Australian English

All Australians possess the mental dexterity to write fluently in one language (basically English with a few Americanisms thrown in) and yet speak an entirely different language.

Xenophobes guide to the Aussies, 1993.

Today, Australian English, famous for its air of novelty, is something of a living museum, preserving.. eighteenth and nineteenth century regional words from Cornwall, Wessex, the Midlands, East Anglia, Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland.

The Story of English, Robert McCrum, 1992

(To hear an aussie accent: click HERE)

Australians often have difficulty being understood when conversing with foreigners. The following conversations are typical and took place in 1999:

David (to information desk in Vancover, Canada, where they are very proud of their sky-train): Excuse me, do you know where the sky-train is?
Information person: Sorry?
David: Excuse me, do you know where the sky-train is?
Information person: I'm sorry sir, I don't know what you mean?
David (speaking very slowly): Do you know where the sky-train is? You know the sky-train? (gesturing wildly)
Information person: You want to know where the Star Trek store is?
David: groan.

David had 100% failure when asking for the sky train, even though he knew he had to try his hardest. Similarly with Diet Coke.

David (to American in Whistler, Canada): Have you had a good day skiing here?
American:   Sorry?
David (slowly): Have - you - had - a - good - day - skiing - here?
American, to Canadian: What did he just say?

And that is just accent.  Vocabulary can also make life difficult as the following real life example demonstrates:

Pizza Woman (on the phone, Toronto, Canada):  What toppings would you like?
David:     Hmm. Ham, Pineapple and capsicum thanks.
Pizza Woman:   Sorry sir?
David: Just capsicum thanks.
Pizza Woman:  I'm sorry sir, I don't know what Capsicum means.
David, starting to panic: What, I can see it on your brochure.
Pizza Woman: What brochure do you have?
David:  I don't know, but the Capsicum it is red and cut into strips.
Pizza Woman:  You mean red pepper?
David: Is that hot?
Pizza Woman: No.
David: Well, I'll order it and see.

So even formal vocabulary differs from Australian English to American or English english.  One Canadian estimated that he understood about 30% of formal Australian english when an Australian commenced employment with his company.   The problem intensifies in a more casual context, as the language gets more colloquial (and Australians are the kings of colloquialisms). As an example of pub language, consider the following brief exchange which took place in London, Canada after an aussie lapsed into strine after one beer to many:

David (to bartender and speaking very quickly to the point of a slur): Pot a XXXX thanks mate.
Bartender (not understanding and probably not even identifying the words Pot, a, XXXX, or mate):  sorry?
David:  uh, my mistake. A pint of dry thanks.

A popular clash of Australian and English English occurred in 1964 when Monica Dickens, an English writer, was signing her latest book in Sydney.  As told by the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1964, the conversation between one of the female Australians in the queue and the author was as follows:

Aussie:  Emma Chissit
Author, thinking that was her name, wrote "To Emma Chissit" in the book cover.
Aussie (speaking deliberately): No, emma chissit?

The australian was, of course, speaking strine and 'How much is it?' was the question.

We've forgotten all our manners
And our talk is full of slang
For you ain't got time for grammar
When you 'ear the rifles bang

Signaller Tom Skeyhill, Gallipoli, 1915

But that is just the beginning. There are literally thousands and thousands of vocabulary and usage differences, and an infinite number of stories of comprehension woes. Further, our accent makes even shared vocabulary difficult to understand.

It is safe to say that however it came about no greater millstone was ever tied around the neck of any nation.  The Australian accent at its worst brands every one of us, whether we speak it or not, as uncouth, ignorant and a race of second class people.

A. G. Chambers (1974) quoted in Hornadge, The Great Australian Slanguage (1980)

... their voices are unbelievably ugly, and one never quite gets over the shock of hearing some lovely girl speak for the first time.... Too many women talk with a strident, saw-like whine that is indescribable

J D Pringle, Australian Accent (1958)

Why is this so? As with the rest of our cultural traits, the answer lies in our rough as guts past. We have always spoken like this.  In 1890, for example the Bulletin  ran the following ironic headline: "A Maryborough (Q.) Chinaman refuses to send his children to the State School on the grounds that they learn too much slang". Much before that, 1829 Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a Pom, wrote in 'A letter from Sydney' (Quoted in The Australian Language, Baker, 1945):

Bearing in mind that our lowest class [i.e. the convicts] brought with it a peculiar language [to Australia], and is constantly supplied with fresh corruption, you will understand why pure English is not, and is not likely to become, the language of the colony.

He continued:

Terms of slang and flash are used, as a matter of course, everywhere, from the goals to Viceroy's palace, not excepting the Bar and the Bench. No doubt they will be reckoned quite parliamentary as soon as we obtain a parliament.

And indeed, our pollies have done us proud, with fine contributions from Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and others.  Consider this great aussie quote from the Federal Minister of Transport Mr Charles Jones (1973, discussing the forthcoming budget):

There are going to be some bloody mammoth changes -- some mammoth changes which the Budget will disclose. Bloody mammoth changes, that is the only way you can describe them.  I think Frank Crean has done a bloody good job to stand up to the place. Bloody oath, he has done a marvellous job in standing up to the bloody place....

