English in the Commonwealth

A World of Englishes

Is the English language the same all over the world? We know there are different accents – but the vocabulary tells quite a different story, one that is unique to each people and their culture!

Australian English

In 1768, the Royal Society sent an expedition to the southern seas under the King’s auspices to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, putting the enterprising Captain Cook in charge of the mission. During that trip, the English discovered new Zealand, then, heading west, they touched the coast of Australia.

A new continent was discovered, and another Union Jack left there. A vast territory could not be discovered at a better time, when the English jails were so overcrowed as to make them next to impossible to run. Australia would help the British ease the pressure while ensuring the colonisation of this brand new world.

The use of Australia as penal colony was specially important to the English since detainees could no longer be ‘transported’ to the United States after they had achieved independence (1783). The first wave of immigrants dates from 1788 to about the first half of the century: these colonists were former detainees from the bigger English cities, and Australia was originally intended to releave excessive overcrowding in the mother country while ridding the country of some ‘unwanted’ persons.

Under this plan, thousands of inmates were trasported to Australia. A good deal of them belonged to the ‘Old Bailey’ (London’s Prison). These people had been raised in London’s East End where Cockney was widely spoken. In his Two Years in New South Wales (1827), Peter Cunningham reported that although he could hear a distinct accent by that date, there were still strong Cockney traits in it.

Aussie English was born in Down Under. The fate of these convicts is in many ways reflected in the story of Moll Flanders, who has her sentence commuted to “trasportation” to America. Here she is sentenced to hard labor for a landowner until she ‘pays off’ her ‘debt’ to the state and eventually starts off her own life.

A second wave of immigration was the result of the Gold Rush (1848) which for the first time brought to Australia many people whose native language was not English. However, the Crown would not stop sending its detainees until the late 60s. One century later, the presence of U.S. troops stationed during WW2 and later in the 50s left its own marks, too.

American television further extended the influence of American English in more recent times. Since the first penal colonies, however, Aboriginal culture and the extraordinary biodiversity of Australasia contributed a number of new words for rock formations, animals and plants never seen before. Here are species that bear no relationship to any other found in the rest of the world. There is no equivalent for a platypus, a dingo or a kangaroo elsewhere in the world.

Main Australian Accents

Three are the main accents in Down Under: Broad, General, and Cultivated.

Broad exhibits strong traits of the old Cockney, and is spoken in the outback while General is more or less the kind of more neutral Australian English spoken by mainstream society, with slighter Cockney and U.S. traits, though many educated Australians also master U.S. English pretty well.

“Cultivated Australian” is spoken by about 10% of the population, but is usually avoided in favor of General Australian because it is felt pompous and academic, nearer to polished UK. English. Because of their ‘low’ origins, most of the first settlers spoke Cockney, and that influenced the language, though not to the degree we are used to hearing from Australian characters in movies who play on a stereopyped form of Broad.

U.K. and American influence

The influence of RP is still remarkable, and there is a strong tendency is to conform to British spelling. However, American influence is evident and may produce variants many people don’t bother to use. Curiously, though, there is evidence that the natives themselves tended to excise the “u” of -our words so that the -or spelling might not be related to American influence.

Australian Vocabulary

Australian English has perhaps some of the funniest and unique words in the English language alongside a unique sense of humor: a barbie is a barbecue, a footpath is a sidewalk, Oz is a shortened form for Australia, much as as Aussie stands for Australian, as in ‘Aussie slang’ or the ‘Aussies’, the Australians. The tendency to make diminutives without changing the meaning of the original word is uniquely Australian, too. The slang from Downunder is one of a kind: ‘sick’ is ‘good’, ‘well’, while ‘to shout’ is to offer a round of drinks, ‘squiz’ is to have a look, and when you don’t remember a name for something you might just say “what’s the ‘thingo’”, ‘this is … the thingamajic’ or “that ‘whatsit’”. Australian slang sounds like jibberish for non-Aussies though familiar they be with U.S. And British English. Its departure from mainstream English is further reiforced by that unique sense of humor that is pecular to these lands.

Some examples (left, U.K. English, right, Australian slang):

beer / amber liquid

child / ankle biter

heavy smoker/ashtray

brushing flies away /Australian salute

diarrhoea/Bali belly

no longer useful/cactus



fight/ ding-dong

well/dinky di

An idiot/drongo

clear one’s throat and spit/hoick

A can of beer/ice-cold

Don’t include me/include me out

Home brew/jungle juice

A New Zealander/Kiwi

A surfer with bleached hair/lemonhead

A seducing woman/mantrap


A policeman’s truncheon/pacifier

Prolonged petting/pash-on


English citizen/pommy bastard


flat broke/stone motherless

intoxicated/tanked up



attractive girl/two-wheeler


cheap red wine/vino

foil one’s hopes /white ant

you (two or more)/youse

dead asleep after much drinking/zonk

Canadian English

Except for the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (generally closer to Scottish, in a few places to Irish English), Canadian English shares most lexical and phonological traits with the United States.

