I’m a bloke, I’m an ocker
And I really love your knockers
I’m a laborer by day, I piss up all my pay
Watching footy on the TV – Just give me more VB
– ‘Bloke’, by comedian Chris Franklin
FRANKLIN’S song is a Top 10 hit that has inspired a comeback for the word “bloke”. It used to be a term only dads used, says Luke Easton, 15, but now it’s become “cool” for kids (who think “cool” is theirs alone, unaware of its previous incarnations with prehistoric beatniks and hippies).
These 15-year-olds from Sandringham College know enough of the lingo to be able to laugh at the concepts satirised in Bloke, but say they’d never use Aussie colloquialism like “fair dinkum” or “sheila”. And sorry, Mr Howard, but they loathe the way adults use “mate”.
Many of the words thought of as typically Australian are dying out. In some ways, Australian English is becoming more homogenised. Class is less visible in our voices because the ocker and toffy forms of accent are less common. In terms of vocabulary, Australians are increasingly speaking what linguists call “world English”, an international dialect heavily influenced by America.
But this is not the beginning of the end for Australian English; it’s just a change in direction. The consensus among those who spend their professional lives studying our speech is that Australians still create as many new words as they import. And the words that are in, and out, are as likely to reflect home-grown social changes in the way we see ourselves and others as they are to be the result of Seinfeld-speak (“soup Nazi”) or Simpsons dialect (“D’oh!”). Language is a living thing and it is growing with us.
Not so long ago, Australian English was decried as a slovenly, corrupt and degraded form of the Queen’s English. In the ’50s, letters to editors routinely criticised it as ugly and distasteful. Michael Clyne, professor of linguistics at Monash University, says that, as late as the ’60s, ABC newsreaders were trained by former BBC staff in the plummy Pommy tones then thought necessary to formal Australian English.
Today’s language police, however, are outraged, not by our colonial imperfections, but by what they see as our cultural cringe in taking on board many American words and expressions. “World English” is necessarily influenced by the world’s largest group of English speakers (now known here, fans of rhyming slang will be pleased to learn, as “seppos” – as in septic tanks, Yanks).
Internet language – “netiquette”, “e-commerce”, “e-entrepreneur” – is part of world English, as are many hot management terms (“downsizing”, “runs on the board” and “cutting edge”) and political terms (“spin doctor”, “exit poll” and “green”).
But linguists and lexicographers do not see Australian English as a victim of cultural imperialism. Dr Bruce Moore, editor of the Australian Oxford Dictionary, says: “Sure, there’s this creature being created called `world English’, and generally it will be unmarked for region, so you can chat on the Internet in a kind of international English. But it’s also pretty clear that language has always been an important part of national identity, so we will certainly continue to speak our local `codes’, just as we already speak one way with our mates and another way with our grandmothers.”
It’s hard to imagine any other national English with three new names for the crevasse that becomes visible when big men in bad shorts bend over. James Lambert, editor of The Macquarie Book of Slang, says you may now choose from “builder’s cleavage”, “builder’s smile” and “coin slot”.
Lambert says there has always been a city/bush divide in use of language, and rural areas remain the last bastions of “bonzer cobber bewdy mate”. On the other hand, “bludger”, “dunny”, “chook” and “grouse” are as healthy as can be. And, he says, new drolleries are being coined all the time: “to Jeff” (to sack), “billy” (bong) and “tucker-f—–” (alternatively a microwave oven, tomato sauce, or a hapless chef).
Sue Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, thinks the terms most likely to survive name “the things we love to hate about ourselves. `Tall poppy syndrome’, `cultural cringe’ are concepts that have grown up uniquely in this society. Children still don’t `dob’. Powerful social ethics keep the word alive.”
New words, or the subversion of old words into new meanings, often reflect wider social and cultural changes in areas such as race relations and gender dynamics. “Gammon”, a word around since colonial days, means “deceitful nonsense”. Butler says Aborigines borrowed it from early colonists in Botany Bay, but it has now been borrowed back by white Australians from Aborigines in Queensland and NSW, where it is often used as an exclamation of disbelief.
Other Aboriginal words newly migrated to white English are “booliman” (a Top End word for policeman), “Big Sunday” (major ceremony or ritual) “clever” (holding knowledge of traditional medicinal plants and healing practices) and “finger talk”
(sign language, originally used to communicate during hunting or ritual).
