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Uncle Sam and Britannia: the character of Australian English

By Roly Sussex - posted Tuesday, 8 March 2005

The two most common complaints about language in Australia are that our language is in decline and that we are being overrun by Americanisms. Here are the realities.

The first of these woes has been common since the 16th century, though if English is indeed in decline, it has shown staunch resilience to become the dominant single world language. The second complaint is more recent. While many link the two - “our language is in decline and its major malaise is American content” - we need to keep them apart.

Australian English, like all other Englishes around the world, is undergoing a major influx of Americanisms. This is wholly natural. People imitate the powerful and prestigious, and American English is currently the most powerful and prestigious variety of English. The two most recognised words globally are OK and Coke, and both are American.


I have a database of nearly 10,000 American words, phrases and usages which I have gathered from Australian English: pronunciations like perfUme; grammar examples like nominate for a position (we used to nominate someone for a position); playing ON the team ON the weekend (in the team, at the weekend?); forms of words like gotten and the coat fit him well last year (fitted?); and thousands of words and phrases, from franks and abs to sneakers and high five.

Many older Australian expressions have slid quietly from view: bonzer, boshter, and later ace and grouse. In their place we find that all our most common expressions of approval are American: the ubiquitous great, accompanied by neat, cool, groovy, filth, sweet and a host of others. Our greetings are increasingly American: not only hullo for British hello, but hi, and on parting have a nice day. Our no worries jostles for place with the American no sweat. I have a record of mom and - from Hervey Bay - center.

And yet our English doesn't sound American. Our 2004 election was in a different key from the American Presidential race. Peter Manning made a similar point in The Brisbane Line recently when he reminded us of David Malouf's “Made in England: Australia's British inheritance” (Quarterly Essays 12, 2003). Manning describes Malouf's view of Australian English like this:

... Australia inherited a particular mode of English that shunned abuse, passion and rhetoric (the kind that inhabits American English) and instead opted for gentleness, argument and practicality. He's in high praise of the moderateness of our language, of our institutions and of our society.

“Abuse, passion and rhetoric” in American English? Thoreau hardly fits with that description, nor does Emily Dickinson. But if we think of the stereotypical tone of American English, especially public American English, it can have a declamatory edge which would sound off-key in Australia.

Malouf himself evokes several layers of Britain in his mosaic of Australian English. Many of these belong to his own childhood, symbolised by Australians absorbing British content and still sending their offspring to be educated in England; or returning the compliment by imitation, as with the singer Peter Dawson. My own childhood, scarcely more than a decade after Malouf's, is full of the hyper-Britannic Biggles and the Archers of Ambridge, and of the very heroic accents of Albion used by Australians in programs like ABC radio's Argonauts.


But Malouf digs deeper than this. Some of the symbols are there in his gentle evocation of his Lebanese father, and the Worcestershire sauce and Yorkshire pudding of Malouf's youth; his father's respect for British models of “... fair play, decency, manliness, concern for the weak and helpless, a belief that life, in the end, was serious”.

But all this grew somewhat differently in Australian air. It had arrived with the rest of the motley baggage that reached Botany Bay:

... British Low Church puritanism and fear of the body and its pleasures - but also British drunkenness; British pragmatism and distrust of theory; British philistinism and dislike of anything showy, theatrical, arty or “too serious”; British good sense and the British sense of humour - all there for us to deal with and develop in our own way, or after due consideration to reject.

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First published in Brisline on the Brisbane Institute web site on December 8, 2005.

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About the Author

Roly Sussex is Professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of Queensland and host of ABC Radio's popular Language Talkback program.

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