Among other things, this series of posts aimed to back up the claim that our contemporary Australian dialect, Strine, is one of the world’s most advanced English dialects.
It also set out to demonstrate some of the ways in which Strine reflects, and has been instrumental in shaping, our history and Australian attitudes to life in general and authority in particular.
And to discuss why we should celebrate and nurture this great dialect, and consider some modifications that might create a more inclusive and vibrant Australia in the 21st Century.
Long live Strine
In her 2012 TED talk ‘Don’t kill your language’ (here), Suzanne Talhouk says that if you want to destroy a country, you should first destroy its language.
So does it follow that if you want to create a country with a unique identity, you should first create a new language? And does this perhaps give us an insight into why Strine evolved?
Talhouk goes on to make an impassioned plea to love and cherish our mother tongues (in her case, Arabic). She explains that:
“Language isn’t one or two or three words or letters put together. It’s an idea inside related to how we think and how we see each other and how others see us.”
If we extend this to dialects, then we should be very wary of calls to tone down Strine (mentioned in my cricket post – here).
We should instead take pride in and protect Strine’s many innovations and its creative and unique words and phrases that remind us of our colonial, rural, gold prospecting, and bush ranging heritage.
Furthermore, we should marvel at this diverse linguistic melting pot that has so cleverly assimilated contributions from indigenous Australians and a variety of immigrants and continue this tradition.
The up and downside of speaking Strine
There are many advantages to the way that Australians approach the world and communicate. For example, it has turned many of us into critical thinkers, helps us see the funny side of events, and may even make our airlines safer as we are willing to question those in command when we think they are wrong.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to speaking any dialect as it is likely to leave newcomers and visitors feeling alienated when they don’t understand.
And given that Aussies have a tendency to say the opposite of what they mean and to use insults as terms of endearment, it’s no surprise that outsiders might take offence – even if this was not the speaker’s intention.
There are also numerous racist and derogatory terms in the Strine lexicon that we should use with caution – or not at all.(13)
Australians are almost too good at making jokes and knocking people and ideas. (It is of limited comfort that we are just as likely to poke fun at ourselves and Australia as any other person or country – as self deprecating humour can feel like ‘in’ jokes and isolate others just as effectively as if the joke was directed at them.)
While many Strinisms are entertaining and seem relatively harmless (Did ‘latte-sippers’ originate in Australia?), they may also embody and perpetuate discrimination – with serious consequences for the mental health of the individuals and groups involved and for Australian society as a whole.
“Everyday racism is so commonplace that it’s often normalised and infused into daily conversations through jokes and stereotypes or through unconscious body gestures and expressions…The power of everyday racism is in its cumulative effect – the ongoing experience of marginalisation and repression can be a heavy burden with future incidents triggering memories of past experiences.”(14)
And Strine speakers are not immune. People who speak broad Strine (especially with a strong non-English accent or looking like a bogan) may themselves be treated with disdain when it comes to employment and other situations when more formal speech, fashion styles and behaviours are expected.
(While we might enjoy watching films like ‘The Castle‘ and TV shows like ‘Bogan Hunters‘ and ‘Upper Middle Bogan‘, we can still be terrible snobs. This is illustrated in songs like ‘Nobody likes a bogan’ (here) and in this excerpt from a Pi-O poem:)(15)
Speaking a dialect that is designed to confuse and cajole and to bring everyone down to same level has also undoubtedly contributed to what is known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Australians all too often try to hold back anyone hoping to get ahead or do anything different – and we typically treat leaders with a shocking and disappointing lack of respect.
(Who on earth would want to go into politics after you see the abuse that is hurled across the floor during Parliamentary Question Time and via the media?)
Perhaps Strine is also responsible for Australia’s dearth of great orators? Our Aussie dialect is well-suited to people in opposition and media commentators but does not necessarily help leaders to sell a positive vision or to inspire and persuade others.
It’s not just what you say, it’s the way that you say it
In Part 2, I mentioned that Australians often use rising inflection at the end of a sentence – but why is this relevant?
When statements sound like questions, speakers appear less confident about what they are saying and may come across as weak. They may seem to be afraid to take a firm stance and want to keep their options open in case their view is not met with approval.
As such, so-called ‘uptalk’ can reduce credibility and is surely the antithesis of speaking with an authoritative voice.
Overseas, this form of speech is on the rise but is more commonly associated with younger people, women and lower status. In Australia, it is used by most of us and we don’t grow out of it.(16)
The authors of ‘Compelling People’ are particularly scathing about uptalk and label it a ‘definitive generational marker that pegs someone as young, informal, unsure, or inexperienced’.
When used by a confident speaker who otherwise communicates strength, it is like adding “Do you understand what I mean?” but for other speakers uptalk could easily translate as “Is that okay with you? May I keep talking?”.
