Strine – it’s a class thing

Posted by on September 13, 2010

Australian English month continues with a new guest post from Jesse Karjalainen. Jesse is Australian but lives in the UK and works as a writer and editor. He also edits the online English-usage website www.whichenglish.com.

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One thing that really sets “Strine” – or (au)STRA(li)AN English – apart from its linguistic cousins is its almost distinct lack of regional accents. Like it or not, the difference often comes down to class.

Unlike Britain, and to a broader sense America, where you can travel from region to region and hear people speaking differently, Australians don’t seem to sound any different as you travel round the country.

While it is true that you might be able to distinguish a subtle nuance of, say, a Tasmanian speaker and guess where they are from by the way they say certain words, overall Australian English is homogeneous and relatively free of localised accents. But this doesn’t mean that everyone speaks the same. To the contrary.

There are said to be three strands of Australian accent. These are generally classified as General Australian and its two extremes Broad Australian and Cultivated Australian. There is also a fourth, but more on that in a moment.

General Australian is what a good majority speak. It is the accent of the “educated”, urban dwelling Australians of the cities and the suburbs. This is the type of Australian seen on, for instance, any of the great television exports, Neighbours and Home and Away. But not everyone talks like this. No.

On one end of the scale is the more true-blue, working-man’s Strine; linguists refer to it as Broad Australian; Australians might call it ocker – and it is what foreigners might think of as “unintelligible”. This sounds more the late Steve Irwin of The Crocodile Hunter. This is the kind of English where really sounds like “roolly” and I am going to the beach, mate sounds like “gar’na boych may”.

On the other end of the scale is Cultivated Australian, typically gained from having grown up in the right circles and usually having gone to private school. This effectively serves as the upper-class accent of Australia, even though talk of class is much to be discouraged. It is also associated with older, more British-sounding English, such as those found in old episodes of Skippy.

This type of English sounds pretty much like an affected form of British English – yet still doesn’t. The tell-tale signs are words like private; cultivated Australians will say they went to “praa-vate” school, where they were taught never to say tinny (= a can of beer), fair dinkum (= true, genuine) or smoko (= a cigarette or coffee break).

The fourth, often neglected category of Australian accents is that belonging to ethnic minorities, new and second-generation Australians. Not everyone, of course, but Greek Australians often sound different from Italian Australians. Chinese Australians will sound different from Vietnamese Australians. The multitude of ethnic groups that make up Australia’s diverse population is yet another striking feature of what makes Australian English audibly different. No matter how strong a particular ethnic speaker’s accent may be, every now and then you’ll hear the unmistakable sound of an Aussie accent breaking through. This is the sound of a New Australian growing their wings.

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Comments (4)
  • Once again, this is a naive ex pat view of Australian English.The Cultivated Australian accent of the 1960’s and 70’s has almost completely disappeared from Australian society and the working man’s strine (please not that word, it came and went with Prof Afferbeck in 1964!!!!) has slowly blended with the middle class Australian which is the dominant accent. Nowadays, accent is established by education, region and suburban drift. Steve Irwin is a dying breed in accent and appears in the North and regional Queensland accent, particularly in the over 50’s.We have come a long way from Patrick White’s British accent.

    Posted by sblake on 14th September, 2010
  • I think you might also mention Aboriginal English as another variety of English in Australia.

    Posted by Louise Ward on 15th September, 2010
  • Apparently the number of people speaking broad Australian English is decreasing, according to Bruce Moore (“Speaking Our Language”, 2008 – Great read!), and so is the so-called Cultivated variety. General Australian seems to be what most Australians speak, ethnic or non-ethnic (being ironic here; everyone’s ethnic unless they were born in a desert island in another planet).. And there’s also been talk about politicians adjusting their accent and making it more broad like John Howard, for instance, in order to attract working class votes by sounding more ‘true blue’ (pure populism)..

    Posted by Ramiro P on 17th September, 2010
  • This article is completely wrong. I’m not even Australian – I’ve been here two years and I can identify a number of distinct accents which vary from region to region and several within the city of Sydney.

    Posted by Nate on 5th February, 2012
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