Susan Butler, Macquarie Dictionary, and Roly Sussex, University of Queensland, 20 March 2010
JOHN HARMS: I am joined by Roly Sussex and Sue Butler. Please welcome them. [applause] Today this term ‘living language’ has kept coming up. I just wanted to ask Sue about her role with words, because it’s been your life’s work, Sue. How did you get into it, and what have you done?
SUSAN BUTLER: I got into it by sheer accident. I was actually setting out to be a great Australian composer but I ran out of money. I had previously done an arts degree in Latin and Greek and a bit of linguistics, which equipped me to do absolutely nothing, but I did get one of the few remaining jobs teaching Latin - and then came back to do music. I did music for a year and a half until I ran out of money. I got all sorts of jobs to remedy this: I worked in a chocolate factory but I had a toothache; I worked in a belt factory but I couldn’t stand it; so I ended up thinking, ‘I’m a good middle-class girl, I’ll get a nice middle-class job,’ and the job happened to be research assistant on a dictionary for Australian English.
JOHN HARMS: And that was Macquarie?
SUSAN BUTLER: That was Macquarie.
JOHN HARMS: And that was the first Macquarie.
SUSAN BUTLER: That was the first Macquarie. That was about 1970. We published the first edition in 1981.
JOHN HARMS: And whose idea was it, the dictionary?
SUSAN BUTLER: It was an idea that had a number of different beginnings. There had been this search for a dictionary of Australian English among linguists. There were a group of people - Professor Delbridge, Dr Ramson, John Bernard, David Blair - who formed the initial editorial committee of the dictionary, but equally there was a publisher who had searched for a dictionary on the back of a whole program of educational publishing, literacy materials, teaching materials in the schools. A number of teachers had thought, ‘It’s about time we stop teaching holly and snow and whatever, and started teaching gum trees, kookaburras, kangaroos and things.’ So they developed all this very Australian teaching material. Brian Clouston was an educational publisher, and had one of these successful programs going and he said what he wanted was a dictionary to go with it. Basically he wanted something like the Concise Oxford but Australian. Well, his editor claims he actually came up with the idea and was sent to talk to Professor Delbridge about doing this. It was one of those ideas that had people in different parts of the country all thinking about it, and they brought it together, amazingly.
JOHN HARMS: Was it thought of as risky and ambitious or was it something that the publisher was confident would work?
SUSAN BUTLER: I think Brian Clouston was confident because of the success of his reading programs, and Australiana publishing had a big success then. However, he knew nothing about dictionaries so he told Arthur Delbridge to have it done in two years and the two years was extended to three. Then Brian fell out [with the company which owned Jacaranda] and was eased out of the publishing company - so various things happened.
JOHN HARMS: It sounds like a novel.
SUSAN BUTLER: We went into the university as a sort of sheltered workshop [otherwise known as a research project] while we sorted out all of this. So a lot of things happened. By the time we got to 1980, there was still a strong feeling of national publishing and so on, but Oxford was very strong. It is hard to think back to that time and remember that before the Macquarie was published – because it now seems so secure - it was a very risky undertaking indeed.
I remember coming in and seeing Kevin Weldon, who was the publisher, slamming the phone down, reaching for a glass of whiskey and saying, ‘This dictionary better be as bloody good as you say it is or else I am absolutely done for.’ So it was risky. And then suddenly it was there. We all held our breath and waited, and the response was fantastic. It’s been great.
JOHN HARMS: And coincidentally Manning Clark wrote the foreword.
SUSAN BUTLER: And Manning Clark wrote the foreword. That was another nervous experience from my point of view because here I am, a lonely little editor on this dictionary, and I can’t even in a way explain what I am talking about because it is so hard to visualise the dictionary before the event of its publication. But I tried to explain and to ask Manning Clark, the great historian, to write the foreword to it. Would he do it? We sat back and waited. And the answer came, yes, he would do it. He did a very fine foreword for the first edition. [It helped that his son, Axel Clark, worked on the first edition.]
JOHN HARMS: Roly, you’ve really got language in the blood.
ROLY SUSSEX: Yes, my father was a professor of French, my university degrees were in French and Russian, and then I went to Prague to do a PhD in 1968, which was a bad year. Eventually my Volkswagen and me and a lot of books managed to get out. I worked in Germany as a translator in a crystal factory for three months - so this is parallel to the belt factory. We have something else in common.
SUSAN BUTLER: Oh, yes, so you know what I mean.
ROLY SUSSEX: I am also a failed muso [musician]. I was going to be a clarinetist until I ruined an arm in school. I went to London and did a PhD in Russian and linguistics so I have been a linguist every since. I had the chair of Russian at the University of Melbourne until 1989. I was getting worried that Gorbachev was going to pull the whole thing down and I’d be left with no job - head of gardening or something; I love gardening, but no - and UQ [University of Queensland] said, ‘Would I like to come and talk to them about a job in applied linguistics,’ and I have been there ever since.
