Saturday, April 18, 2009

Talking Australian: The origins of Flash Talk: Convict speech in the colonies




Britain started transporting convicts to Australia in 1788 and stopped in 1852. During this time some 150,000 were transported to eastern Australia with about 25,000 of these were women. In 1865 the British government began transportation to Western Australia and this continued until 1868. In total about 10,000 convicts were sent to Western Australia. The language of the convicts was known as ‘flash language’ and used everyday words but in unique ways and was spoken in many dialects. It became so well established interpreters were called upon to help translate witness testimony.



Eventually dictionaries of underworld slang were compiled as released convicts continued to speak flash and much of the lexicon became part of Australian English. There are countless examples of words and phrases today which had their origins in flash language. The verb ‘plant’ meaning to hide clandestinely is but one example and 'swag' originally referred to a thief’s plunder. Later 'swag' described a collection of personal belongings wrapped up in a bedroll and carried by bush travelers (or swagman). In Standard English the word muster referred to ‘an assembly of soldiers for inspection.' and in the convict colonies, muster was used to describe an assembly of convicts. By the mid-nineteenth century the term crossed over into daily use on the farm meaning to the gather livestock for counting and branding. In the early days of the colonies, the term ‘convict’ became none PC and various euphemisms were created including ‘government men’. Terms like ‘prisoner’ was also used but gradually convicts were known collectively as ‘public servants.’ This would later be used to describe anyone who worked for the government.



The first bushrangers (or boulters) were former public servants who had either escaped imprisonment or enslavement. They were a hardy crew who lived in insolation but continued to speak the flash language sometimes mixed with Aboriginal words.



The more familiar bushranger of the post Gold rush era i.e. The Wild Colonial Boys made famous by Ned Kelly, used terms like bush telegraph (communication); bush lawyer (self taught expert in law); bush scrubber (a shabby bumpkin fellow from the outback or scrub); and bush whackers (tree feller). Cattle stealing was common practice and the cattle stealer or Poddy (calf) Dodger (tracker) would be caught cattle duffing (stealing) or gully raking (rounding up beasts in back gullies in the full knowledge they belong to other with the full intention of stealing them) and these terms are still used today.

The song Waltzing Matilda encapsulates much reference to flash talk and Australian English and was written in the 1895 by Banjo Paterson. Some commentators believed he adapted the words from an existing bush ballad, but he is now mostly accepted he was the original author. Christina Macpherson adopted the tune from an existing folk song.



The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker (swagman) making a drink of tea (in his billycan) at a bush camp, under a eucalyptus tree (coolibah); next to a billabong (or cut off river bend of an ox bow lake), after stealing a wild sheep (jimbuck) to eat. The sheep's owner (a squatter) arrives with three police officers (troopers) to arrest the worker for the theft (a crime punishable by hanging); the swagman drowns himself in a small watering hole and goes on to haunt the site. The reference to 'waltzing' means to travel while working as a craftsman. This was common practice with carpenters who would complete their apprenticeship learning new techniques from other masters before returning home after three years and one day. The term waltzing in this context is thought to have derived from the German term 'auf der Walz.' Matilda was a romantic term used to describe a swagman's bundle, and 'To waltz Matilda' was to travel with all your belongings wrapped in a blanket or cloth and was carried over your back. To the swagman, their 'Matilda' was their only companion for many months of the year and became personified as a woman. Because the same thing was found with German soldiers who commonly referred to their greatcoats as "Matildas" many believe the origin of 'Waltzing Matilda' was German.

The real irony of the story is a jimbuck describes a feral sheep which was difficult to shear and probably not owned by anyone, least of all the squatter.



Australian squatters raised livestock on land which they did not legally have the right to use and claimed wild beasts as their own. Many squatters became very wealthy by retaining access to lands they did not own. It is likely the poor swagman was a victim of the cruel and greedy squatter protected by the law.



1 comment:

  1. Nice blog, really very good article
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