Butler says: “`Gammon’ has done this complete circle from European settlement through Aboriginal English and back into wider Australian English. The fact that it was borrowed back is a definite sign of a change in status for Aborigines.
“It’s because of the high profile of Aboriginal leaders and the popularity of Aboriginal music. I know that interest hasn’t flowed through to issues like dealing with the health of the Aboriginal population, but it certainly is a step forward from the complete lack of cultural exchange that existed before.”
Moore points to “new” Aboriginal terms thrown around jokingly at suburban backyard barbecues after the Hindmarsh Island affair: “secret women’s business” and “secret men’s business” now mark the gender gap in white Australia.
The language is also reflecting women’s increased independence and power, with new words describing how women view men. Moore offers “himbo” for male bimbo (a dim cousin of “the thinking woman’s crumpet”), and “blokey” as women’s description for someone who has stereotypical male attitudes or is male-centred.
Women criticised for sexual activity used to be called floozies; today’s young women talk about “going out floozing” – reclaiming and subverting what used to be a term of abuse. And surely it was a woman scorned who got her revenge by coining “root rat”, defined as “a guy who tries to crack on to a girl as fast as he can, scores and then disappears”, says Sydney University academic Dr Gary Simes.
Simes, who is writing an Australian Dictionary of Sex and Sexuality, says teenagers still fear “getting up the duff” and ask each other for “doms” if they think a “Donald Duck” is likely. The AIDS scare has revived in the younger generation ugly homophobic terms of abuse for gay men (terms unfit for a family newspaper) because of anxieties about anal sex as a means of infection, he says.
But this is an isolated phenomenon; both Simes and Lambert have found that terms of sexual abuse are generally less common. Lambert says: “Those words that have to do with looking down on people for being a sexual person are dying out. Either they are becoming like `floozie’ and not used very seriously or they have become like `slut’, very aggressive words that you don’t use unless you want to say something really harsh about somebody.”
Another big influence on Australian English is multiculturalism. June Factor, the children’s folklorist, is compiling Kidspeak, a dictionary of children’s vernacular to be published mid-year. She has found many words from ethnic communities appearing in school playgrounds around the nation: “There’s words from Spanish, Italian and Greek, and most of them are pejorative. It confirms the old saw that what you learn first from another language is the swear words. ”
“Bambino!”, Italian for child, has become a shout of exultation, as has “fabuloso”, Italian for fabulous. Factor’s favorite is “Packing polenta”: “to pack shit, to be very scared”.
Given all these influences by sources other than Anglo-Saxon middle-aged males, it is perhaps not surprising that “mate” is in what might prove to be a terminal decline. The fond associations it has for older Australians such as the Prime Minister, who wanted the word in a preamble of the Constitution, do not resonate with younger generations.
“Young people don’t tend towards the word `mate’ any more,” says Pam Peters, associate professor in linguistics at Macquarie University and author of The Australian English Style Guide. “If they do use `mate’, it’s as a distancing word: `What do you think you’re doing, mate?’ The tone makes it pretty clear that it means `I’m not going to take much more!”‘
The students of Sandringham College agreed. When asked what words they would not be caught dead using, “mate” is top of the list. Angus Wilson, 15, says: “I have two bosses and one says `matey’ and the other says `dude’, and that’s all they call everyone. I hate it.”
But Luke Easton refines it somewhat. He would never address someone as “mate”, but he would use the word to describe his friends when talking about them in the third person: “I’d say `Me and my mate’ went here or there.”
These students’ accents are neither ocker nor refined but somewhere in the middle. That’s where most Australians are, according to Professor Clyne. “The traditional wisdom is that we have always talked a continuum of cultivated, general and broad Australian, and that people who went to independent schools spoke in a more cultivated way than people who went to government schools.”
But when he studied the speech of students at a range of Melbourne secondary school two years ago, he found this is no longer so: “Differences are not consistent across the groups, or within the groups, or even with individuals. Everyone is moving towards the centre.” He attributes this to higher levels of education and more people working in service industries: “The working class is smaller, and even before that happened, the working class had become predominantly non-English-speaking.”