My involvement with English - and unlike Susan and Bruce, I am not a lexicographer but I am certainly a lexicologist, a word freak - began really with the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]. They rang up about 14 years ago and said, ‘People are griping about the standard of public English. Would you like to come and do a program?’ So I went down to the local ABC and the phone lit up like a Christmas tree - and we’ve been going ever since.
Every week I do three language talkback programs, one with Queensland, one with South Australia and one with the [Northern] Territory. I was on Radio National last week with Richard Aedy. I write a column for the Courier-Mail every Saturday on language. And we have an email list called Lang Talk which runs behind all these, with about 80 people worldwide who are interested in language in Australia. If anyone is interested, get hold of me after, and I will scribe you all digitally.
I am busy doing a dictionary at the moment of diminutives, things like ‘wino’, ‘derro’, ‘Huey’ and ‘Hawkie’ and so on about with which we shall talk anon. So I have become enormously interested in Australian English, and proud of it, and love sloshing around in this great big soup that we are experiencing at the moment.
JOHN HARMS: One of the things that has emerged today is the idea that language has life, that there is some resistance to change but some acceptance of change. Your theme is that a living language is a changing language. It has to change to live.
ROLY SUSSEX: Not only but also I think at the moment Australian English is distinguished by the fact that we’ve got multiple parallel streams of the language. There are not only different sorts of Australian English, but we are surrounded by various sorts of British English - watch The Bill tonight, and you will see it - Canadian, New Zealand, South African. Any South Africans here? We can do South African. Good. I won’t insult you further.
As a result, instead of having a single model, as you have say in Russian or French, where the academy says ‘This is the language, this is our monument and you will worship at it and woe be to you if you actually destroy it or sully it,’ in Australian English we are busy trying to find out where we are and where we are going. In France after all, if a journalist uses an Anglo word where there is a Gaelic word, they will be taken to court and fined.
JOHN HARMS: Really?
ROLY SUSSEX: Yes, really, and it has happened. Think of that in Australia. We are the ultimate eclectics, if you like, but also the inheritors of an incredibly rich tradition. David said this morning that, as soon as English becomes an international language, it’s dead. It seems to be live and kicking actually, but one of the things that Susan and I want to talk about is why it is kicking so well.
JOHN HARMS: Well, let’s take that up.
SUSAN BUTLER: We have picked up on the theme of change - this is something that I encounter in my working life all the time. I also encounter the people who love it and the people who resist it. It seems to me that in all aspects of life we have this kind of balance between conservatives and optimists. The optimists greet the words that we put up on the website each year with cries of delight and say, ‘Oh isn’t that lovely’, ‘that one’s good fun’ and ‘I hadn’t heard of that but I can find a use for that somewhere,’ and the pessimists say, ‘What are you doing introducing all this ruination into the language,’ and so on. So somewhere between the two we carry on doing this sort of thing.
So along with change we want to now introduce the notion of standards as they relate to change, and standards working with change, sometimes bumpily and sometimes quite well. We’re going to start with change in the pronunciation patterns in Australian English; we’re picking up in a way on what Bruce said about dealing with pronunciation on one side and lexicon on the other. So Roly will deal with pronunciation – over to you.
ROLY SUSSEX: One of the odd things about English is that the written language or the written standards, if you like, are much more standard across different jurisdictions. You might find if you pick up a newspaper that you’re not sure whether it was written in Delhi, in Wellington, in Tokyo or wherever, with the exception of spelling and a few odd lexical uses; whereas the spoken language, as we all know, is enormously varied and in many cases unstable.
The standards of the Australian accent - Bruce talked about this earlier - were starting to emerge roundabout 1830. Although we don’t have clear phonetic evidence until a bit later, it is obvious that we were distinct. Unfortunately we don’t have the New Zealand data that Bruce was talking about, but we can work out things from early recordings about what Australian English sounded like.
I’ve been listening to some early Melbourne Cups and the VFL Grand Final, and the standards of Australian spoken English in some ways have not changed as much as you might expect. What has happened, I think, is that an interesting thing, noticed by [AG] Mitchell and [A] Delbridge in their book on Australian pronunciation [The Pronunciation of English in Australia], has shifted. In 1970 their book said that there were basically three sorts: it was educated, about the top 11 per cent, ‘top’ in terms of social prestige and education; there was a big group called ‘general Australians’ in the middle, about 56 per cent; and then ‘broad Australian’. That was possibly prompted a great deal by the experience of the soldiers in the trenches in First World War.
Then there was ethnic English in Australia, and that covers a huge range of different accents, not only Aboriginal English but also Greek English - do you remember Con the Fruiterer? ‘Bootiful’ and again in different levels and flavours. What appears to have happened out of the last few years is that we’re converging towards the middle. There are fewer speakers at the educated top end - in other words, fewer like Mr [Alexander] Downer - but there are somewhat fewer also at the socially lower end [imitates accent]. That sort of thing is now less prevalent than it was, and we seem to be now congealing in the middle towards a more standard accent, if you like.
