Australian English is the variant of English that I speak, obviously. Like a lot of people, I am interested in the features of my native dialect, how the developed, and how they compare to other varieties of English. This page is going to be the “landing page” of all kinds of topics related to that 🙂
Unlike Britain, Ireland or North America, we don’t really have regional accents (just some features that are more common in certain areas). Instead, our accents tend to be correlated with socio-economic status.
The traditional analysis is that there are three Australian accents: Cultivated (historically a “prestige” accent, like RP in England; now virtually extinct), General (the accent of most Australians) and Broad (the “strong” accent of figures like Steve Irwin or Julia Gillard). There are also accents associated with certain ethnic minorities in Australia.
As for how Australian accents compare globally, they are most similar to the other “southern hemisphere” accents (NZ, South African) and to the accents of southeastern England. They’re non-rhotic, with the trap-bath split (although the “incompleteness” of it, if seen from the perspective of those closely related accents, is one of the most distinctive features of Australian English). For more detail on Australian accents, you can see my dedicated page.
Many people around the world are aware that there are a number of things for which British English and American English use different words. Australian English sides with the British on some of these, the Americans on others, and also uses some different words not shared with either of them (but sometimes still shared with other varieties, like New Zealand English).
Another point that I’m not sure where else to put – Australia uses the metric system, much more comprehensively than either the US or the UK. So we use units like metres, litres, grams (and all derivatives thereof) in basically all situations, degrees Celsius, and food packaging even lists kilojoules in preference to calories.
Differences From Other Englishes
I want to be clear that none of these vocabulary lists are exhaustive, because they could go on for literally hundreds of list items. Nonetheless, here are some words that I personally have found to cause some of the most confusion, or be the most interesting.
Words Shared With Neither UK nor US English
- outback: usually in the phrase “the Outback”. This means really really remote parts of the country, not just agricultural areas or whatever. Those can be described as “the country” or “the bush” but aren’t “the Outback”. This is a word that Americans and British people seem to misunderstand fairly regularly. I’ve seen a British TV show that described suburban Brisbane as “the Outback”…
- capsicum: while this is shared with New Zealand and Indian Englishes, this is the vegetable described as a “bell pepper” by Americans and I think just “green/red pepper” by British people
- thongs: this is what we say instead of “flip-flops”. It’s not slang (I’ve seen some people say it is); this is the actual standard word that everyone would use no matter the register. What other countries call “thongs”, we call “G-strings”.
- runners: the more usual American word seems to be “sneakers” and the more usual British one seems to be “trainers”. I’ve also heard “tennis shoes”, but I don’t really know where they say that.
- doona: so, in 2014 I travelled to Morocco with a tour group that was about 50-50 Americans and Australians. One day, one of the other girls on the tour came running up to me just bursting to tell this hilarious story, where she’d asked the girl she was sharing a room with to pass her the “doona”, and that other girl had looked at her like she’d grown a second head. Apparently these items are called “duvets” in other parts of the world, not “doonas”.
- bush: this is a word I’m sure we share with other southern hemisphere Englishes. Anyway, this describes forest or woodlands, or else “the bush” can be used in a general sense just to mean “the countryside”. We do actually use the words “forest” and “woods”, but only to describe forests or woods in other countries (like in Europe). “Rainforest” excluded, which we do use here.
- lollies: a.k.a. “candy” in the US, or “sweets” in the UK. Except that here, “lollies” doesn’t include chocolates; it just refers to the gummy kind of sweet. I’m not sure whether the US or the UK make that kind of distinction.
- ute: called “pick-up trucks” in certain other countries, I believe
- esky: this refers to one of those portable insulated boxes that you take to picnics and fill with ice and cold drinks.
Words Shared With UK English
- coriander: well I’m not certain this is shared with the UK but it’s definitely a difference from US English. In Australia, “coriander” is the herb, and “coriander seeds” are the spice. In the US it seems to be that “coriander” is the spice and the herb is called “cilantro”, something I didn’t realise for years after I’d started collecting recipes 😬
- spring onion: I think Americans call these “scallions”, or maybe “green onions”? I have no idea.
- chips: as in “hot chips”.
- autumn: never “fall”.
- mobile phone: never “cell phone”.
- jumper: a knitted, woollen garment that goes over the top of another top. I want to say that Americans call these “sweaters”, but we use the word “sweater” too, it’s just that a sweater is more often something sewn out of sheets of fabric, while a jumper is knitted. What Americans call a jumper is what we call a “pinafore” (except they’re not common garments so some people may not know the word, haha). Wikipedia seems to think cardigans can also be “jumpers”, but here they cannot; here they’re usually just cardigans or sometimes jackets.
- rubbish bin: or “the rubbish”. It’s the thing you throw your rubbish into, duh.
Words Shared With US English
- eggplant: never “aubergine”.
