I’ve always loved the Australian accent. Despite being perceived as descended from the Royal British dialect, it really comes from more modest beginnings and has its own distinctive pronunciation. This shouldn’t be a surprise as immigrants to Australia came from Ireland, Scotland, and different parts of England. Kel Richards has studied and interpreted the language’s history and documented it in his book, The Story of Australian English. “It emerged from a process called levelling down”, he said with the first immigrants who came here on 11 ships from different regional dialect areas finding a common denominator. It could be confusing for us as the pronunciation of number “six” resembles our pronunciation of “sex”, causing some uncomfortable moments.
But what was particularly fun after arriving in Brisbane was hearing a whole slew of descriptive words and phrases that had to be interpreted. First, they really do say mate, cheerio, and g’day. I like the idea of being a “mate” or using it to describe a friend as an old mate of mine. Some “guy” becomes some “bloke” down under and the women’s restrooms beckon all “sheilas”.
In Brisbane, we were invited to a neighbor’s home for a “spot of tea”. I said yes to the offer of crackers and noted the cookies I got instead. If I wanted crackers, the formal term is biscuits but it has been shortened in Australia to bickey. So, always say yes to crackers if you want a dessert and yes to bickeys if you want some crackers with your cheese. Got it? Definitely say yes to an offer of a spider which has nothing to do with the insect and everything to do with an ice cream float.
At the neighbor’s house, the discussion came round to snakes as there are many in Australia and if one gets on your patio, especially the rafters, as had happened recently to these neighbors, you just call the “snake man”, who will move the snakes far away. There’s also the “possum man” for the 28 varieties of possums and their first cousins, gliders, found in Australia who might show up in your trees.
The Aussies do love to shorten their nouns. Those we heard often were “uni” for a university, “tats” for tattoos, and “sunnies” for sunglasses. Looking for a “park” can be confusing as I’m scanning the scene for playgrounds and walking paths and my hostess just needs a parking spot.
The beach is a good place to “diddle away” some time. You’ll need togs (bathing suits), a chili bin (ice chest), tucker bag (for your food) and maybe a swag (sleeping bag). I was unaware of the history and emotion associated with the word “swag” until listening to the famous Australian ballad from 1894, “Waltzing Matilda.” It has become an unofficial national anthem, sung by soldiers marching to war, in concert halls, and before rugby games. It has nothing to do with dancing or a woman named Matilda. It has everything to do with a swagman (itinerant worker) waltzing (traveling by foot) with his Matilda (swag/bedroll), killing a jumbuch (sheep) and jumping into a billabong (watering hole) to avoid capture by the sheep’s owner. What saves the song is its tune and marching beat with a bit of social justice thrown in. Google it. You can’t help but sing along.
If I did something cool, I was greeted with “good on you” but if I suggested something strange, the response was ”don’t be mad”. Universal use of the word, “reckon” for think, as in “I reckon so”, surprised me as I had always associated that word with my grandmother or the Appalachians. We had to frock up (dress up) to go to a play where we met other gray nomads (traveling seniors) who had taken a volunteer redundancy (retired early for a payout). After a meal in a restaurant, we had to “settle up” the bill and ask for a “takeaway” box.
A particularly confusing area is football related sports. We attended a “Footy” or Australian Football League (AFL) game, an event that will fill a stadium with 100,000 passionate fans. Our game was the West Coast vs. the Blues with most spectators dressed in their team colors. The AFL is unique to Australia and seemed a cross between rugby, basketball, soccer and our football – very fast paced with the ball being tossed often. There’s also Rugby Union (considered for the elite), League Rugby for the working class, and association football or soccer. One fan tried to distinguish the rules of the two rugby leagues and my eyes glazed over.
The Australian turn of phrase and distinct accent kept us entertained, especially after a schooner of beer. But I had to learn to take my “shout” to buy drinks for the group. Otherwise, I would be an obvious “blow in” or newcomer. But I’m pretty sure my accent gave me away before the shouting began.