On the other hand, there are many important instabilities, part of which has to do with our exposure to American English. I’ve got some lovely examples which I want to discuss with you, in particular in relation to stress. Word stress has been a problem in Australia for years: do you say ‘pittosporum’ or ‘pittosporum’ [pronounces differently], the gardeners among you; do you say ‘clematis’ or ‘clematis’? You hear both. But recently I picked up ‘vaccination’ rather than ‘vaccination’, on the radio yesterday ‘paraplegic’ rather than ‘paraplegic’ and even Don Watson this morning said ‘sixteen’ rather than ‘sixteen’. These things we don’t really pay much attention to and, until you become sensitised, you may not be aware of it. I hope today that what I will do is to make you excessively sensitive, and you’ll provide me with thousands of examples.
What seems to be happening is that first of all stress seems to be moving towards the front of words, which actually happened before in middle English by the way; second, there a few words where the stress is moving away from the first syllable; and, third, there are some examples where this is actually having an effect on the pronunciation of vowels. So let’s have a look at those: the first syllable in proper names. When I was a kid it was ‘Fiji’ and ‘Mindanao,’ now by default it is ‘Fiji’ and ‘Mindanao’ - first syllable – and ‘Afghanistan’ rather than ‘Afghanistan’, ‘Pakistan’ rather than ‘Pakistan.’ If you think a little bit, you realise that we’ve actually have had a stress shift of quite substantial proportions.
In Melbourne, poor old things - I can say that because I come from there - they don’t know whether it’s ‘Toorak’ or ‘Toorak’, ‘Fitzroy’ or ‘Fitzroy’. In Brisbane there’s a place called ‘Mount Gravatt’; visitors from down the south - the Mexicans so called, and they still number me among those although we’ve been there since 1989 - ask ‘What’s the way to Mount Gravatt,’ and the locals go ‘Ha, Ha, I know you come from Victoria.’ [laughter]
This is interesting because we are moving the stress to the first syllable not just where we’re imitating the Americans who do have the tendency in that direction but also in places where the Americans don’t. Australians will tend to say ‘Illinois,’ whereas the Americans, who know perfectly well that it was first written that way by French speakers, will say ‘Illinois.’ OK?
Now even more so probably with compound Latin-derived words with a prefix: ‘translation’? No, ‘translation’. There are in fact thousands of those around in the vocabulary. Also, the move to the first syllable in phrases. When I was younger the place where the American President lived was the ‘White House’. Now, quite clearly it follows the American ‘White House’, where you treat adjective plus noun as a phrase and put the stress on the first element.
I heard yesterday on the radio ‘garlic bread’ not ‘garlic bread’ - that was My Kitchen Rules and they ought to know. Someone said that [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn’s novel was not ‘Cancer Ward’ but ‘Cancer Ward’. Twenty years ago I think that sort of stress would have been regarded as emphatic; nowadays, it is increasingly standard.
The move of the stress or rather problems with stress are also found in French-derived words like ‘ballet’ and ‘ballet.’ Probably the most interesting one in Australia is ‘perfume’ and ‘perfume’. I actually went to Myer one day approaching Christmas and said ‘what was the difference,’ and they said, ‘Perfume is over $400 and perfume is under’, [laughter] which tells you that the French-derived one, which is also the American one by the way, has more prestige and therefore more dollars.
There’s a whole stack of these. They’re typically American; they’re all from French; and they all move the stress onto the last syllable. So ‘ballet,’ ‘baton,’ ‘beret,’ ‘bourgeois’, ‘cafe’ - that could be Italian I suppose -‘debris’ rather than ‘debris’, ‘debut’ - by the way, that is the most awful word. What happens if you make it into a verb and do a past tense? ‘Yesterday he debuted?’ No one quite knows. ‘Frontier’, and for that matter ‘premiere,’ ‘garage’ - this one is funny. It goes all over the place. These ones, I think you’ll agree, are among the pronunciations that we do hear some of in Australia. I’ve heard someone say both ‘research’ and ‘research’ in the same sentence. So we are truly unstable and unsure where they’re going.
Americans will tend to say ‘Renaissance’ rather than ‘Renaissance’, and I think with a few exceptions they are a rather interesting group of words because they’re a pattern where the stress is moving away from the first syllable for a very specific reason; and that is, we appear to be imitating the Americans. Apart from that, American also is ‘St Augustine’ rather than ‘Augustine.’ I’ve heard that from native Australian speakers. If you have a dog it’s a ‘St Bernard’ rather than a ‘St Bernard’, not to mention the philosopher ‘Nietzsche’ rather than ‘Nietzsche’ and ‘Van Gogh,’ rather than ‘Van Gogh.’ So stress is actually having quite an interesting, unstable effect on our vocabulary.
I’ve got a few other examples like ‘regulatory’, ‘ceremony’, ‘laboratory’ and ‘mandatory’, and so on. This is a slightly different phenomenon. In American English there is a smaller difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in terms of pitch, volume and length than there is in particularly Australian and most particularly upper-class British English. You can imagine – and I’m overdoing it right now - ‘secretry’, barely two syllables – whereas ‘secretary’ in American is four. What happens in American English is that unstressed syllables have more prominence, and therefore the vowel is more fully realised. Over time this can even attract the stress, which is why in 2000 at the Olympics there was a mandate out that Australian broadcasters would kindly say ‘ceremony,’ and NBC in the next booth was saying ‘ceremony.’ I’m afraid at the last Olympics we’ve had a great vacillation - the Winter Olympics included - between ‘ceremony’ and ceremony’, and among younger people ‘ceremony’ is on the up.
