One of the foremost experts on Australian English is the lexicographer Bruce Moore. In his accessible and thorough book, Speaking our language, Moore gathers information about all aspects of Aussie English, including evidence that the Australian accent developed through a process known as levelling — when speakers of different accents and dialects come together, major differences in the way they speak gradually disappear and the speech sounds that are most common among them become characteristic of their accents. In Australia, this probably occurred within the first three generations of British colonisation.
The convicts deported to the Antipodes came from all over the British Isles — a land renowned for its myriad dialects and accents. So the first thing they would probably have done was to unconsciously change some elements of their speech so that their fellow prisoners could understand them more easily.
However, new accents are created and transmitted by a community’s children. The first children born in Australia didn’t have an established peer-group accent. So, in the process of creating one, their speech would have taken on the characteristics of the adults around them. Since the major differences in these adults’ speech would have been minimised and the sounds that the children picked up were those that were most common (mostly from south-east England), these children would have sounded more similar to each other than to their parents. But the Australian accent was not yet fully formed. Research into colonial accent development suggests that, in this generation, each child would probably have used their own unique set of speech sounds.
In due course, these first native-born, English-speaking Australians had children of their own; children who grew up and, most importantly, attended school together. It would have been among this group that the differing accents of the previous generation coalesced and the Australian accent solidified. And it’s that accent that became the foundation of today’s Aussie speech.
Interestingly, Moore’s research has revealed that many commentators in the early 1800s were so in awe of this new variety of English that it was not uncommon to come across comments such as these:
“The children born in [Australia], and now grown up, speak a better language, purer, more harmonious than is generally the case in most parts of England.” (James Dixon, 1822)
“[Y]ou cannot fail shortly to note how very well the common children speak, even where the parents set them no good pronunciative example.” (Caroline Leakey, 1859)
This didn’t last, however.
During the mid-19th century, a new accent was developing in the rarefied halls of England’s private schools: received pronunciation (RP). Although it was only spoken by a tiny minority of the population, RP soon became the archetypal “good” English. In Australia, the elite embraced RP and, as they did so, negative prescriptivist comments about the Aussie accent became more frequent. In fact, Moore has found that by the early 1900s, comments about Australian English had morphed into derogatory statements such as this:
“… there are certain grave dangers by which the English tongue is being assaulted in Australia, peculiarities which may seriously militate against its efficiency as an instrument for the communication of thought.” (Ethel M. Mallarky, 1914)
Notice that so far I’ve been talking about the Australian accent — a singular reference. But it’s often divided into three overlapping but recognisably different varieties: broad (e.g. Paul Hogan), general (the vast majority of people you know) and cultivated (e.g. Malcolm Fraser). Moore has found little evidence of the existence of these varieties in first 100 years or so of European settlement. However, as the 19th century came to a close, the elite’s embrace of RP may have had some unintended effects.
A minority of the population, basically the rich and privately educated, seem to have adapted their speech so that it grew closer to RP and thus spoke with the cultivated accent. Most Aussies blithely ignored the accent police and continued to speak as they always had, in the general accent. About a third of Aussies embraced their Australian identity and in their (usually rural) communities, reinforced social ties by adopting a way of speech that became the broad accent.
However, this categorisation of Australian accents is often seen as arbitrary. And, in any case, it’s probably not the best way of looking at Aussie pronunciation today, as the speech of those much maligned speech innovators, teenage girls, shows. Australian-speech experts Felicity Cox and Sallyanne Palethorpe at Macquarie University analysed the pronunciation of a group of Sydney schoolgirls and found that the upper-working-class and lower-middle-class girls attending government schools had the least broad accents, while their private-school peers were found to have retained more of the phonological shibboleths of the broad accent. Cox and Palethorpe suggest that this may reflect a growing cultural confidence in these government-school educated girls and that, as Aussie culture matures, Australians no longer feel that the broad accent is a fitting representation of their identity and so it’s dying out.
The Australian accent is here to stay, however, and it will continue to evolve. As the changing attitudes towards Australian speech show, this will probably be a controversial process. But it will definitely be fascinating to watch.