Salad SangasSome Aussies might feel like chucking a tantie at the excessive Ocker-ness of some current McDonald’s ads. As pointed out in a recent post on Fully (sic) by Greg Dickson, the ads feature a voiceover that’s cringeworthily chockers with Australian abbreviations (or hypocoristics, as they’re known), such as ambo, tinnie, and ute. Do Australians really talk like that? Of course we don’t. But do we really use those kinds of abbreviations? Indeed we do – just not all at once.

In the last couple of years, my colleague Evan Kidd (Australian National University) and I, together with our students, have discovered some interesting things about Australian hypocoristics. We first asked 115 Australians to write down as many as they could think of in ten minutes. Our participants came up with an average of over 20 hypocoristics each, with the top three being footy, bickie, and brekkie. However, the words differed with age: older people (60 to 84 years) were more likely to think of words ending in –o (such as servo and muso) and –ie (such as barbie and mozzie) than the middle and younger age groups, while younger people (17 to 39 years) were more likely to simply cut off the ends of words (as in info and mic) than were the middle and older groups (our results are recorded here). The way that we abbreviate words seems to be changing over time, but hypocoristics continue to constitute an important part of young Aussies’ vocab.

We’ve also been looking at how hypocoristics are created in the first place, by asking young adults to produce “Australian versions” of made-up words they’ve never seen before. We’ve found that the most common change is to remove word endings, but when endings are added, the most common to add are –ie, –er, and –o. And creating hypocoristics isn’t all about saving time or effort: our participants make long words shorter (Winkers for Winkleton), but they also make short words longer (heechie for heech). As other researchers (Alex McAndrew, Jane Simpson, Roland Sussex) have suggested, there’s meaning involved in these endings: we’re finding that, for example, people are more likely to add –ie to a made-up word (e.g., prennel) when it refers to something small and pretty (prenny), but to add –o when it refers to something large and dirty (prenno).

More recently, we’ve been looking at the social meaning of hypocoristics, in research funded by the Australian Geographic Society. We ask each person to interact with a peer in a direction-giving task. The peer either deliberately uses hypocoristics (Take a righty at the Fern Tree Tav) or avoids them. So far, it seems that having one person use hypocoristics makes the other person more likely to use them as well, but it also increases the apparent enjoyment of the social interaction.

Everything in moderation, though. Most Aussies abbreviate some words, sometimes, and it looks as though this practice can increase our liking for others who share in it. Just don’t start doing it as much that man in the McDonald’s ad, or you’ll sound like a drongo.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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