SUSAN BUTLER: Where does ‘carstle’ and ‘castle’ fit in?
ROLY SUSSEX: Different. The ah/a thing is educated British and South Australia versus the rest. If you come from South Australia, you probably say ‘dahnce’ and Alexahnder’; if you come from elsewhere you probably say ‘dance’ and ‘Alexander’. Newcastle is ‘Newcahstle’ in New South Wales and South Australia but is ‘Newcastle’ everywhere else. The ‘a’ pronunciation is typical of British outside of the south-eastern counties.
More examples: ‘Ordinarily’. This is interesting because if you get something which has a simpler other form, that stress will tend to dominate. ‘Console’ gives you ‘inconsolable’ rather than ‘inconsolable’; ‘demonstrably’ gives you ‘demonstrably’, and ‘comparably’ rather than ‘comparably’. Some of you are looking really ill. [laughter] I’m sorry. ‘Irrevocably’ rather than ‘irrevocably’ - you can see what’s happening that we are in fact getting away from patterns where there was a difference of stress between the verb and the derived word and they’re tending to normalise into just one pattern.
A few others while I’m on the subject of pronunciation, the ‘yu’ sound is in trouble - ‘acupuncture’ or ‘acapuncture’. You will probably hear ‘acapuncture’ more than the other one. ‘Revolution’ or ‘revolution’, ‘resolution’ or ‘resolution’. After all, ‘suit’ has long become ‘soot’ - that’s OK, that’s gone. But I actually heard David Malouf this morning say ‘nuance’, the American way. How many of you are ‘noode’ people as opposed to ‘nude’ people? I’m sorry, I won’t ask that; it’s too embarrassing. [laughter]
What about ‘revolution’ and ‘revolution’? The ‘yu’ sound is weird. I hear quite often ‘foliage,’ rather than ‘foliage’ in the gardening programs; ‘palliative’ becomes ‘pallative’; ‘value’ becomes ‘value’; ‘Australia’ is ‘Australya’ in the speech of Pauline Hanson who has recently left these shores; ‘million’ becomes ‘million.’ What’s happening here is that you’ve got two consonants; the second one wins. So that in ‘million’, ‘l’ is the end of one syllable, ‘yu’ is the start of the next one, the second one wins, so ‘million’ becomes ‘million.’ It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s moderately systematic, and I think it’s getting further.
‘Yu’ plus a dental like ‘su’ - ‘tisyu’ is already British and rather affected in Australia. Everyone says ‘tishue’ except for very careful speakers. What about ‘nuclear fission’? That’s a hyper-correction. I once heard Mr Peacock say that; I’m not quite sure if he was having a bad day or not. What about ‘asume’? Mostly that’s ‘ashume’; and ‘consumers’; whereas careful speakers and the more British ones ‘asume.’ I’ve even heard ‘assoome’ recently, and that of course is doing the American thing of getting rid of the ‘yu’.
JOHN HARMS: Roly, if you want to hear pronunciation butchered you need to listen to a few horse races.
ROLY SUSSEX: Oh yes.
JOHN HARMS: Because recently I heard a race caller talk of a horse called Sword of Damocles [laughter] and Anti-podean [laughter] - I kid you not, sorry.
ROLY SUSSEX: He’s got the good lines, hasn’t he? Just a couple more which actually don’t have to do with Americanisms. You’ll hear quite often ‘terr-rism’ rather than ‘terrorism’, ‘libry’ rather than ‘library’, ‘deter’rate’ rather than ‘deteriorate,’ and ‘regu’ly’ and ‘itine’ry.’ What’s happening here, particularly with R, is that the English ‘r’ is a retro-flex, which means it’s made with the tongue up and back. That is actually a most unusual position for ‘r’ in the languages of the world. Usually it’s ‘rrr’ like Italian, which is dead easy,’ or it’s ‘rru’ as in French which is no problem at all, as long as you’re French. But if you’re going to get your tongue into the retro-flex position in adjacent syllables, then you have to work quite hard, and the tendency at speed is to leave one syllable out. So ‘terrorism’ becomes ‘terr’rism’. Once again, it shows you how, in even not uncareful speech, differences and parallel standards are starting to emerge around us.
We haven’t yet got to ‘nucular,’ that is an Americanism, thanks be to George W [Bush] but actually he is not the first American President to do that. Eisenhower said it at least once, so did Clinton. By the way, there are two words that go ‘cular,’ the other one is ‘cochlear.’ All the other ones go ‘clear’ like ‘nuclear’ and so on, and therefore, ‘nucular’ is following a pattern.
The sounds of Australian English are in some kind of ferment. Some people say we’re becoming more like the New Zealanders - no. Felicity Cox at Macquarie has good data to say that we are not. We do not have ‘fush and chups’. Are there any Kiwis here by the way? [laughter] May I?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You can.
