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Australian English accents

Unlike North America, Britain or Ireland, we don’t really have regional accents (although some features are more common in certain regions); instead our accents tend to be correlated with socio-economic status.

Traditionally, Australian English was described as having three accent groups:

  • Cultivated Australian: sounding very similar to RP, you can hear this accent in the speech of old politicians like Malcolm Fraser (YouTube link)
  • General Australian: this is the accent that the majority of Australians speak with; most (but not all) of the Australian celebrities you’d be familiar with abroad speak with this accent
  • Broad Australian: this is what some people describe as a “strong” Australian accent, and is more common in rural areas and the further north in the country you go. Figures like Steve Irwin and former PM Julia Gillard spoke/speak with this accent.

Now, what’s happened since all the traditional sources were written is that Cultivated Australian has declined to near-extinction, and many of the vowels of General Australian have shifted to bridge the gap (although not in all speakers, I guess, just most). This is why you’ll see people claiming that General Australian speakers who enunciate beautifully (like Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush) actually have Cultivated accents. If you compare the way Blanchett (YouTube link) or Rush (YouTube link) talk in interviews to Cultivated speakers’ speech (like Malcolm Fraser’s above), you can hear the difference (if your ear is attuned to Australian accents, anyway).1 But so few people have Cultivated accents these days that many have forgotten what they sound like, so they assume that well-spoken General speakers must actually have Cultivated accents – especially considering that modern General Australian mostly does not use the vowels that Wikipedia (relying on a 1982 source) says it does. And if they encounter that rare person who does have a Cultivated accent, they go, “Oh, you must be from England? 🙂”

I guess you could also say that these accents exist on a spectrum, to some extent. “Full” Cultivated accents are nearly extinct these days, but you’ll see General speakers with some Cultivated-influenced pronunciation. Similarly you’ll see speakers whose accent kind of lies between a General and a Broad accent.

Anyway, on top of that, there are at least two more Australian accents associated with ethnic minorities, which get left out of this traditional Cultivated-General-Broad analysis. These are:

  • Australian Aboriginal English: this is really a whole group of language varieties spoken by First Nations people in Australia.
  • An accent that is pretty common among people whose ancestors hail from the eastern side of the Mediterranean. In the words of my first-year linguistics lecturer in 2010: “There is also this accent which doesn’t seem to have any politically correct name, but if I use the non-politically correct one, you will all instantly know what I’m talking about. So, forgive me, but I’m just going to say it… the ‘wog accent’.”

With these ethnocultural varieties of Australian English, speakers can generally code-switch to “standard” Australian accents when the situation calls for it.

Phonology

So if you’ve read up to this point, you’ll now know a bit about what different accents exist, but not what they really sound like. This section will talk mostly about how the General Australian accent is pronounced – I’ll talk about other Australian accents where appropriate if I know what I’m talking about at those times.

Vowels

The key thing that distinguishes most English accents is their vowel inventories. From the perspective of an Australian looking out at other accents (mostly North American ones), my feeling is that we preserve more distinctions between vowels (at least in the stressed position) than many other varieties. Like, we have no father-bother merger, no cot-caught merger, no marry-merry-Mary merger (all three are distinct), no pen-pin merger, no feel-fill merger, no full-fool merger, no hurry-furry merger, and so on. I was surprised to learn from international student friends that Australian English is actually one of the more difficult varieties to understand, because we reduce unstressed vowels to schwa so much. That is a fair cop, though – we reduce unstressed vowels a lot.

Anyway, in a second I’ll go through all the different vowel phonemes that are usually attributed to Australian English. Firstly I’ll note, though, that Australian accents are obviously non-rhotic, so we don’t have any of the North American “r-coloured” vowels like [ɚ]. If you do speak a rhotic accent, words with the vowel in START have the PALM vowel in Australian English, and words with the vowel in NORTH or FORCE have the THOUGHT vowel in Australian English. CURE usually also merges into THOUGHT but not for absolutely everyone, as I’ll explain towards the bottom of this very lengthy list.