In a study conducted by a UK company, many bosses claimed that uptalk hinders staff prospects of promotion and better pay grades within their organisations. And there are a wide range of videos about communication and management on Youtube that encourage public speakers and business people to resist the temptation to use uptalk and to instead use neutral or ‘down’ talk.
(Try this amateur video produced in the US for a few practical illustrations of the problem with uptalk – here.)
Fortunately, Australians are less likely to be disadvantaged if everyone in the country speaks in a similar way, but this linguistic tic may still work against Aussies on an international stage (at least until uptalk is more widely accepted).
Uptalk could even function as a form of mirroring that connects its followers (and simultaneously excludes non-followers).
Despite its limitations, the use of rising intonation at the end of sentences is consistent with the Australian ethos of not wanting to come across as a know-it-all or being too cocky.
Uptalk may also have benefits in facilitating dialogue – especially in the modern world with its ever shrinking attention spans and increasing pressure to be politically correct.
We tend to listen unconsciously for questions in case we need to respond and may not therefore tune out in the same way that we might with a strong monotone. When a listener interjects with a ‘yes’ or ‘uh-huh’ following a statement that was clearly not a question, it is a clear indication that they have not been paying attention.
And in terms of communication, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to check mutual understanding and to invite listeners to indicate if they agree with or object to what is being said.
Rather than indicating low self-confidence or being a plea for reassurance, uptalk (in moderation) could even be seen as a useful tool to help connect people and to compete more effectively with mobile phones and other distractions in future.
Where do we go from here?
So, how can Australians develop and maintain a more inclusive, egalitarian and welcoming society without giving up our unique dialect and the positive qualities in our character?
And how can we adjust and build on our complex and sophisticated language skills to help build up and support people instead of bringing them down?
We definitely need to become more aware of how listeners interpret what we say and to think before we speak.
As a courtesy, we should also consider whether our audience is likely to understand us. If not, then we have the opportunity to modify our terminology or to explain it. (Is this an additional argument for using uptalk?)
We also need to avoid and actively discourage the use of discriminatory and offensive terms – especially as using such terms says as much about the speaker as it does about the person they are describing or talking to.(17)
And we can probably gain some benefit from becoming more conscious of our intonation contours – at least when introducing ourselves or speaking to an international audience (while we wait for the traditionalists to catch on).
An essential first step is for more of us to learn why Strine is so special and worth retaining – and to better understand its disadvantages in terms of how we think, act and communicate. Knowledge is power.
(13) Unfortunately discrimination against people from non-English speaking backgrounds (Stay tuned for Part 4 re ‘wogs’), indigenous Australians, and people with disabilities or different religious and sexual orientations is fairly common.
Iain Hall’s Sandpit includes a fairly confronting post with some common examples of derogatory slang and a controversial ruling in Queensland in 2010 (here).
(14) ‘Explainer: what is casual racism?‘ by Jacqueline Nelson & Jessica Walton at The Conversation Online (Posted 2 Sept 2014. Accessed 26 Jan 2015)
(15) Excerpt from ‘Ta’ by Pi-O. Published in Fitzroy Poems (Collective Effort Press, Australia 1989). (In case you are wondering, ‘Ta’ means ‘Thank you’ in Strine.)
(16) The term ‘uptalk’ was first coined in 1993 but rising inflection had been around for a long time before this. Some sources warn that this is not the same as ‘High Rising Terminal (HRT)’ (e.g. here).
In Britain, they have named it the ‘Australian Question Intonation’ and blame the prevalence of Aussie soap operas since the 80s (and later US shows such as Friends and Clueless) for its uptake. Listen to the beginning of this interview with Stephen Fry to hear him speaking uptalk (here).
(17) We should not go over the top when it comes to political correctness and need to negotiate an acceptable middle ground along the censorship-free speech spectrum. This point will no doubt shift back and forwards over time and depending on the audience and context.
- Convict creations website (various pages including ‘The language of poetic deception‘. Accessed 3 Jan 2015)
- ‘Australian slang – a story of Australian English‘ created by Kathryn Wells at http://www.australia.gov.au (Last updated 13 Apr 2010. Accessed 3 Jan 2015)
- ‘The unstoppable march of the upward inflection?‘ by Chris Stokel-Walker. Published at BBC News Online on 11 August 2014
- ‘Why ‘uptalk’ could cost you a promotion‘ by Lydia Dallett. Published at Sydney Morning Herald Online on 11 March 2014
- ‘Word up‘ by Matt Seaton. Published at The Guardian Online on 21 September 2001
- ‘Compelling People. The hidden qualities that make us influential‘ by John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut. (USA 2013)
Photo credits: Pip Marks