ROLY SUSSEX: A Kiwi got up on Auckland Harbour Bridge with a huge paint-brush and wrote ‘Australia sucks’ and someone from Australia got up the next day and wrote ‘New Zealand nil.’ [laughter] Counter to the view that the Englishes of the world are converging, New Zealand is going off on its own. Not only that, when you are sleeping you go to ‘bed’ rather than to ‘bed,’ which does not mean you’re going to the TAB. ‘Alexander’ becomes ‘Alexender’, which is found in Australia as well. If you ask for someone’s ‘selery’, you’re not sure if you’re vegetables or money. Think about it, you’ll hear more than you think. On the other hand, in New Zealand ‘clean air’ is what have after a bath or what you breathe, and in fact ‘ear’ and ‘air’ are falling together. That means that some Englishes are maintaining their distinction, and for my money Australian English is doing at least as well by sounding distinctively ‘Ostrylian’. [laughter and applause]
SUSAN BUTLER: Well having confronted what is happening to Australian English pronunciation, I’m now going to talk about what has happened to the words of Australian English, the things that are put in the ‘diction’ry’ or the ‘dictionary.’ The Europeans who arrived had in front of them a whole new terrain, a whole new landscape. They had to find new words to deal with this, so they did it in the accepted ways in which English expands and copes with these situations. So they borrowed from the local languages, for example, ‘kangaroo.’ In Captain Cook’s journal, ‘one of the men saw an animal something less than a greyhound, it was of a mouse colour, very slender made and swift of foot called by the natives ‘kangaroo’. So we acquired a certain number of words from Aboriginal languages in that way.
The other way of coping with the situation was to take words that were part of your common store and apply them, adapt them to deal with the new situation. So something like a ‘paddock’, which in British English was a small field or enclosure, becomes the Australian paddock which can be as large as a small country.
We also borrowed from American English ‘bushranger’, which we think of as being entirely our own thing, I think, but it started out in American English and meant there what we think of a bushman. It was a frontiersman, someone who travelled through the bush, lived in the bush. We did a hell of a lot more with bushranger than the Americans did. They kind of dropped it, so I think we can claim it now as being definitely Australian English.
A creek in British English was a little inlet or arm of the sea; whereas in Australian English it becomes part of that hierarchy of waterways. A creek, whether it has water in it or not, whether it is small or big or twice the size of your nearby river, is a creek because it flows into a river and the river flows into the larger water.
So we took these terms from other Englishes and adapted them. Then we formed new compounds by taking words, usually one word which was significant like bush and attaching it to other words to create a compound that was something more, something different than just the sum of its parts. So you get the bush ballad, the bush biscuit, the bush blanket, the bush carpenter, the bush cook, bush costume/dress, bush duty, bush experience - and on and on it goes. Different Englishes do this sort of thing. In Singaporean Malaysian English, it is a word like ‘temple’ or ‘dragon’ that becomes that significant word and attaches a whole lot of words to it that become compounds with their own specific meaning. So that is the basic procedure for expanding the vocabulary to cope with the situation.
What I thought I would do is to take you on a little gallop through the lexicon of Australian English, what we might think of as the traditional lexicon of Australian English, and then fetch up with where we are at the moment. We start with convict terms. You have the traps for the police; a plant for a cache of stores, something that you put somewhere for later; new chums and old chums are convict terms from the hulks which come out of the colony and become terms of the new people who have been in there for a while or people who have just come off of the boat. I do not know that we talk about old chums so much but we certainly talk about new chums - the office new chum has got to be shown around.
ROLY SUSSEX: Sue, just on that for later, didn’t you mean to say ‘for Ron’? You always have ‘for Ron’ for later on?
SUSAN BUTLER: Thank you, yes, of course I did.
We acquired pastoral terms like bush, scrub, creek, paddocks, squatters, rosellas, cocky farmers, mates and so on. ‘Rosella’ is one of those words that you might think of as being an Aboriginal borrowing but it is not. It comes from ‘Rose Hill.’ It is the bird they saw at Rose Hill and it became a rosella. Bit of a trap.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You get rosellas as plants?
SUSAN BUTLER: Bruce, the rosella as a plant? That is a word transferred from British English, there you go.
Aboriginal borrowings like billabong, brolga, jarrah, kangaroo, mallie, kookaburra, wombat and budgerigar. And once budgerigar gets shortened to budgie, everyone forgets that it is actually from something that sounds like an Aboriginal borrowing. From the goldfields we had fossick - I love that word ‘fossick’ – diggers, billies and hatters (eccentric miners and bushmen they were), and shepherding, shepherding a mining claim which is nice because it transfers to football where you shepherd the person who holds the ball.
Moving on to about 1890s and early 1900s, you get the interest in the bush among the people living in the cities, romantic notions of the bush captured in the bush ballad, and a certain number of city words as well: bludgers, wowsers and a lurk.
During World War One we get diggers, bonza, cobber, furphy for that story you don’t entirely believe – furphy is another one I really like, and it seems to be surviving - and the brass razoo.
