December 4th, 2007

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.
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