Hearing voices

All of my research of Upper Canada, British Guiana, Sydney and Port Phillip has involved written documents: letters, court documents, despatches, newspapers, diaries.  It’s a rather quiet world.  You can detect voices in letters and the court depositions perhaps, but generally you’re hearing with your eyes, rather than your ears.

I’ve long been fascinated to know what those early generations of settlers sounded like.  For those settlers who came from the United Kingdom, where accents can be pinpointed to a small, particular location, how long did such a distinctive accent last?  Crikey’s Full Sic blog today has an article by Richard Ingold ‘So where did the Aussie accent really come from?’ He draws fairly heavily on Bruce Moore’s book Speaking Our Language, the introduction to which you can read here, and which was reviewed well by Mark Bahnisch on Larvatus Prodeo.

Moore, who is Director of the National Dictionary Centre at ANU,  argues in Speaking our Language that convicts, administrators, military personnel and later, free settlers, spoke a variety of accents, especially from south-eastern England.  In such an environment, the elements of pronunciation that were especially associated with a particular dialect were eliminated, often within a generation.  This ‘levelling’ process led to an established Australian accent by the early 1830s.  It was only then that dialectical words that were marginal in British accents became incorporated into Australian English, especially during the tumult of the Gold Rushes and afterwards.  But importantly, these words were superimposed onto an already existent, levelled Australian accent. The negative reaction to the Australian Accent, particularly in the wake of the creation of Received Pronunciation in England, did not arise until the 1880s. This fits in with the emphasis on elocution in Joy Damousi’s book Colonial Voices, and rings true when I think of that peculiar, strangled, rather British accent that is heard in old Australian documentaries.

Ingold’s article also cites Peter Trudgell’s far more technical book New-Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes. Published in 2004, Trudgell concentrates particularly on Australian, New Zealand and South African English and argues that these varieties of colonial English are similar to each other because they were formed out of similar mixtures, according to the same principles.  He stretches the process out over two generations, but it is still, nonetheless, a fairly rapid process.

My research based in New South Wales centres on the years 1837-1843. If Moore is correct, then the voices on the street would be levelled Australian voices, although in circles being supplemented by a succession of appointments from elsewhere in the empire, this may have been less apparent.  Interesting thought.

4 responses to “Hearing voices

  1. The Crikey article is fascinating, isn’t it? Some useful research leads there too. I’ve been wondering the same thing: what did people sound like? Charles Darwin, when he dined with the Macarthurs at Parramatta in 1836 (at the home of John Macarthur’s nephew) noted that ‘It sounded strange in my ears to hear very nice looking young ladies exclaim, “Oh we are Australian, & know nothing about England”.’ I wonder if the strangeness was not just in what they said, but in the way they said it?
    Merry Christmas, Resident Judge, and many thanks for your excellent blog. Long may it (and you) prosper!

  2. I haven’t read the Crikey piece yet but it such a fascinating subject. My grandparents spoke quite differently to how people now speak and the closest I have heard to how they spoke is in an old recording of a politician speaking, perhaps Billy Hughes.

  3. The way Australians talk has always fascinated me. Certainly, as the article states, in the 1960s when I was growing up there were three distinct accents corresponding to class – working, middle and upper. I felt this most strongly going from Colac High School to Trinity College (Melb uni) where the boys – and soon I – all spoke like Alexander Downer. When I began truck driving a year or so later I had to consciously modify how I spoke. I don’t bother so much nowdays and while I think the middle class accent has spread both upwards and downwards, and other accents can be observed, particularly Aboriginal and ‘western suburbs’ or second-generation immigrant, the accents of those at the extreme ends of the class spectrum are still noticeably different.
    And yes, many early Australian books make the point that there was a distinct Australian accent early on.

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