blamebrampton (blamebrampton) wrote,

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How to speak Strayan

I spend a lot of time thinking about language. Its my job, and it's always been my hobby. So I expected Australian to be easy. Most spellings are English, while some punctuation is American (eg " " for quotes), so a few simple mental realignments are all that are required to acclimatise -- in theory.

When I moved to Sydney I was fairly confident that I knew a lot about Australian English. My mother is Australian, and I saw her a moderate amount during my childhood. I had many Australian friends. I had watched three episodes of Neighbours. I knew the words to Throw Your Arms Around Me. I was sorted.

As it turned out, Australians actually are laconic and friendly, so I enjoyed myself from the start even though it is always disgustingly humid and there are no good local shoes. But there was a problem. The denizens are incomprehensible.

Australian English is a mix of several lingos. Loads of British English, an increasing amount amount of American Engish, scads of Irish, Northern, Scottish and Welsh slang, and dribs and drabs of Aboriginal, Japanese, Maori, Italian, Greek and Lebanese.

The key trick to speaking Strayan is not to move your mouth. It is essential never to open your mouth wide as this is the only way to avoid swallowing flies. There are a great many flies.

Not moving one's mouth leads to strange pronunciations. The household Australian says that the reason it's pronounced Straya is that they were tired of being confused with Austria and shifting the pronunciation was one further point of difference -- because one being flat, dusty, filled with marsupials and in the Southern Hemisphere while the other is mountainous, snowy, filled with beer gardens and in the Northern Hemisphere wasn't enough for, say, the president of the United States.

So, for the first six months that I was here, I was mildly bemused by a common word: seeyasarvo. It was obvious what it meant: I look forward to continuing this conversation later in the day. I assumed it was a Japanese import and was impressed by the increasing Asian focus of the locals. Then I had an epiphany. It was: "See you this arvo (afternoon)".

My first tip: if it's incomprehensible, say it very slowly and see if any sections ending in 'a', 'y' or 'o' are contractions of longer words.

Which brings me to my next point. To speak Australian, you must love contraction. If you find yourself overhearing a conversation in which words such as carby (carburettor) , barbie (barbecue), sanga (sandwich) and garbo (dustman/garbage collector) feature heavily, you are probably listening to an Australian.

There are certain rules as to which vowel one should slap onto the end, but I cannot tell you what they are since they are only handed out to Real Australians. The rules are even more complex when it comes to proper nouns.  Gazza, Matty, Jimbo, Deano and Richo are representative of the Australian approach, and yes, two of these involve making the original names longer, don't ask, they won't explain it.

My second tip: two syllables is ample for any word, just chop until you get there. Stick a vowel on the end, you're done. 

The image of Australians as wild, rural folk is, of course, a big fib. Almost all of them live in cities. Many of them know no indigenous people. Nevertheless, the language of the bush and Aboriginal is invoked in idiom.  People acting stupidly will be called a great galah (an Aboriginal word) --  in fact a pink and grey parrot that will get drunk on nectar and rotted fruit and wobble about on the ground (very amusingly). (Someone who actually is stupid is a drongo, a word derived from a losing racehorse, named after another bird.)

A billabong is a small lake created beside a river. Like many Aboriginal words, the actual language that it is from isn't hugely clear (there are many, many localised Aboriginal dialects and a fair number of separate languages, it's quite European). Despite the fact that most Australians have never seen a billabong, they use the word cheerfully, sustained by the fact they know the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda (which is more than can be said for the National Anthem).

The obscure "What do you think this is, bush week?" is one of my favourites. It is used as an expression of disbelief: "Would you mind if I came in late tomorrow?" "What do you think this is? Bush Week?"

It took me years to find the explanation behind this one. Apparently, during the Depression, the state governments spent a lot of money on infrastructure projects in the major cities so they could fund some employment.  Much of this money came from the rural sector and the bushies (see! it's easy!) took exception to the fact they were receving nothing. The NSW government spoke of having a big expo week where they would show off local produce and encourage trade, but it never came about. Thus bush week came to symbolise a mythical time, about which cynicism was appropriate.

Other rural related terms include dag, which means someone unsophisticated, unfashionable or gauche (literally the manure-tainted fleece on the back of a sheep), and swag, which means a lot, a large amount (from the large bag and bedding carried by itinerant workers in the bush).

My third tip: when Australians start using terms like the above, look them in the eye and say "You've never actually met a sheep, have you?"

Finally, Australians are rude buggers. If your Aussie friend addresses you as "You old bastard" it is a sign of affection. This causes no problems in discussions between Australians and Brits. It causes immense difficulties in discussions with Americans. My closest American friend took a long time to learn that "You wanker" was fondness, and even longer to learn that "I can't believe you're such a wanker!" was frustration.  Tone is usually the giveaway, though you may need to look at other quirks of body language -- balled fists, rolled eyes, grimaces of anguish ...

My final tip: if unsure, offer to buy the Australian a beer. It will cement friendships and defuse arguments in practically every case.
Tags: australia, language
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