  • The origin of Canadian spelling

    Spelling, however, is more faithful to British English and the cause seems to be the closer ties Canada kept with Britain after the American Revolution. After the War of 1812 with England many loyalists were encouraged to expatriate to Canada by the U.S. Government, the official cause being that the U.S. would be no longer able to guarantee for their safety.This has fostered the formation of a separate Canadian community of speakers and boosted the growth of an independent standard: words like En. labour, harbour, colour, centre, theatre are spelled in exactly the same way as in Britain (however, U.S. English keeps ‘theatre’ when referring to the literary genre). And the British ‘manoeuvre’, ‘encyclopaedia’, ‘paediatrics’ (U.S. ‘maneuvre, encyclopedia, pediatrics) is still preferred. The –ise words are also preferred to –ize ones (Can./U.K. realise, jeopardise, finalise vs. U.S. realize, jeopardize, finalize).

  • Phonetics

    Most phonetic traits are shared with its neighbor: although a Canadian Shift has been identified at the turn of the century, it is limited to Western Canada (Ontario and farther west), and even there, it seems to be at its early stages. This is a ‘chain shift’ which seems to translate in a general lowering of front vowels (‘bet’ sounding like ‘bat’, ‘bat’ almost like ‘but’), and a raising of the back ones (‘caught’ merging with ‘cot’).Throughout Canada and part of the U.S., diphthongs are also undergoing an upward shift, called Canadian Raising (not to be confused with the Canadian Shift mentioned above), whereby the first vowel in a diphthong is slightly closed (or raised) before a voiceless consonant: ‘writer’, ‘scout’ changing the initial vowel of /ai/ to a schwa.In other, the first element of this diphthong sounds much like -ER or driver or A of constant in RP. As for many parts of England, some Canadians also tend to reduce diphthongs to a long vowel, as in fair /fe:/ or time /ta:m/.Also, prefixes ending in -I such as semi-, multi- sound like in RP, i.e. are not diphthongized (se-mee, mul-tee etc.), whereas the U.S. has “mult-I-“, “sem-I”.Conversely, words like miss-ile, mob-ile, frag-ile, diphthongised in Canada and Britain, are not in the U.S., where the I in the suffix actually becomes a schwa: they thus sound like “missul”, “mobul”, “frajul” etc.Apart for some features unique to Canada, Canadian English shares many more traits with U.S. English, as rhotic R in all positions, including –r words as ‘fur’, ‘driver’, ‘car’. Words with flat A as ‘bad’ or ‘cat’ are much closer to /e/ than their British counterparts and R.P. broad A changes into flat A in words like can’t, calm, path, half./t/ and /d/ are flapped into an alveolar tap in a vocalic environment (‘writer’ sounds like ‘rider’, or, better, they are merged by the same flapping sound).But some speakers keep the T if it is preceded by /ei/ or /i/. For them ‘greater’ and ‘grader’, ‘bitten’ and ‘bidden’ are not homophones. Because of the Canadian Raising (which also affects much of the Northern U.S.), potential confusion caused by flapping is avoided by changing the value of the ‘I’ > ‘uh-ey’ before T: aprox. ‘ruhey-tur’ / rIthur for writer/rider. When the first vowel before /t/ or /d/ is nasalised by an the dental is flapped: ‘winter’ sounds like ‘winner’.

    However, this does not occur if the vowel following the dental is stressed: the T of ‘accidental’ is flapped but not that of documenTation or enTice.

    New Zealand English

    New Zealand English, sometimes humorously referred to as Kiwi English, differs sensibly from Australian English, probably on account of its geographic isolation, the presence of a higher number of Scottish-origin citizens and that of the native Maori, a more marked influence from Southern English dialects. The spelling is rigorously British (even more than the original), excluding -ize suffixs of U.S. origin (where many U.K. dictionaries allow it): do not capitalize, but capitalise when you have to do so. However, the pronunciation has undergone a vowel shift, which is more or less audible among New Zealanders according to their education, place of residence, and register used (formal or informal).

    Phonetics: the NZ vowel shift

    As and Es are raised, so that mat, bad sound as ‘bed’ (although the broad A of en. Path, dance is kept), while bet, pet sound like close to ‘bit’, ‘pit’. However, to avoid confusion, words in -I have shifted to a closed schwa, so that ‘fish and chips’ sounds as if the I had been taken off altogether (f’sh and ch’ps).

    This shift also affects some diphthongs: in many speakers it is difficult to differentiate fare, fair from ‘fear’, ‘bare’, ‘bear’ from ‘beer’ since the /e/ here has shifted to /i/, producing a long /i:/ sound. In words like fairy, though, the rising occurs in the second vowel, making it sound like ‘ferry’.

