The play on spelling works only if the "el" in "celebrate" can be understood to be pronounced as "al".

There’s a related but contrary process  called /el/-/æl/ transposition. This is when people say words like “alcohol” and “alpine” as if the first syllable was “el”. A fine example of this can be seen in the name of a new café in southeast Melbourne (Elfresco, as opposed to Al fresco):malbourne-elfresco

You may have noticed this already. If not, listen to the difference in pronunciation of the words “helicopter” and “alps” between the NSW and Victorian speakers here.

The /el/-/æl/ sound change has received only a small amount of attention in linguistic research, but the phenomenon is being discussed with enthusiasm online.

A sample of comments:

Victorians can not say the letter e. You guys do not say Melbourne, you say Malbourne.… (WA)

Are you trying to say that the “e” vowel sound in Melbourne should be pronounced as it is in “pen”? No way buddy.
(Geelong, Vic)

The most obvious difference in Melbourne/Victorian accent is the “el” and “al” swapping. Just listen to Daryl Somers say, “Alvis Presley’s latest elbum!” or Graham Kennedy’s ads that he did for “PEL” dogfood!

One of the funniest things I witnessed was on a Melbourne quiz show where the contestants were not allowed to answer until their name was called. Unfortunately, one contestant was Allan and the other was Ellen. The host became quite annoyed when the wrong one kept answering! ….

I’ve noticed that Melburnites pronounce ‘el’ as ‘al’ as in Hallo, Walcome to Malbourne.

And just the other week, Ben Pobjie described Victoria as “the nation’s capital of over 70 different concepts, including sport, the arts, musical theatre, black leggings, and not pronouncing vowel sounds properly”.

So why is the  sound change occurring? While our research is in the early stages, we understand it to be “listener confusion” caused by an interaction between the changing vowels and the lateral (the “l” sound). That is, in “el” words, listeners hear vowels which sound very much like the “a” in cat and so they “correct” this in “el” words in their own speech. Our research shows that while many speakers in Melbourne still make a distinction between “el” and “al” it is not always very obvious to listeners.

That listeners should be influenced by what they hear around them is not surprising – we know that the way that people perceive language influences they way they use it. However, there are many questions that we don’t know the answers to, and we will be researching these in some detail soon. For instance, what are the social characteristics of the speakers who use this sound change? Is there a difference amongst males and females, young and old? What happens in border towns? Are other vowel sounds changing too? Please tell us your anecdotes and experiences.

You can read more about our preliminary work in this area here (pdf–link fixed).