Thursday, July 16, 2009

Talking Australian: What brings us together sets us apart

It was once recorded the greatest gift to linguistics Australians ever made was their natural ability to invent idioms. An idiom, just in case you are unsure is a figure of speech, phrase or word whose meaning cannot be determined by a literal definition. That is the meaning is figurative and the knowledge of this is only known through common use. Sounds complex well here is an example: “To kick the bucket.” This does not mean to actually hit the container with your foot but instead to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,” “Pop your clogs,” or simply, die. Idioms are like poetry and not only add visual imagery to a sentence they also enhance its power and emotive appeal. Language experts believe idioms are not a specific characteristic of any language but instead are thought to be part of the culture that speaks the language. Linguistic Determinism is a psychological theory that proposes the structure of a language shapes the user's thoughts. Experts believe what we say, and more, how we say it, gives valuable insight into our character. Hence the fondness for continually adapting English through shortening, substituting and combining words contributes not only to an evolving language but also says much about the Australian psyche.

Marcus Clarke was a writer in the 19th century and was convinced Australians used language either to convey notions of their inner thoughts or as a code which to the uninitiated meant one thing, but to those in the know, something quite different (and usually the opposite to the meaning of the words used perverse meaning). Take ‘bluey’ as an example, in Australia ‘bluey’ is red, elsewhere it is blue. To the uninitiated talking Australian can appear incomprehensible yet Australians seems to have no problem in comprehension. For example, take the colloquialisms 'flat out like a lizard drinking' (meaning - working very hard on a task) or 'standing like a bandicoot on a burnt ridge' (i.e. feeling lonely and vulnerable). Dazed and confused, someone might wander 'like a stunned mullet'; in a furious rage, they will be 'mad as a cut snake' and in a state of undeniable lifelessness they will be 'dead as a maggot'. The clever use of comparisons in these colloquialisms raises startling images.

Another characteristic of Talking Australian is its lilt, tones are very important and with the abbreviation of words to emphasize the stressed syllable, it follows the general pattern of how English sounds when it is sung. According to Valerie Desmond in The Awful Australian (1911), she speculated the practice of the voice rising and falling with unexpected syncopations similar to the intonation of the phrases in Chinese speakers. This may have been influenced by the Chinese in the mining communities. Other typical elements of the Australian language are the joining of two words to form a new one, such as bushranger or stockman.

Experts believe to confuse their captors and maintain their own community new Australians of the convict period spoke in a cryptolectic code. At first much use was made of rhyming slang which was familiar to many of the early convicts who had originated around the London area. According to John Camden Hotten (1859) Cockney rhyming slang probably originated in the 1840s with costermongers (street sellers selling fruit) but the penal colonies started in Australia in 1788 which would suggest either rhyming slang was not as prevalent as previously thought or predated Cockney slang. Rhyming Slang phrases are derived from taking an expression which rhymes with a word and then using that expression instead of the word. For example "look" rhymes with "Captain Cook". Through familiarity ‘Having a Captain Cook” can be further abbreviated to, ‘ava Captains." This is typical of the Australian pen chance to abbreviation. Other examples might be “g’day” for "good day" and ‘arvo’ for "afternoon. Another example of language innovation was to reverse the meaning of some words like "bastard." Instead of its literal meaning or as an insult it was used as a term of endearment. To ears unfamiliar with the developing Creole this would appear confusing and the only way to know the true meaning of the discourse would be to listen to the tone of the sentence. The combination of novel words, rhyming slang and tonal communication had the authorities at a loss. This allowed the convicts to make their captors the figure of ridicule. And we have never stopped lampooning authority thank goodness. Here are my four favourite put downs:

'couldn't find a grand piano in a one-roomed house'
'couldn't blow the froth off a glass of beer'
'a chop short of a barbie' and
'useless as an ashtray on a motorbike'.

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