Then the Depression: the bottler, the sleep-out, the susso.
World War II: emu parade, giggle suit, fatigue suit, milk run, troppo for going slightly crazy, galah for a fool and spine bashing. I do wish we could keep spine bashing; it’s a lovely word but it doesn’t seem to be hanging around much longer. Spine bashing means having a rest, lying down, sleeping. So that takes us up to the Second World War, and then things started to be very different indeed.
We had this influx of American English, we had the pace of life changing with a whole lot of technology. I remember the 1980s where, for the first time, we had the PC on our desks, and we learnt about things being user-friendly - everyone thought that was great fun so I had citations for a fridge being described as user-friendly and then a car door being described as user-vicious. [laughter] This is nice; we played around with that sort of stuff.
That kind of progress produced by the mix of IT, slang, fashion, American English, and so on results in the new words in the fifth edition, where you have new sports - we seem to be inventing new sports so fast these days. We have adventure running, and you have an adventure race; an attack ad; baby daddy; your besties, your best friends; boyzilian wax; car crash TV; clothing swap party; connoisseur tourism (there’s been a whole spate of different tourisms); cowboy boots for fashion; crunk cup; deceptive marketing; divorce genes; ear gauging; ebook readers; iconocrats; electronic whiteboards, ethical shopping, film tourism, folksonomy, forfeiting, freakonomics, future-proofing things, and so on. Those words seem incredibly different from the sorts of words that we regard as being traditional Australian English. That’s the kind of influx of new words that we’re dealing with.
If I do a similar quick gallop through slang in Australian English, you get convict slang such as a lark; being queer for being unwell; shaking someone down; doing something on the sly; snitching on someone; snoozing for sleeping; a stake for booty; a swag; a swell; a toddler; turning up trumps; spinning a yarn; and your whack for your share. And also kid for a young thief, which I’m sure is where we got that message that was sent to us by all our teachers and parents that you mustn’t talk about kids - kids are young goats. You’re not going down to the street to play with the other kids, they’re the other children, not the young goats. And I’m sure it was because kid had this unfortunate connotation, and people didn’t want to be implying that the neighbour’s children were in some way involved with thieving activity. Anyway, for better or worse, these words that came in with convict jargon are still really colloquialisms in Australian English. Even though we’ve forgotten completely where they came from, there is this sense that they are never to be granted complete respectability. They’ll always be in a fringe area of Australian English.
After that, we had the British hand-me-downs from the language of London. Throughout the late 1800s London was the centre of the universe, as America probably is now. So we followed all those fashions in London and picked up as soon as we could on what was the latest thing to say. We brought with us a certain amount of dialect that became slang in Australian English. So we have: flummoxing to astonish people; a fluke; have a geek at something; give someone gyp; joshing someone; a mollydooker for a lefthander and a mullygrubber for the low ball in cricket; Rafferty’s rules; taking a punt, the rozzers, shivoo, skerrick, slummucky, smidgen, smoodging, little tackers and so on.
I am going to leap from there to post Second World War and what we are dealing with now. As I said, now we are dealing with being besties with someone, about someone being ‘the man’, about saying ‘duh’ when you wish to be insulting to someone, about saying ‘your mum’ when you wish to be insulting to someone. You know that one? It’s a sort of shortened version of ‘your mum’s a’ something or other. So you don’t bother to expand it all, you just say ‘your mum’ and this implies complete derision of what was said before.
So you can see the progression in lexicon and how life has changed in Australian English. If you are a language optimist you say, ‘Yes, well, this is what it is all about and this is us moving on.’ If you are a language pessimist, you are a bit scared. It’s one of the funny things about change. We view it in different ways, depending on how distant, how removed we are from the change.
At this point, I’d like to invite Bruce to give us the first lines of The Canterbury Tales, being our mediaeval expert in our midst. I sprung this on him.
BRUCE MOORE: If you remember the first lines of ‘The Canterbury Tales it is about the coming of spring and Chaucer saying: well, when spring comes, of course we all go on pilgrimages or pilgrim-ah-ges. It goes:
Whan that Aprille, with his shoures sote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne…’
[applause and laughter] That’s about as far as I can remember - that’s 30 years ago.
SUSAN BUTLER: Thank you, Bruce.
JOHN HARMS: Can I just move to the Northern Territory and to 2006 by comparison: I got an invitation from the chief minister or something being a territory and it had on it what we were to wear to the function and it is said ‘Territory rig’. So I rang up the office and said, ‘What is this Territory rig?’ And the woman said, ‘Anything you like, mate.’ [laughter]
BRUCE MOORE: There was a segue there, but I am still looking for it.
SUSAN BUTLER: What I wanted to point out, as Bruce has eloquently done, is that doesn’t sound very much like modern English and there are lots of words in there that we don’t use anymore. But do we mind? No. We say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. Bruce, that’s fantastic. Do it again. That’s great.’ So change as long as it far enough away is fine. We think it’s delightful, interesting, entertaining.
