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In contemporary Australian society, there are three common accents: the Broad, General and Cultivated accents. However, don't be fooled into thinking that it merely stops at these three common accents - in fact there are also ethnic varieties as well as Aboriginal English. So, while we classify the Broad, General and Cultivated accents as the main accents, do not ignore the other two. However, for the purposes of this article, I will only be delving into the three common accents, and will endeavour to write another article on ethnic varieties and Aboriginal English in the future.
So, let's begin by demystifying the three accents:
Broad: The Broad accent is often associated with 'internationally portrayed' Australians such as Steve Irwin, Paul Hogan and even Kath and Kim! It is often portrayed by greater nasality as well as greater accentuation of the Australian vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u). Though, as I state below, very few people actually speak like this.
In particular, the Broad accent is only spoken by about 10% of the Australian population and often represents values and qualities such as masculinity and sociability, however it measures negatively on intelligence and competence. This is why very few females speak with a Broad accent - due to its perceived quality of masculinity.
General: The general accent is the most common neutral accent in Australia. It is often regarded as a mix of both the Broad and Cultivated accents, with the General accent displaying elements of both extremes. An example of this is past Prime Minister John Howard.
Most people (80%) nowadays opt for the middle group, otherwise known as the General accent. The reason for this is it allows Australians to display a level of sociability as well as intelligence without the stigma that comes with the two extremes (Broad and Cultivated). Think about that for a moment - if you decided to now start speaking with a Cultivated accent, how do you think people would perceive you? Likewise, if you decided to start speaking with a Broad accent, how do you think you would be perceived by others?
Cultivated: The Cultivated accent is often associated with British Received Pronunciation (RP) and often has an element of overt prestige. This accent is often associated with intelligence and competency, and draws upon many English vowels and phonemes to portray this intelligence. Common examples include Malcolm Fraser and Cate Blanchett.
The Cultivated accent is spoken by about 10% of the population and is gradually dying out nowadays.
According to Convict Creations, in England, accents vary according to class and region. In America, they vary according to race and region. Unlike America or England, Australia has no variance in speaking according to class, race or region. Instead, the accent varies according to ideology or gender. Two Australians can grow up side by side, go to the same schools, do the same job, but end up speaking English using different words, different syntax and with different accents. In fact, due to the gender variance, a brother and sister can grow up in the same house and end up speaking differently.
I'd like you to take note of the words 'ideology' and 'gender'. Due to the relative lack of regional variation and class hierarchy, many speakers may use one of these accents to subconsciously reflect their personal ideologies. So, if you believe you're incredibly friendly, laid-back and carefree, then you may choose to speak with a Broad accent. If you believe that you're intelligent and wish to portray this level of intelligence to others, then you may choose to speak with a Cultivated accent. However, as I investigate below, these two extremes are gradually dying out...
Now that you know how to differentiate between the three, it's now time study the history of the Australian accent and how it reflects social changes in our society.
According to linguist Felicity Cox, "Linguistic change runs parallel with social change". This is a very important idea to grasp due to the fact that when social changes occur, the language will often change to reflect it. For example, as society becomes more gender inclusive, so must our language to reflect this ideological change. This can be seen in various morphological changes such as 'chairperson' for 'chairman' and 'humankind' for 'mankind'. Now, let's apply this same notion to the three Australian accents!
Development of the General Australian accent
The general accent developed shortly after colonisation in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and emerged as a result of what Kel Richards calls a 'levelling down process'. Kel Richards is the author of the new book 'The Story of Australian English' and is a credible source for your essays.
"It emerged from a process called levelling down because you had all these people who came here on 11 ships from different dialect areas, regional dialect areas across England," he said.
"They all spoke differently and they used different words and what they had to do, in order to communicate with each other, was to level their dialect variations down."
Development of the Cultivated Australian accent
Later, in the late 19th and early 20th century, a social separation of the accent occurred. The Elocution Movement had made its way to Australian shores and it brought with it ideas of how to speak 'proper'. During this time, British RP was seen as overtly prestigious and therefore selected as a basis of the Cultivated accent. According to Kel Richards, "it started off on how to annunciate and speak clearly but what they did was pick one dialect, standard southern English, and they said 'that is correct'.
"Standard southern English came to be what is called RP, Received Pronunciation, Oxbridge, that kind of accent.
"That was right, everything else was wrong."
Over the following 60 - 8o years, the Cultivated accent had its place as the form of speaking on television, due to this overt prestige. This also suggests that the Australian accent (both Broad and General) has a stigma and was viewed negatively by Britain as a substandard accent.
Development of the Broad Australian accent
The Broad accent was actually created much later in history than many people believe. Some believe that the Broad accent developed shortly after colonisation, however, evidence suggests that the General Australian accent was the only accent until around the late 1800s. This suggests that the Broad accent developed as a reaction to the development of the Cultivated accent.
According to Kel Richards, before this time General Australian accents were predominant before Cultivated and Broad Australian accents arrived later, as a reaction to the elocution movement.
According to Australian National University lexicographer Bruce Moore, "It was almost an unconscious, instinctive reaction to the imposition of British standards," he says.
In its way, the broad accent and idiom was just as much an affectation as rounded, plummy vowels. Both were attempts to express a sense of egalitarian nationalism through speech.
"It was a reaction to the kind of cultured speech that was now associated with a value system that many Australians did not share," Moore says. "Australian) values needed a language in which they could be expressed.
"We expressed that through a changing vocabulary, but it wasn't just the words we were speaking - it was the accent that was changing as well."
Changes to the three accents in contemporary Australian society
This 20th-century division of Australian English is largely absent from the accents of today’s young people, perhaps suggesting that linguistic change runs parallel with social change. Nowadays, it is much less common to hear a Cultivated or Broad accent, however, the Broad is generally more common than the Cultivated accent.
According to Australian National University lexicographer Bruce Moore, "the 'cultivated' accent is nearly gone, and the 'broad' accent is going as well.
"Australians are becoming more confident with the standard Australian accent - and that means there's no longer the need for those sorts of extreme sounds."
Bruce Moore states that this is evidence of Australians overcoming the 'cultural cringe' - an idea which states that a country perceives itself to be inferior to other cultures and so downplays its own culture.
The disappearance of the Cultivated accent also states, according to linguist Felicity Cox, "[that] this is evidence of republicanism and socio-cultural changes" perhaps suggesting that we're distancing ourselves from Britain and the monarchy.
So, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think the Broad accent will disappear soon?