Australians struggle to pronounce the word ‘Australia’ correctly

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Australians struggle to pronounce the word ‘Australia’ correctly

Australian man on the beach with Aussie flags celebrating Australia Day

When people learn the ABC has a pronunciation database — and that part of my job is to attend to its upkeep — the emails they send in are not always complimentary.

“You should be concentrating on the diversions being made in the name of modernism,” begins one.

For this complainant, and many others, an unforgiveable solecism is eroding the good name of this once great nation. To be specific, it is a perceived inability to pronounce the name of this once great nation.

“The uneducated pronunciation of the name of this great country, Australia, is insulted by the use of a Y,” the complainant writes. “As in Austraya, which immediately comes to mind.”

Perhaps without realising it, this complainant has hit upon an issue that has a long history — just not quite in the way they think.

A proud tradition of pronouncing Australia incorrectly

Towards the tail end of 1933, Londoners realised something strange: BBC announcers seemed to take multiple approaches to pronouncing the word Australia.

In one, the first syllable rhymed with the title of Patrick White’s then-unpublished Voss. In the other, the first syllable resembled the vowel sound in ore.

Study for a portrait of Mr. Hal Porter, by William Dargie

This state of chaos terrified the British public so much that newspapers lobbied the BBC to go with (their orthography) Osstralia.

Actual Australians, hearing of this debate, argued for a third way.

“I agree that Australia should not be pronounced Orestralia,” said the Reverend GE Hale, a lecturer in public speaking at the Workers’ Educational Association of Adelaide.

“But neither should it be pronounced Osstralia.”

For Hale, there was a third way — closer to Orestralia, but without stress on the first syllable. Orstralia.

That this great country had not settled on a single pronunciation of its own name, even 30 years after Federation, didn’t seem to faze its residents.

On the contrary: there is some evidence to suggest that speakers of Australian English used these variant pronunciations as a handy form of social marker.

In his autobiography, the writer Hal Porter observed that he was “an unmistakable Australian, albeit of the Awstralian rather than the Osstralian variety”.

Porter’s remarks on the Australian accent, written in 1963, neatly mirror today’s anxieties around pronunciation.

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Trailer for the film Crocodile Dundee

Where contemporary complainants bemoan the “uneducated pronunciation” of Austraya, Porter reckoned those who said Awstralia possessed “an ineradicable and perverse” accent.

(After all, nothing is more indicative of the Australian quality of mateship than hanging your compatriots out to dry for their speech patterns.)

“Wealth cannot taint [their accent]nor education undo it,” Porter wrote, adding that such an accent telegraphed the “certified weaknesses” of the Australian character.

This ex nihilo linking of feature-of-speech to national moral failure is first-rate demonising. You get the sense Porter, who died in 1984, would have really hated Crocodile Dundee.

Straya, mate

But stuffing up this first vowel sound isn’t the only sin Australians are allegedly guilty of. Worse, to some minds, is when we lop the first syllable entirely off.

In 1988 — the Bicentennial year, no less — Fairfax language columnist Alan Peterson angsted publicly on what he termed “the slurred uhStralia“, as well as its stablemates ‘Stralia and ‘Straya.

“Pronunciation of our nation mourned” ran the headline that, admittedly, kept its tongue firmly cheek-adjacent.

A screenshot of a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1988.

Returning the missing initial vowel to the word, Peterson said, would make a fitting Bicentenary gift to the language.

Prescriptivists and their pedants-in-arms tend toward a form of temporal arrogance: English is always assumed to have been mutilated but recently, their bastion against ignorance is always thought always to be tongue’s last.

Peterson, writing in 1988, could not have known that the Australian National Dictionary’s (AND) second edition would find citations for ‘Stralian back to 1902, and for ‘Stralia that predate Federation.

The elision he held to be poisonous was, in fact, patriotic.

(In fairness to Peterson, the earliest citation the AND has for Straya is his — though even that abbreviation must have been made in the 1930s. As GE Hale wrote at the time: “On no account should the ‘i’ [in Australia]be spoken as ‘y’.”)

I am, you are, we are… what, exactly?

At the heart of complaints about how to pronounce Australia — and at the heart of many such complaints about pronunciation — is how you feel about change.

One of the earliest historical sources describing a distinct Australian accent comes from Scottish-born educator and musicologist Samuel McBurney.

Booth's 1873 general map of Australia.

In 1887, travelling throughout the colonies on a lecture tour with his wife, McBurney made a study of peculiarities in the Australian dialect.

This surviving article forms one of the earliest detailed accounts of the Australian tongue.

The striking thing is, McBurney was confronted with broadly similar acoustic phenomena to those of today’s complainants: shortening of words, elision of some vowel sounds, broadening of others.

(In one anecdote, McBurney describes 19th century colonials enunciating I die as Oi doi, which — to my ears — just sounds like Kath and Kim.)

Rather than spurn this newfound tongue, McBurney largely approved. Australian English could “compare favourably” with any dialect of Britain, he said.

Verbal contractions such as ‘Straya, which some now deplore as evidence of lazy character or educational decline, McBurney saw as part of the grand Victorian teleology of progress.

“Labour-saving devices are not confined to tilling the ground,” he wrote. “Where the young colonial finds himself understood by half the oral exertion necessary, he abbreviates.”

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: variant pronunciations, of the national word or otherwise, are no more the result of concerted attempts to streamline language than they are of any grand modernist project.

It’s just variation, which — on the historical evidence — has been a part of Australian speech for longer than the country has existed.

Dictionaries, when confronted with Australia, either list multiple pronunciations (Macquarie) or don’t offer one, assuming it to be self-evident (Australian Concise Oxford).

(Though even then: there’s often a difference in how words are pronounced in isolation, compared to how they are produced in continuous speech.)

But the assumption that someone is uneducated because of how they pronounce one word — or that, through the use of neutral vowels in connected speech, the national character is somehow degraded?

That, to my ears, sounds positively un-Australian.

Tiger Webb is a researcher with ABC Language.

Topics:

english,

human-interest,

australia

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