It’s change in our own lifetime that really rattles us, because, as I think we’ve said somewhere today, we’re experts on language but the truth of the matter is we’re experts on our own language. We make our own language choices; we know them and we love them and we can explain them to the world; and we kind of assume that everyone else has made the same language choices that we’ve made. Every now and then we come up against the fact that someone has made a choice that’s slightly different, and this is difficult. The older we get, the more often we see that people are making choices that are different from ours. It gives you an uneasy feeling to see your rock-solid view of your own English and your shared English being shaken up so fundamentally in that way.
JOHN HARMS: So what does a word need to do to get into the dictionary?
SUSAN BUTLER: A lot of people ask that question, and sometimes they ask it with a glint in their eye. I don’t know quite what the fascination is. It suddenly occurs to them, ‘I can get one past her and get it into the dictionary,’ and that will be my word that I’ve snuck into the dictionary. I suppose it’s something to do with the authority of the dictionary, and if you can get a word in there then that’s pretty impressive. But it is, as again someone said earlier, the democracy of numbers, democracy of use in the community.
If I can find sufficient evidence that people actually use this word meaningfully, that it is not just a personal word, a family word, I can give it to you and expect to be understood and we can carry on our conversation without little asides saying what I mean by that is da-da da-da, then this is a word that has common currency. It might only be in the section of the community, not necessarily the whole community. The skateboarding community might understand very well some of the words that they use and not have to explain these as they go along, although they might to the rest of us. So basically you find that, and if the evidence is there you can put the word in.
Now having done with pronunciation and the lexicon, we go to diminutives.
ROLY SUSSEX: I have two minutes on diminutives. These are forms like ‘wino’, ‘derro’, ‘Hawkie’, ‘bossy’ and ‘lapper’ and so on. I’m finishing a long-awaited dictionary of about 5000 of these things. Given that the Macquarie’s core is 112,000 approximately, that’s rather a lot. There are more than 24 ways to form these things, and Australian English beats the rest of the world by a country mile. [laughter] The Scots have quite a few, the New Zealanders some, the South Africans some like backy, for example - but we are winners. ‘Have you been to Rocky recently on your Beamer?’ Rockhampton on your BMW? We do it for place names all over the place like Bundy for Bundaberg and Smelburn for Melbourne, but we won’t go there.
I haven’t had the pleas, meaning the pleasure. There are lots of forms like - well if you’re going to the wine shop and ask for some Cab Sav, if you say Cabernet Savignon they’ll offer something worth $120. [laughter] It’s a way of which you mark your belonging to a group of people who know about wine. So you get a Gewurtz, which is actually Gewurztraminer, a Chardy, and a Sem and a Treb - some of these you will recognise, others you might think about for a little bit first.
Hey mate, there’s a mossie on your cossie. Some we get from the Americans. If you’ve been building your body recently you’ve been conscious of your carbs, and you’re trying to build your abs, your glutes, your quads, your bis and your tris after which you’ll have a six-pack, good luck.
We do it to politicians if we like them. Hawkie was Bob Hawke [ex-Australian Prime Minister] while he was popular, he’s no longer known as Hawkie. But Wayne Goss [former Premier of Queensland] is still Gossy. We do it to football people endemically. So if your name is long like Dipierdimenico, shorten it – Dipper and Jesaulenko is Jezza. If you happen to support the Brisbane Lions you would know about Vossy, Browny and Leper; and if you happen to support the Broncos, and I hope they won this afternoon, Lazzer is Glenn Lazarus.
By the way, one of my favourite ones here is not a diminutive at all: there was a man who was called Bunnings as a nickname, and they asked why he was called Bunnings, and he said, ‘Well what would bunings do, his name is Sellwood.’ [laughter]
JOHN HARMS: Very good.
ROLY SUSSEX: You go to the veggie shop and you buy cuies, mandies, rockies, grannies, johnnies and caulies - we do this. If your name ends in an ‘r’ after the first syllable it turns into a ‘z’: Barry becomes bazza; Mary becomes Mezza; Sharon becomes Shazza; Murray becomes Muzza. There’s a stack of those as well. I could go on with a lovely recitation for many hours. It shows you this is not only very productive, and there are new ones turning up as new people enter the sporting arena, in addition they are used frequently in everyday speech. They are part of the way we indicate, if you like, belonging to an Australian community of speakers, so they are regarded as soliduistic. You will hear Australians overseas using these more than is humanly possible because they want to say, ‘In this place I want everybody to know where I come from.’
SUSAN BUTLER: Having talked about all of that, we are going to move on and talk about the protectors of standards, standards and what they are. Actually, Roly, you were going to talk about standards first for different varieties of Australian English which you mentioned before and prestige forms, and so on.
ROLY SUSSEX: Yes, that’s right. Prestige is terribly important, because it is the sort of language that people like to imitate if they want to achieve the status of the people who are powerful and in positions that they want to aspire to. So the form of French which, one, was not the French of Avignon which might have became the national standard, it was the French of Paris because that was the place where religious, royal, mercantile and other power was concentrated; likewise London for English. In Australia we have a real problem with what the prestige model is, how we identify it, and what we do about it. I was born in Melbourne and I lived here until I was ten; we then went to live in New Zealand for 12 years; and I came back in 1974.
