Sunday, August 16, 2009

How ya goin, mate?

Yesterday arvo I stopped in to the Salvos op shop, and got chatting to a tradie who was there on smoko. He said his name was Davo and he used to be a fisho but now he had his ticket as a sparkie. "Busy?" I asked. "Flat out like a lizard drinking," he replied, climbing back into his ute. "Running from here to back of Bourke."

Yep, Australians sure love their slang. Go to any tourist shop and you can pick up tea towels, tee shirts and stubby holders emblazoned with colourful Aussie-isms. You'll find them stacked up beside the "genuine Aboriginal-made" didgeridoos and the wallets made from kangaroo scrotums, just the thing to take back and amaze the folks at home. But, after spending nine months here, I've noticed something rather curious. It seems many Aussies love their slang the way some people love their antique furniture: it's great to have it around, but it's not something you'd use every day.

There are nine slang terms in the paragraph above -- ten if you count changing the name Dave to Davo -- and I've heard all of them used in conversation here. But not the way I've compressed them. Rather, they seem to be used sparingly, sprinkled in to conversation like a garnish rather than forming the main course. Some of those words are used so often that they're not really regarded as slang -- regardless of who is speaking, a ute is always a ute, never a pick-up truck; and Salvos is such a common term for the Salvation Army that their official web site is At the other end of the spectrum, obviously a phrase like "he's a two pot screamer" or "she lives beyond the black stump" is something that is best used sparingly.

But in between them are the genuine slang terms, and they seem to be used in a slightly different fashion. As someone who is interested in language, I've been paying a bit of attention to who uses what slang, and I've been really struck by how much it differs. Some people will use a word like "arvo" all the time, most folks seem to alternate between arvo and afternoon, while some just use "afternoon". Some people would never use a word like "snags" (sausages) or "shonky" (of dubious quality), even though I've seen them used in straight-laced newspaper stories.

Even the ubiquitous "mate" varies quite a bit: everyone says it, but not everyone seems to be able to pull it off. On the lips of some people, it sounds as awkward and contrived as it does when... well, when I say it, which I have done on occasion, just to see how it feels.

I think it really boils down to a matter of accent. Those with the real occer accent (think Paul Hogan) can pull off a lot of slang. Someone like Nicole Kidman could get away with the occasional line -- you can picture Nicole asking Hugh Jackman to "grab us a tinnie of Four-X, will ya darl?" but not, perhaps, commenting that Baz Luhrmann has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Talk like Cate Blanchett, though, and the world of Aussie slang is forever closed to you. The current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is more in the Cate Blanchett camp, and he causes no end of mirth whenever he tries to get all "blokie" with the Australian public. He recently set off a bout of hilarity when, in an interview, he used the phrase "fair shake of the sauce bottle" to mean giving something a chance. It sounded so absurd that, even months later comedians can get a laugh by working that phrase into a conversation.

So who has which accent? That's where it gets really confusing. It's not geographic, or even socio-economic. This article on language and identity says it's influenced by gender and ideology. I agree with some of that -- certainly you hear many more men than women speaking with the occer, or broad Australian accent. Some of the ugliest speech I've heard this year was in Sydney, where I heard a number of young women speaking with a broad accent: it was hard, strident, and unmusical, a really unpleasant accent to listen to. I heard it quite a few times in and around Sydney, but haven't heard it here in Queensland. Is that because there is a regional accent at work, or have I just become more accustomed to it? I'm not sure.

What I do know is it can make it very tough for us to figure out who comes from where. Forget spotting the Tasmanians or the South Australians by their accent. Even after nine months I still have a hard time picking out some of the New Zealanders, for example (the trick is to listen for someone who doesn't seem to have quite as many vowel sounds as the rest of us!) I can usually spot the South Africans, at least, as well as most of the Brits.

And, of course, I can pick the occasional Canadian and American in the crowd. And whenever I hear their accent, I ask myself: "is that really what I sound like?"

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