“Early settlers gave Aussie accent drunken slur”

Eveline Masco is a journalist and former Editor of VRT Television News. After several long visits to Australia, she decided she wanted to be more than a tourist. Since January 2013, she has lived in Perth, Western Australia, together with her husband. In the latest in her occasional series of articles for flandersnews.be Eveline looks into the origins of the distinctive Australian accent.

You must admit: it’s a great title that immediately catches your attention. I didn’t come up with it myself. It was in today’s West Australian newspaper. And they got inspired by The Telegraph, which in turn based itself on an article in The Age a couple of days ago.

As a journalist with a specific interest in linguistics and all things Australian, I decided to go back to the source: I called the author of the original article in The Age:

Mr Dean Frenkel, public speaking and communication lecturer at Melbourne’s Victoria University. He states that “our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns.

For the past two centuries, from generation to generation, drunken Aussie-speak continues to be taught by sober parents to their children.”

According to Mr Frenkel, this resulted in the typical Australian accent, where parts of words are skipped and articulation is quite ‘relaxed’. But being born in Belgium, a country where our forefathers also regularly got drunk together, and in fact, people still do, I wondered what Mr Frenkel based his theory on.

Did he have any facts that supported this theory? Or was it merely a catchy title trying to get attention for the real focus of his plea: in addition to the so-called three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) he suggests adding rhetoric to the curriculum.

“If we all received communication training, Australia would become a cleverer country.”

I wanted to test Mr Frenkel’s theory with some of Australia’s leading linguists. “It’s not a theory, it is mere speculation”, says Dr Celeste Rodriguez Louro from the University of Western Australia. “Dropping consonants has nothing to do with being drunk or not. In fact, it’s a linguistic process that happens in all languages all across the world.” “It’s a crazy theory.”

Dr Brett Baker from the University of Melbourne adds. “The main difference between, say, British English and Australian English is in the vowels, not the consonants.” Dr Baker categorises Mr Frenkel’s theory in the same corner as the other myth that attempts to explain the Australian accent: that early settlers refrained from opening their mouths to articulate in order to keep the flies out.

If Mr Frenkel’s article for The Age was meant as a marketing stunt to attract more attention to the business of public speaking, he certainly reached his goal. On an academic or linguistic level however, none of the specialists I spoke today were pleased with this renewed attention in Australian linguistics.

“It’s just another way to depict Australians as lazy, and it fits nicely with its convict past, doesn’t it? It just makes no sense.” says Dr Celeste Rodriguez Louro. Dr Frenkel’s article certainly got the tongues talking and the pens writing. I’m sure it will make for great conversations, in pubs for example.