  • The STRUT vowel: In Australian English, this is pronounced /ɐ/, and it’s distinguished from the PALM vowel only because it is shorter.
  • The BATH/PALM vowel is /ɐː/. Australian English does have the trap-bath split, but it is usually described as “incomplete” because a subgroup of RP BATH words (like chance, graph, example, plant) are pronounced by most Australians with our TRAP vowel, instead. South Australians and older people are more likely to use the BATH vowel for them.
  • The PRICE diphthong is generally /aɪ/. Some Broad speakers close and round the first part of this diphthong, such that it sounds closer to the CHOICE vowel, something depicted extensively in the sitcom Kath & Kim. On the other hand, as far as Cultivated speakers go, I think this diphthong is one of the most obvious differences between their accent and General; they tend to pronounce the first part of it very far back in the mouth, such that it sounds more like /ɑɪ/.
  • The TRAP vowel is /æ/, but Australian English has something called the lad-bad split (missed opportunity not to call it the bad-lad split IMO) so some TRAP words (like “bad”) take /æː/ instead. One cool thing about this is that can the auxiliary verb sounds different from can the item made of tin and the verb referring to the production of those items. The auxiliary verb has a short vowel, and the tin can type of can has a long one.
    • Sometimes there is “æ-tensing” before nasals, so “jam” will sound like “gem” or “band” like “bend”. (Apparently this is also common in American English?) I don’t think it’s very common for someone to do this generally across all words meeting this description, but I personally do do it in some words, particularly “thank you” which I swear comes out like “thenk you” for me most of the time.
  • The FACE diphthong is infamously /æɪ/ in Broad speech (this is the thing that makes people make fun of Australians for saying “good die”). This may historically have been the pronunciation in General Australian too, but these days, with GenAus moving into the vowel space historically occupied by Cultivated accents, I don’t personally hear /æɪ/ much at all. The diphthong is generally /ɛɪ/ where I live in Melbourne, especially because many people know the “good die” thing is stigmatised and can be self-conscious about avoiding it. But you will still hear /æɪ/ in Broad accents, and maybe in the speech of some General speakers who are more influenced by Broad accents.
  • The MOUTH diphthong is usually /æʊ/ in my assessment. Wikipedia has it as /æɔ/ but /ɔ/ is our LOT vowel and that’s definitely not how I finish my MOUTH diphthong. Maybe it occurs in people who are not me, idk, I wouldn’t rule it out but I wouldn’t say that’s the obvious explanation either 🤔
  • Our DRESS vowel is higher than some other varieties, at /e/. For some Victorian speakers though (not me), it is lower and pronounced /æ/ before /l/ (the celery-salary merger). I would swear that most people I meet do not have this even though I’m from Melbourne which is supposed to be the epicentre of it (the one exception being my partner Vivian, who does have the merger, and yes it causes confusion between him and me/my family sometimes). I feel like the merger is more common in teenage girls and some young women and when they do it it sounds kind of posh, like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies. When Vivian does it it does not sound posh.
  • The SQUARE vowel, for most people most of the time, is a long vowel /eː/. Some people do pronounce it as a diphthong but this is less common. More common in WA and Queensland apparently.
  • Our NURSE vowel is a “close-mid central vowel”, sometimes unrounded /ɘː/ and sometimes rounded /ɵː/. (Australian English does not always round the vowels you would usually expect to be rounded.) We never do that thing some RP speakers do where it sounds halfway like “nairse”.