- zucchini: never “courgette”.
- chips: as in “potato chips”. For the keen-eyed among you, you’ll notice that means we use the same word for both hot chips (i.e. French fries) and potato chips (i.e. crisps). Contrary to what you might expect this pretty much never causes confusion because they tend to be eaten in different situations (as in, you’ll never place an order for a bag of potato chips at a fast food place, you know?) and if you really need to clarify you just say “hot chips” or “potato chips”, like I did right here.
- public school: a state school, as in a government-run school. And conversely of course a “private school” is one that’s not government-run (nearly always church-affiliated here, but not 100% of the time)
- pants: as in, “pants” are the leg-covering garments that the British call “trousers”, while we use “underpants” for the item of underwear that the British call “pants”
- truck: as in the huge-ass vehicles transporting freight; the smaller “trucks” that are personal vehicles with a tray thing at the back are called “utes” here.
Regional Differences Within Australia
Australian accents don’t really vary across the country, but Australian vocabulary can. Some of the examples I can think of would be:
- potato cake (Victoria) vs potato scallop (New South Wales)
- bathers (Victoria, maybe others) vs cossie (New South Wales) vs togs (Queensland)
- football (or the diminutive footy) traditionally referred to Aussie rules in Victoria, WA, SA and Tasmania and to rugby in NSW and Queensland. Since 2005, soccer fans have also been using the word to refer to that sport, resulting in what seems to be a very confused situation in NSW and Queensland (but in the other states, “football” still means Aussie rules in nearly all cases).
Australian English is infamous for its slang… I feel like this is partly just because it’s not familiar to English speakers from larger countries. Like, American slang would be infamous too if they didn’t dominate global pop culture. Anyway, here is a very far-from-exhaustive list of Australian slang:
- diminutives: this is not a uniquely Australian thing but we form a lot of these by shortening words or names and adding “-o”, “-ie”, “-ers” or “-zza”. For example, “arvo” for “afternoon”, “devo” for “devastated”, “chockers” for “chock-a-block” (full/crowded), “brekkie” for “breakfast”, “sickie” for “sick day”, etc.
- rhyming slang: most of the examples of rhyming slang you will find have long fallen into disuse in Australia. Some that I personally do still use are “porkies” (from “porkie pies”, meaning “lies”) and “dropkick” (from “dropkick and punt”, meaning “c…”).
- bogan: slang for someone who is lower-class, uneducated and uncouth. This word has kind of gained ground and eclipsed other words that used to be used in my parents’ time (like “yobbo” and “ocker”). Some people have “reclaimed” the word and wear it as a point of pride.
I feel like spelling is one of the least relevant points of comparison between different varieties of English, especially because it seems to leave (some) Americans thinking that every other variety of English is just “British English”. This isn’t right, guys.
That said, it is the case that Australian English mostly follows British spelling norms. This hasn’t always been the case – apparently around the turn of the 20th century American spellings were viewed pretty favourably and used in some places, and the Victorian system apparently gave US and UK spelling systems equal weight up to the 1970s. These days, though, our spellings are mostly shared with Britain. There are a limited number of exceptions:
- program: is usually spelt like that, without “-me” on the end, but you will find the variant with “-me” sometimes even so
- the Australian Labor Party: due to the inspiration the Labor Party took from American trade unionists in its early history (which was around the turn of the 20th century), they opted to spell the name of their party without the “-u-”. However, the word “labour” is still spelt with a “-u-”.
To me, differences in grammar between different varieties of English are much more exciting than differences in spelling. I don’t know if that’s just me.
One grammatical point that I’m aware of involves contractions. In Australian English, like in American English, “have” can only contract when it’s used as an auxiliary verb, not as a content verb. So, “I’ve been to Rome”, “I haven’t done my homework”, etc. are fine, but things like “I haven’t a clue”, “You’ve some nerve”, etc. are not – they sound like they’re missing a word (i.e. “got”), although even then they wouldn’t be phrased the most common way Australians would phrase them.
More often, though, I think Australian English falls into line with UK English. For example, we use a number of irregular past-tense verb forms that are also used in the UK, but not the US. These include “spelt” from “spell”, “dreamt” from “dream”, “leant” from “lean”, “earnt” from “earn”, and “learnt” from “learn”. A lot of the time the irregular form coexists with the regular one. Another irregular form Australians use a lot would be “snuck”. Honestly I was kind of scandalised when my spell checker tried to tell me it was incorrect, because “sneaked” sounds a lot wronger.
For a lot of number things, Australia follows UK usage. So, for example, you’d always say “two hundred and fifty-six”, never just “two hundred fifty-six”. Ways of talking about dates, days of the week, etc. as well – for example we say “July the second” instead of “July second”, “I’ll see you on Monday” instead of “I’ll see you Monday” (usually), and so on.