But a new international marker of Australian English is the rising terminal, so named because it first manifested itself as a rising tone at the end of a sentence, making a flat statement sound more like a question. Now Australian voices go up every few words, Clyne says: “It helps with narratives, because it divides the narrative into chunks.”
Chris Wheat, an English teacher at Sunshine Secondary College, has noticed another curious shift: “People speaking in the present tense to tell stories. I’m hearing it in adults’ speech too: `I’m, like, going down the street and I’m, like, looking in the window….”‘
And while linguists say that even when we take on American words, we pronounce them with Australian accents (“awesome”, not “ahsome”), Wheat has noticed that teenagers are now pronouncing some general words with an American accent. “We’ve lost the fight with `lootenant’,” he says.
The Sandringham College students’ everyday exchanges are peppered with negative terms that, in the US and here, have been subverted into expressions of approval (“sick”, “mad” and “wicked” all mean “great”). They proffer only one “cool” term of approbation that, unknown to them, might well be native-born: “Sweet.”
So have they heard the expression “She’ll be sweet?” Only two out of the seven recognise it, one from an old movie. What about “She’ll be right; she’ll be apples?” “Apples?” they ask, incredulous.
But they confirm that Bart Simpson’s “Eat my shorts” and “Kiss my butt” have failed to unseat its Australian-accented equivalent, “Kiss my arse”. The latter “has more power”, says Lauren Troup.
In saying this, Lauren confirms what Lambert and others argue: that we are choosy with foreign terms and do not use them unless they fulfil a need or improve upon existing words. Peters says, “Often it’s not so much cultural cringe as an adaptation to enlarge our own cultural reference points.”
Lambert says: “`Fries’ doesn’t really replace `chips’ because they end up with different meanings here. Fries are the thin sort of chips you get at McDonald’s or KFC, and chips are what you get when you go to the fish and chip shop.”
And we do some exporting, too. Peters says “boomerang baby” is an American term based on an Aussie word; it describes adult children who leave home but then return to the family nest. “Economic rationalism” is an Australian term that has gained currency in Britain and America because it is more general than “Thatcherism” or “Reaganism”.
But there is no doubt that American popular culture is a huge influence. Butler says: “America is a clearing house where ideas are picked up and put into English, made fashionable and popular and then flow on to us… `Salsa’ is a kind of Latin American dancing; while we have a strong Latin American community in Sydney, it was only when it became popular in New York that we picked it up in Sydney.”
The Austen Powers movies are another example. “Shagging”, originally an old English word used a lot in Australia earlier this century, has come back into style since the release of the American film The Spy Who Shagged Me. Asked about the influence of Austen Powers, student Hamish Mann, 16, instantly chants: “Groovy, baby.”
Later, Lochie Gregmore, 15, says drily: “Make love to the camera, baby.” Is that from Austen Powers, too? “Stuff like that is.” He pauses. “It’s just so foreign to say something like that.” Even at 15, he knows how to use irony and how to detect verbal imports.
Maybe the language purists should take the advice of his fellow student, Alesha Ceddia. She says kids tell anyone unduly upset over a minor matter to “stress less”.
From Sue Butler, publisher, Macquarie Dictionary:
Multi-slacking: Playing computer games and sending private e-mail when expected to be at work or on assignment; a play on “multi-tasking”.
Samba effect: economic instability in Latin America, especially Brazil. Also known as Latin flu.
Politics of personal destruction: A political campaign of personal attacks against an opponent.
From Professor Gerry Wilkes, editor, Oxford Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms:
Cricket tragic: A person who follows the game with enthusiasm and devotion but can’t
Hoonette: A female hoon.
Tantie: Tantrum (Australian origin)
Hissy fit: Tantrum (American origin)
From Pam Peters, associate professor in linguistics at Macquarie University:
Girlie: Formerly material just short of pornographic, increasingly used by women to describe things with feminine appeal, such as the recent Audrey Hepburn exhibition.
From James Lambert, editor, Macquarie Book of Slang:
Guy thing: Something that men do that women aren’t meant to share or understand.
From Dr Gary Simes, editor, Australian Dictionary of Sex and Sexuality:
Skippy: A restaurant dish made with kangaroo meat.
First published in The Age.