Before I left, the news was read on the ABC about people with British accents and current affairs was British - remember Movietone News? How many of you were Argonauts? Yeah, a good generation. All of this was cast from a different sort of English we used in the playground, behind the shelter sheds or when playing football. We were quite clear that Australian English was what we identified with.
But the other one was the one we tended to use if we wanted to get a job. In fact, there was a distinct shift. I remember that John Bernard went out looking for speakers of broad Australian English, he found some in western Sydney and brought them to his lab, put them in front of a microphone and miraculously they got up and matched general Australian English. He couldn’t get them to speak broad Australian English at all. So we had this love-hate relationship with our own variety.
When I came back in 1974, Graham Kennedy was in full flood, together with the dog Rover - and I use the word flood advisedly. You remember that? Interestingly, by the way, Sydney wouldn’t take Melbourne programming until they had a Don Lane, an American. But Australian English had arrived and we get educated Australian accents universally through the media in all of the prestige slots where they’d been before.
Nowadays I occasionally ask on the radio what do my listeners think the best speakers of English in Australia are - not necessarily best Australian English, which is a slightly different question – and almost to a person they give us female broadcasters or former broadcasters on ABC and SBS: Maxine McKew, Caroline Jones, Mary Kostakidis, Jennifer Byrne, Lee Lin Chin, who’s Hong Kong Chinese, Juanita Phillips, and some people say Hoges but I think they are pulling my leg. It is really interesting that they are mainly female. There are a few male voices: Gough Whitlam is a devastatingly fluent speaker and Sir James Killen was a speaker of great elegance whose passing I regret.
A lot of my foreign students ask me: whom should I imitate? A really difficult question. When you listen to Triple J or football commentaries or the Melbourne Cup, or wherever the racing happens to be on, you won’t hear that sort of English; yet it’s the sort of English with which we also identify. Therefore, the dictionary maker has a real problem of which pronunciation or how many pronunciations not only to mention but also to licence; and what kinds of things are going to constitute the sort of kosher Australian English that we should be regarding as the one which we want to convey to the world. Larrikin people like Roy [Slaven] and HG [Nelson] are part of it. I think bush poets are part of it. We have a very wide span which has now become our English and different sorts of prestige are associated with different sorts of speakers in different contexts.
JOHN HARMS: I’ve just got to watch the time a little bit. We have only five minutes left. Do you want to take questions or have you got something else to mention?
SUSAN BUTLER: I was going to do usage standards and so on.
ROLY SUSSEX: No, why don’t you, that is good.
SUSAN BUTLER: Sorry, five minutes on that and then we’ll see what we can do. The people who protected our standards used to be not here but over there. We used to get all our advice on what was right in English from British English. So it’s a great step forward that we are now actually making those decisions ourselves and voicing those decisions in the dictionary through usage notes in our own writing guides, style guides and so on - that’s great.
However, I do find in the dictionary that I struggle with how to word the note that you write for an entry like ‘agreeance’, in for example: ‘I’m in agreeance with you.’ There are a lot of people who would say that that’s not proper English, yet there are some highly educated people who use it. When you go to say, ‘it’s educated usage versus uneducated,’ it’s not true. In educated usage ‘agreeance’ is fine, so you say ‘Agreeance is this word, it’s used commonly, but there are some people in the community who will get upset by it.’ It’s very hard to pin down who these some people are and hard to describe them. So even if we are making our own decisions, it’s hard to know who is making the decisions and how far those decisions go.
To be bored with: the construction ‘bored of’ as in ‘bored of his studies’ is increasing in frequency. ‘Bored with’ would be considered correct but the analogy with ‘tired of’ is proving to be overwhelming, and ‘bored of’ is now just so common that people cease to remark on it. It is very hard to know, particularly where you have things which are in a state of flux, who you side with. Do you side with that little group who at their worst are pedants, at their best they’re enlightened, educated users of the language wishing to protect and maintain its beauty. But then over there you’ve got enlightened speakers, eloquent, articulate people who are using these constructions. The only thing from the dictionary point of view that I can definitely say is a marker of non-prestige Australian English is the use of ‘youse’. To everyone who writes to the dictionary and says you have put ‘youse’ in the dictionary, we say ‘Yes, but read all the labels, it says that it’s in speech and people don’t approve of it.’ ‘But you’ve put it in the dictionary’ they say. ‘This is absolutely anathema.’
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What about ‘anythink’?
JOHN HARMS: With the ‘k’ on the end. That will be our one and only question, by the way.
ROLY SUSSEX: Cockney.
JOHN HARMS: Is it?
ROLY SUSSEX: Yes, only anythink and somethink - what did the Oxford used to say about ‘bloody’ - common in the mouths of the working classes or something?
BRUCE MOORE: Only in working classes.
ROLY SUSSEX: Thank you.
JOHN HARMS: All right. Please thank Roly Sussex and Susan Butler very much for this afternoon. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018