Clarke on Strine

In Nicholas’s thread below tigtog raised the topic of The Sounds of Aus, John Clarke’s documentary on the Aussie accent, written by Lawrie Zion. (Apparently there’s no web site, nor even a page on the ABC site). I enjoyed it too, but a few issues weren’t resolved to my satisfaction.

1. The program contended that the accent was invented by children of the first settlers. Their parents brought such a miscellany of regional dialects and accents, so the argument went, that none of these was able to assert itself; hence the kids basically started from scratch. Explicitly rejected was the established wisdom that our accent is rooted in cockney. I found that too strong a claim. Even if the basic theory is right, it still seems plausible that one accent would have predominated in the new fusion. Moreover, there is an undeniable resemblance to cockney — Americans always remark on it, and when they try to render an Aussie accent it usually comes out cockney.

2. Then there was the argument that the accent hasn’t changed very much in 200 years or so. This was on the basis of one recording of a man who was born in the 1870s. I would have liked to hear a few more recordings, plus a bit of expert analysis on this question. It seems to me likely that the accent has evolved far more than we can easily perceive. Of course, when we hear recordings from the 1920s we easily recognise the voices as Australian. But, just as it’s possible for two regional accents to be distinctively British while being very different, it’s possible for two Australian accents — separated by time rather than space — to be distinctively Australian without necessarily being objectively the same.

3. According to the program, the snobbish disapproval of broad accents didn’t evolve until the 1950s and ’60s. Only then did we see elocution lessons introduced into school curricula and British broadcasters brought in by the shipload to cure us. Social historians out there can no doubt set me straight on this, but surely class distinctions, zeal for empire, and the associated idealisation of the English accent must have been around a long time before that. Can it really be true that teachers and middle-class parents only began harping on the need for rounder vowels in the post-war era?

4. The program dodged prescriptive issues altogether. There was a pretty strong message that all accents are equally good, and indeed that we ought to shrug off the cringe altogether and rejoice in our distinctive accent, if not actually broaden it. But however strongly we might agree with this in principle, we still correct our children’s pronunciation. Well, all right, I do. I’ve been known to give my kids vowel drills (How now, brown cow; We eat sweet green cheese; I like nice white mice) when they pronounce something in a Kath and Kim accent. It’s one thing to make the valid point that accent maketh not the man, but does this imply, in a world where English is the international language, that anything goes?

5. I was glad they discussed the appearance of Oz wog accents, but I would have liked more on this. It’s no surprise that someone who migrated after the age of, say, twelve has a detectable foreign accent; what’s really remarkable is how many Australian born kids speak with wog accents of some sort. Since this phenomenon has only appeared, as far as I know, in the last thirty years or so, it must be the consequence of reaching a particular density of NESB children in the one place. (I recall someone on this blog a few years ago saying you don’t hear Oz wog in Brisbane. Could it be true?) Linguists probably have a well developed theory about this already. It was fascinating to hear that ‘anglo’ kids in schools where a wog accent predominates have been observed to pick it up themselves. I haven’t encountered it myself (teaching in Western Sydney), but I suspect it won’t be long.

You couldn’t resolve all these questions in a one-hour program, so I’m really saying that I’m looking forward to a five-part series or a book on the topic.

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derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Well I can refute (3). When my mother won a scholarship to a posh private school in the early 1930s the school insisted she have special elocution lessons to teach her to “speak properly”. To this day her speech veers all over the place from broad Aussie to mock Oxbridge English.

Yobbo
Yobbo
14 years ago

“It was fascinating to hear that anglo kids in schools where a wog accent predominates have been observed to pick it up themselves.”

Not that hard to believe.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling and the speed in which you pick up the foreign expressions AND accents subconciously is astounding. Less than a month.

It’s not that surprising though really. When you have to communicate with people who can’t understand your regular accent, you naturally correct a little to make sure you can be understood. After a while you do it without thinking.

AJ
AJ
14 years ago

Oz wog is indeed rare in Brisbane. The only time I’ve encountered it here was from people who have moved here from Melbourne.

FDB
FDB
14 years ago

Oz and Kiwi accents are precisely the same, except those parts where ours is influenced by Irish and theirs Scottish. Therefore I would say that the defining influence on ours is Irish.

The exact same thing can be broadly observed between US and Canadian English.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

It might just be me, but I can hear a distinct differences between Western Australians and Eastern Australians (people from Perth and Adelaide sound a bit like NZers to me, without the comical fush’n’chups). Plus there’s a less pronounced north-south divide, the further north you go, the broader the accent seems to get. Maybe FDB is onto something – surely there were less Irish peasants in Perth and Adelaide.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

‘…people from Perth and Adelaide sound a bit like NZers to me, without the comical fushn’chups.’

Agreed.

‘..the further north you go, the broader the accent seems to get.’

I think there’s an abrupt change when you reach cattle country in FNQ, where the whites have an accent that resembles the way aborigines and islanders talk.

wilful
wilful
14 years ago

yeah the program almost but not quite denied the existence of regional differences. I still believe there are Adelaide and FNQ accents – though in comparison to other Anglophone countries, the variations aren’t great.

Interesting show though. Of course we all teach our kids to speak proper like.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

The show was a reasonable start but I’m waiting for a 5 part in depth series. I’m most intereted in the Aboriginal australian accent and the wog accent. I hear increasing spread of both. It’s impossible to say “fully sick mate” about a car without an ozwog accent.

Caroline
14 years ago

My father had a story about a bloke in a pub in Earls Court, who could tell what part of Sydney you were brought up in from your accent. i.e, North, East, or West. He was a Cockney, who obviously spent a lot of time in the pub talking to Australians.

R.
R.
14 years ago

My grandfather, born in Sydney in 1893, had an accent that was both noticeably Australian and noticeably different to what you would hear today – likewise his siblings and cousins. I’d be hard put to say what the difference was, but it was there. Interestingly, it was quite broad too, despite a relatively privileged background growing up in the Eastern Suburbs. Broader than my father or myself, for example.

Laura
14 years ago

JUst a small correction, it was actually Lawrie Zion’s documentary (inasmuch as these collaborative works belong to any one person.)

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Thanks, Laura. It was for that kind of information that I sought in vain a web page.

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

Remember that accent is a status marker. Of course you teach your kids to speak in line with your class background. We are mostly cosmopolitan-class, we don’t want our kids learning Kath’n’Kim even in fun.

tigtog
14 years ago

According to the program, the snobbish disapproval of broad accents didnt evolve until the 1950s and 60s. Only then did we see elocution lessons introduced into school curricula and British broadcasters brought in by the shipload to cure us.

That’s not my memory of the program, actually. My memory is a mention of a Victorian elocution program in line with the fad arising in the Home Country, then its popularity declined for a few decades, and then there was a resurgence of the elocution movement in the postwar period as more and more people had radio and TV and wanted to talk like the presenters did.

tigtog
14 years ago

Moreover, there is an undeniable resemblance to cockney Americans always remark on it, and when they try to render an Aussie accent it usually comes out cockney.

I really wouldn’t put too much stock in that when most Americans away from the New England area can’t tell the difference between a burr and a brogue.