What this quote serves to demonstrate is not that we have our colourful phrases or speech patterns, but rather that these phrases and patters permeate all layers of Australian society (as does the core culture).  What has happened in the older, or perhaps wealthier cultures, a very wide gap appears between the so-called classes of the haves and the have nots. Eventually each class has its own culture and language. It is important to know from the outset that Australia isn't like that, everyone from the Prime Minister to the dunny scrubber speaks and has spoken like this at some stage in their lives. 

I owe you a beer

Prime Minister John Howard thanking the head of the United Nations for his support in the East Timor Crisis, March 2000

"Howard is an 'arse-licker'," he told the magazine. "He went over there [ie America], kissed some bums, and got patted on the head.

Labor frontbencher Mark Latham, Howard too cozy with Washington, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 2002

"I called him an arse-licker, which I think is a fine Australian term, and it accurately describes the Prime Minister's behaviour in Washington where he rolled over for the Americans," Mr Latham told Radio 2GB. "Well, I do share the language of my electorate, and if I find a term like that is an accurate description of the Prime Minister's behaviour in Washington, why shouldn't I use it."  Mr Latham accused his critics of creating an English upper class.

Latham Defiant on 'Aussie Term',, 26 June 2002

As mentioned, this is because historically the dominant class structure was the convict class - and this culture became the norm (For the Term of His Natural Life, 1867):

What he might have been before mattered not. He was now a prisoner, and - thrust into a suffocating barracoon, herded with the foulest of mankind, with all imaginable depths of blasphemy and indecency sounded hourly in his site and hearing - he lost his self-respect, and became what his jailers took him to be - a wild beast to be locked under bolts and bars, lest he should break out and tear them...... All that the vilest and most bestial of human creatures could invent and practise, was in this unhappy country invented and practised without restraint and without shame

Or in the words of Sidney Baker (The Australian Language, 1945):

The majority of convicts represented the worst types that the English prison system could through together; if they were not brutal and animal like by nature, the system made them so. It was impossible for refinement in any form to survive.... They were proficient in the use of prison cant and vulgarism, the former because it was the lingua franca of their type, the latter because it was the natural concomitant of raw living and brutal discipline.  No other class of society would use slang more readily or adapt it more expertly to their new environment; no other class would have a better flair for concocting new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life. And their influence was bound to be wide.

He then quotes from Two Years in New South Wales (1826):

All the natives round Sydney understand English well and speak it, too, as to be understood by residents. The Billingsgate slang they certainly have acquired in perfection, and no white would think of competing with them in abuse or hard swearing, a constant torrent of which flows from their mouths as long as their antagonist remains before them.

Charles Darwin had to put his two-bob's worth in 1835 when he visited Sydney:

There are many serious drawbacks the comforts of a family [in Australia], the chief of which, perhaps, is being surrounded by convict servants... The female servants are, of course, much worse; hence children learn the vilest of expressions...

And even the oppressive Captain Frere from the same period took "delight to rate the chain gangs in their own hideous jargon" (For the Term of His Natural Life, 1867) just as the delightful Sylvia pondered "how strangely the world must have been civilized, that this most lovely corner of it must needs be set apart as a place of banishment for the monsters that civilization had brought forth and bred!" Of course, the Rev. James North noted in his diary:

The newly-arrived English prisoners - and some of their histories are most touching - are insulted by the language and demeanour of the hardened miscreants who are the refuse of Port Arthur and Cockatoo Island. The vilest crimes are perpetrated as jests. These are creatures who openly defy authority, whose language and conduct is such as was never before seen or heard out of Bedlam.  There are men who have known to have murdered their companions and who boast of it... This dreadful place seems set apart for all that is hideous and vile in our common nature.  In its recklessness, its insubordination, its filth, and its despair, it realizes to my mind the popular notion of hell. 

Over hundred years later the Egyptian newspapers commented on our diggers in WW1 (as quoted in The Anzacs, 1978):

Not since pre-historic stone ages has such a naked army been seen in civilised warfare as the Australian army corps fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula. They display an utter abhorrence for superflous clothing.  They are famous throughout Europe for their hard-fighting, hard-swearing and nakedness, even to a sense of indecency. 

And not much has changed even as we approach the end of the century.  Recently one of the authors having a beer with a Canadian upon commencing professional employment with his company in Canada.  After yabbering on for half an hour or so in a social context, the Canadian leaned over, and whispered to the Australian "Look, you just can't talk like that here if you want to get ahead!". 

But he got ahead anyway. Serves the bastard right.

NOTE: The best way to learn about Aussie English is by checking out The Aussie English CD.

Finally I turn to whether, in the context I have defined, the words uttered by the defendant constitute contempt of court. The matter must be judged by contemporary Australian standards. It may be offensive, but it is not contempt of court, for a person to describe a judge as a wanker.

Anissa Pty Ltd v Pasons per Justice Cummins, Supreme Court of Victoria [1999]

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