The History of Australian English

Australian English has developed along a different track to British or US English, with some vocabulary of its own. There are particular words and phrases that are uniquely Australian, meaningless to many from outside the county, but part of what binds Australians to each other.

The history of Australian English reflects the history of the country as a whole – Aboriginal words, convict slang and words from various migrant groups all having been assimilated.

Aboriginal Influences

Long before a word of English was ever spoken in Australia, the Aboriginal languages were heard all over the continent. Each Aboriginal grouping has its own language, but those languages spoken close to what later became the main centres of European population were those which have had the most influence on modern Australian English.

Commonly used Aboriginal words include many animal names, such as kookaburra, koala, wallaby and dingo. Many Australian place names are Aboriginal, and not always because the Aboriginal people themselves called a place by that name. The capital Canberra is so-named because it means ‘meeting place’.

Other Aboriginal words common in Australian English include ‘yakka’, meaning work – normally used as part of the phrase ‘hard yakka’; and ‘cooee’, first used by Aboriginal people calling each other through the bush. ‘Cooee’ has, of course, found its way into British English too.

Aboriginal words are likely to have been absorbed into English as local leaders from both native groups and colonists tried to find some tentative common ground; and as the new arrivals sought to find names for the strange new things they were seeing.

Immigrant Influences

Whether convicts or willing migrants, the Europeans who found their way to Australia from the eighteenth century onwards came from a wide range of different groups. At that time, there were great differences between different British English dialects, so that convicts from different regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland would all have spoken very differently. Some would not have spoken English at all – being Irish or Scots Gaelic or Welsh speakers.

To understand each other, these groups would have begun to create a common language, and words from various dialects would have become part of a new slang and new idioms. The children of those early settlers would have been keen to mark themselves out as Australians, rather than Irish or English, and that meant that new accents and speech patterns developed as quickly as the colony itself did.

It was almost as if an informal Australian school of English London and Irish arrivals alike had set itself up. Words which found their way into the language via the convicts include ‘tucker’, an Irish word for food, and ‘swag’ a word from the criminal underworld meaning a parcel of goods taken by a thief, but coming to mean a bushman’s bag.

Later groups of immigrants had their own influence too. The Gold Rush era brought words such as ‘fossick’ and ‘digger’ into common Australian usage. Many terms in common Australian use come from the bushranger tradition, such as ‘bush telegraph’.

The First World War then added another layer of slang, such as ‘dinkum’ meaning genuine or real. Australian English is peppered with unique slang words and particular types of phraseology. The use of diminutive forms of words (such as ‘arvo’ for afternoon or ‘barbie’ for barbecue) is common.

Many of these have found their way into British English in recent years (although they might not be included in the English courses London schools teach!)

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