  • /ə/: The humble schwa, Australians' favourite vowel. At the ends of words they’re usually pronounced like the STRUT vowel, which is to say, as /ɐ/. (Actually schwas and the STRUT vowel are the same in RP as well, but in their case that unified vowel is more often a central vowel instead of our open /ɐ/. That said, the STRUT vowel in modern RP is highly variable so /ɐ/ probably occurs sometimes, and especially at the ends of words. See STRUT for Dummies for more info on its realisation in RP.)
  • The GOAT diphthong is a central /əʉ/, not the backer /oʊ/ that I know North Americans prefer. (I know this, because my cousin has lived in Seattle for over 15 years, and his accent is nearly the same except he has an American GOAT vowel now and it’s very, very noticeable.)
  • The KIT vowel: As far as I know, Australians pronounce this /ɪ/. New Zealanders accuse us of pronouncing it /i/. Personally, if I compare my pronunciation of “sit” and “seat”, I do not think I use the “seat” vowel in “sit”. However, the “seat” vowel is also long where the KIT vowel is short, so that would enable Australians to distinguish them even if some speakers are fronting the KIT vowel to /i/.
  • The NEAR diphthong is usually /ɪə/. The specific word “year”, Vivian usually pronounces /jɵː/ (sounds to me like “yerr”) but I think that’s a South Africanism. Other NEAR words he pronounces like me. Apparently some people monophthongise this, so they sound like they’re asking for “bees” when really they want “beers”. Wikipedia also thinks we sometimes monophthongise it in closed syllables, so “bead” and “beard” would be distinguished only by vowel length… honestly I’m not sure about any of these monophthong claims; I don’t think I encounter them much, although I guess they’re possible.
  • The FLEECE vowel, a.k.a. the one I just called the “seat” vowel: This is usually long /iː/. Wikipedia thinks this often becomes a diphthong /ɪi/, and that the first part becomes more open leading to a diphthong of /əi/. You will hear this /əi/ in contexts where people are screaming at the top of their lungs, like at rock concerts or protest rallies (at least I know I often shift my pronunciation of the FLEECE vowel in those kinds of contexts). But when I use my indoors voice I think it’s just a long-vowel monophthong for me.
    • The same vowel, but not long, is also used at the ends of words like HAPPY. This is called “happy-tensing”.
  • The THOUGHT vowel is pronounced /oː/. Note that this and the LOT/CLOTH vowel are transcribed the opposite way around from how they usually are for “generic standard English”.
  • The CHOICE diphthong is pronounced /oɪ/.
  • The LOT and CLOTH vowels are both /ɔ/ for most speakers. A small number, mainly Cultivated or elderly speakers, use the THOUGHT vowel for CLOTH words at least sometimes. Words like SALT can be considered CLOTH words in this sense, as it seems to be the same people pronouncing them with the THOUGHT vowel when for most of us they’re LOT words.
  • The GOOSE vowel is usually /ʉː/, but you will sometimes hear unrounded /ɨ/ or /ɯ/.
  • The FOOT vowel is /ʊ/. This is another difference from modern RP, where the FOOT vowel is pronounced /ɵ/ (see Le FOOT vowel).
  • The CURE vowel is /ʉːə/ for the minority of speakers who still have it as a distinct phoneme, but for most Australians it’s been merged into our THOUGHT vowel. Wikipedia reckons that even the mergers pronounce “tour” and “tore” differently, but this incorrect; those are both /toː/ for me. The only exception I guess is that I don’t really know how to pronounce “lure”; I always pronounce it /loː/ (i.e. the same as “law”) but then feel like my pronunciation was missing something. Like should it have been /ljoː/, by analogy with “cure” /kjoː/? But then that sounds even more wrong. So to avoid this predicament I usually try to avoid saying the word “lure” aloud. If my accent did have a /ʉːə/ diphthong I’d use that, but when I don’t use it for any other word, it feels unnatural…