    A schwa is sometimes added in some positions, as in words ending in -own: this has semantic advantage, though, because it allows speakers to differentiate between groan and grown: ‘groan’ vs ‘grow-e-n’. –IL words followed by a consonant (as in ‘milk’ or ‘silk’) the L changes into /w/ adding a new sound to the already mutated I, which are pronounced muh-wk, suh-wk, etc. while words like bill are pronounced as ‘bull’.

    Vocabulary Most words and phrases are shared with Australian English. However, there are a few which are uniquely New Zealand: jandals stands for ‘thongs’ or ‘flip-flops’, cell is preferred to ‘mobile phone’ and dairy is a public place where you can buy non-alcoholic beverages like milk, coffee or tea.

    Togs means ‘swimwear’, and chilly bean is an insulated box to keep food fresh while you are travelling. Some common NZ words (left, NZ, right: British English):

    Bach. (pr.’back’). Small two-floor holiday home on a beach
    Chippies. Chips Choice!. Great!
    clan lab. A place where illegal drugs are made
    cooks. Chemists who make illegal drugs
    crib. See bach
    cyber-hui. Online conferences or chats
    Dairy. Conner shop domain. Public park with sports and camping ground
    freezing works. abattoirs
    fulla. Fellow
    he! (pr. ‘aye’). Emphatic expression at the end of a sentence
    Hui (Maori origin) meeting
    iwi (Maori-NZ English) a tribe iwification, the process of being included into or becoming a tribe
    kiwi. 1. n. a New Zealander 2. adj. from N.Z. 3. kiwispeak. Kiwi English
    lollies. Candy
    NZ (pr. ‘en-zed’). Acronym for New Zealand. See ‘nz’
    OE or Big OE Overseas Experience (esp. Vising London)
    P. amphethamines tinnie house. A place where cannabis is sold
    tinny. Tinfoil wraps containing illegal drugs
    treaty industry. The politics of stipulating treaties with Maori people.
    wine box. Tax evasion
    wops. Suburban areas

    South African English

    The first South African colony dates back to the 1652 occupation of the cape of Good Hope by Jan Van Riebeek on behalf of the Dutch East India company, to be followed by the settlements of Dutch farmers, who generally spoke a dialect from the Netherlands (Afrikaans). Later, the 2nd Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) extended the cultural influence of the British Empire to the southern tip of the continent. Prior to the arrival of the British there had been a consistent Indian presence. Indian English was also spoken in the cities, while Zulu and other native languages were predominantly spoken by blacks, especially since they were not considered part of mainstream society during segregation. After the removal from apartheid, however, a South African variety of black English seems to be emerging. Afrikaans continues to be spoken by the majority of Boer citizens for whom English is a second language. South African English includes phonetic and lexical traits loaned from from Dutch and the pronuciation of Scottish schoolmasters, some of which will be shown in the next chapter.

    • Phonetics

      Diphtongs are remarkably similar to Cokney or Australian English, but other sounds have been either influenced by the African substratum (especially the black population). Afrikaans mothertongues say “day” as “die”, “park the car” as “pawk the caw”, although the “ow” sound of town is basically the same as in RP. However, the R of ‘Africa’ or ‘track’ is burred. The raising that we have seen in U.S. English, including the pin-pen merger (pen sounds like pin, etc., see American English) is also a tangible feature of South African English: flat A of pan is close to pen. Not unlike North America, full value is given to all syllables and not just stressed ones, as is the case of British English: extraordinary and laboratory does not sound extraord’n’ry, and lab’r’t’ry but ‘extraordinary’, ‘lab’ratory’. One thing South African speaker do often without, however, are last consonants in particularly difficult clusters, for eg. in tex(t), mix(ed). A common colloquialism consists in omitting the noun or pronoun after with at the end of a sentence in dialogues like: “Can you come with your books?” “Yes, we can come with”, also a nonstandard usage in North America.

    • Lexicon

      The list of typically South African words is relatively conspicuous and unique. For example, when you are invited by Chinas for a jol, you may eat roasted chicken during a brai in the garden. But … do not drive home after too many dops. Did you know that South Africans use robots to stop drivers at crossroads instead of our more pedestrian traffic lights? And, where else you can meet spotted tigers (as sometimes are called leopards) than in South Africa? And, a camp may not always full of campers as much less sociable bulls or sheep, since such is the fenced property of a farm. However, there are also words that have entered general English and even other languages: commando, commandeer, apartheid and trek are sometimes thought to have come from Britain or the U.S., but they do not. And no American cookies here: because its origin is Dutch, it was brought here by the Boer farmers. There are many more words that are known and used only by South Africans. These include veldt (or veld, a kind of elevated grassland), biltong (strips of dried meat), donga (ravine), gogga (insect), koeksisters (confection), kopje (hill), lekker (nice), ou (fellow), measlies (Indian corn), stoep (U.K. verandah, U.S. stoop).


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