A final thing I could talk about, which is kind of vowel-related, is that Australians’ speech is subject to the vile-vial merger, where schwas between a vowel and /l/ are dephonemicised. Between a closed front vowel and /l/ this results in an extra schwa being inserted, which is the main thing I notice. I know one of my classmates during my teaching degree was talking about her mentor’s activity of making preps “clap out the syllables” of various words. When she got to “whale”, she had the kids clap twice: “way-ull” (/weɪ.əl/). This also occurs in words like “feel” /fiːəl/, “coil” /koɪəl/, and “tile” /tɑɪəl/. Apparently the merger also goes the other way, and there are words that are “supposed” to have an extra schwa in them like jewel that we pronounce without it (just /dʒʉːl/). Who knew!

Consonsants

In contrast with vowels, these are easy-peasy to explain because consonants don’t actually change that much between different English accents. Just a few main things I would note:

  • Like in North American English, we often pronounce intervocalic /t/ or /d/ (like in water, butter or ladder) as the flap /ɾ/. Personally I’m more likely to keep /t/ as /t/ if it would sound identical to a different word otherwise… like to distinguish “petal” from “pedal”.
  • We have coalesced /tj/ and /dj/ into /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, so “dune” and “June” are pronounced the same for example. Then we also palatalised /tɹ/ and /dɹ/ into /tʃɹ/ and /dʒɹ/… so when I correct small schoolkids' work I often see spellings like “chree” and “jreem” for “tree” and “dream”!
  • /sj/ and /zj/ have only been retained where they’re on opposite sides of a syllable boundary (like /əs.ˈjʉːm/ or /ɹəz.ˈjʉːm/). Otherwise, at the start of a word they became just /s/ or /z/ (like “suit” /sʉːt/) and in the middle of a word they palatalised into /ʃ/ or /ʒ/, as in “assure” /ə.ˈʃoː/ or “pleasure” /ˈple.ʒə/. Some people mentally break “assume” and “resume” down as “a-ssume” and “re-sume” instead of “ass-ume” and “res-ume” so they pronounce those words /ə.ˈʃʉːm/ and /ɹə.ˈʒʉːm/ respectively, but this is less common than the version that preserves /sj/ and /zj/.
  • /lj/ at the start of a word is just /l/. I guess this explains why I didn’t think “lure” could be pronounced like “cure”.
  • Australian English /l/ is always dark. What this means is a mystery to me, because I don’t understand what a “light” /l/ could possibly sound like. But whatever. Ours is always dark.
  • Although Australian English is non-rhotic, we do insert a “linking /ɹ/” where the following word starts with a vowel, like “the water is…” becomes [ðə.ˈwoː.ɾə.ˈɹɪz]. Then we take it one step further, and insert an “intrusive /ɹ/” between certain vowels even if there was never an <r> there historically, like in “drawing” [ˈdʒɹoː.ɹɪŋ]. Basically we do this because we want to be able to link vowels with an /j/, /w/ or /ɹ/ for smooth speech. If the previous vowel was /i/ or /ɪ/ we can use /j/, if it was /ʉː/ or /ʊ/ we can use /w/, and otherwise… it gets the /ɹ/ treatment. Apparently this is also common in England. Honestly I don’t even know what an accent does if not use “intrusive /ɹ/”, really… just speak non-smoothly I assume.

  1. As in, I notice that Cate Blanchett enunciates her words beautifully, but her actual phonemes – the /æ/ in “freelance”, the /æʊ/ in “about”, the /aɪ/ in “time”, the /əʉ/ in “shows” – are mostly the same as mine. The exceptions I did notice are her schwa – she tends to leave that as a central vowel even in word-final position, instead of backing it to /ɐ/, and her TOUR vowel is kind of halfway between /oː/ and /ʉːə/, sort of like /oːə/. I also noticed in other interviews that depending on the accent of her interviewer, she kind of adapts her accent to match them a little bit (so on American talk shows she adopts some features of an American accent!), so she might sound more Cultivated if interviewed by an RP speaker. Geoffrey Rush’s has even fewer differences from mine; he even pronounces word-final schwa, as in “actor”, with the /ɐ/ common to my accent, and as far as I can tell his other vowels – PRICE, FACE, etc. – are all standard General Australian vowels. Anyway comparing them to Malcolm Fraser, he has a number of vowels different from mine – the PRICE one is the most instantly noticeable (it starts way further back than my PRICE vowel), but there’s also /æ/ as in “mad” and “had” which he pronounces fronter than I do, his GOAT vowel is different from mine, he uses the BATH/PALM vowel in “circumstances”, and so on. ↩︎