Now that’s Aussie

What’s it mean to be ‘Aussie’?

Surely the hardest things in life to describe are the things that are so commonplace we take them as self-evident. This was the dilemma my senior language students face as they attempt to come to grips with writing about Australian society and how it uses language.

The reality of being ‘Aussie’ is a lot harder to describe than they had expected. The stereotype was easy enough. Our class discussion of what is ‘Aussie’ soon painted a picture of bikini clad ‘sheilas’ and big strong ‘blokes’ in singlets and thongs, standing around a barbeque near the beach while kangaroos bound past to the soundtrack of a didgeridoo. Lots of green and gold, lots of beer, lots of sport being watched or played or gambled on.

It was a predictable illustration as most of the features here are reinforced stereotypes that appear all around them. Especially in a year where Australian athletes participated in the World Cup, the Winter Olympics, and the Commonwealth games (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of that – its a British Empire thing) and their associated sponsors advertise to a patriotic audience. But once cliché was presented on the board in class, it could be seen for what it was; simplistic, jingoistic, inaccurate, comical, utterly ridiculous.

For the record, there is a national identity. The personality of people who are born and raised in Australia (even if their parents weren’t) are shaped by living here. What’s more this can be clearly identified in the way Australian society uses the English language.

It’s just a little more subtle and complex than greeting everyone you meet with “G-day!” and stretching every vowel sound out to painful extremes.

To illustrate the point to my students (and their parents) I modelled a way of deconstructing Australian use of language in the blog I’m writing for the subject. I have received a lot of positive feedback about this so I’ve decided to share some of that post here. It never ceases to amaze and humble me just how international my readership is so, perhaps, this may just be useful for any of you who find the folk from ‘the land down under’ to be speaking a language you understand but still not making any sense.

A five second Case Study

The following event took place as I was walking to class. It occurred in the open Plaza area and I’m pretty sure only three people heard it – two students and myself. One student (who’s identity will remain secret by using the pseudonym “Alex”) was just about to enter the Physics classroom while another student (“Bruce”) was exiting building 6 on his way to another class. From my vantage point it was clear that Bruce had noticed Alex about to disappear into class and decided to call out to him. It was also clear that they were friends and that whatever was about to be said was a good-natured, rapport building exercise that affirmed their friendship. Without yelling or putting on a silly voice, Bruce called out in his standard Australian accent,

Bruce: “Hey Alex …”

At the sound of his name Alex turned,

Alex: … ? …

Bruce continued,

Bruce: “…you’re ugly.”

At this point Alex smiled, Bruce chuckled, and both went about their business.

That’s Aussie. Now prove it!

I am completely confident that you can picture the event based on what I’ve described. I’m equally certain that you can see the discourse as distinctively Australian. More specifically, it’s distinctive of teenage male Australians. The trick now is how to use this in your writing.

Your class discussion on Australian Identity will no doubt have identified the list below as qualities Australian’s value and exhibit;

  • egalitarianism
  • humour
  • friendliness
  • mateship
  • relaxed and ‘down to earth’ personality
  • playfulness
  • subversiveness
  • informality

All of the above are evident in the four word, five second discourse I’ve identified. Bruce was completely confident that Alex would understand that he was implying friendship and their broad smiles to each other was proof to the only other person nearby (myself) that this was indeed the case.

It was not an attempt to exercise power over or bully another person. It was not an attempt to intimidate. It was, in fact, an expression of the admiration and friendship Bruce feels for Alex. It was a rapport building exercise. It was an idiomatic expression that was not to be taken literally but figuratively. It was ironic. It was hyperbolic. Semantically, the word “ugly” was the antithesis of what was actually meant.

It was ‘Aussie’. Possibly not uniquely Aussie – I’m prepared to believe that the same event could occur with the exact same context in other parts of the English speaking world – but distinctly Aussie in that Australians will quickly recognise the scenario as typical of friendly, teenage male banter amongst friends…

The original post goes on to recommend how the students might write about this. It’s fairly academic as I’m encouraging them to incorporate the metalanguage I italicised. None of that’s really necessary here so I’ll stop. Before I wrap this up though I should mention one final thing.

There is absolutely nothing ‘Aussie’ about that discourse if either or both of the two speakers is female!

Hope you found this enlightening.

Catch ya on the flip side.



8 thoughts on “Now that’s Aussie

    • Thanks Denise. I spent a year teaching in the UK (sadly too long ago now) and the differences in otherwise perfectly understandable English speakers was truly remarkable. I’ve been a keen observer ever since and luckily now have the opportunity to teach a subject that explores it.

  1. I’m inclined to agree with your concession that this may not be an exclusively Aussie way of relating. I’ve heard the same type of in authentic banter from other cultures too. But yes, it is quite typical of young (and not so young) Aussies. God help us. What did JC say about letting your yay be yay?

    • Ah! Matthew 5:37. Glad you raised that Chris. In this subject we teach our students early in the course that the actual words people utter are made of arbitrary sounds. In fact, words are a collection of meaningless sounds that are given meaning by the societies in which they are spoken. Matthew, JC, and anyone else living 2000 years ago almost certainly never uttered the word “Yay”, they would have uttered the Hebrew word…or ancient Greek …or Latin…but regardless of the sounds they made, their intent was to urge humanity to be sincere and unambiguous within whatever context they speak.
      I’m sure you’d agree that many Aussies get into trouble when they assume their overly familliar, counter intuitive and occassionally uncouth banter will be inferred correctly by outsiders. It’s a human trait but I suspect an Australian speciality. My favourite example is the massively expensive Federal Government tourist campaign that used the slogan “It’s all here waiting for you so where the bloody hell are ya!”
      That was a visually stunning Ad but a spectacular flop in places like France where they refused to air it on TV.
      Here’s the 30 second version.

  2. Yes that commercial was cringe-worthy because it showed no understanding of the audience it was trying to woo. Glad I sent you text-hunting! Of course Jesus’ ‘Yay’ (1611 King James Version), in whatever language, is actually about oath-taking and swearing a promise. It means, don’t try to convince me you’re telling the truth, just tell me the truth. Call a shovel a shovel, and a spade a …. You know how it goes. Whatever, it is a plea for unambiguous and authentic communication, and although sarcasm was not in the gospel writer’s sights when he put this (in Greek) on the lips of Jesus, it applies equally well. On the subject of whether this is a particularly Australian idiom, have you seen Gran Torino? Clint Eastwood’s character and his Italian barber friend engage in a brutal though good-hearted slanging match every time they meet. Reminded me very much of Aussie males, (even if it was a little theatrical and overwrought). I’m guessing such ‘sarcastic bonding’ is a little more ubiquitous among Australian males however.

  3. Gran Torino was awesome. Right down to the beautifully understated piece Eastwood performed for the end credits. I thought the same as you when I first saw the barber scenes. It’s all code really. They are teaching the young boy how to be a man among men, how to show respect and have self respect in that society. Personally, it’s not my style and I know it’s not yours, but it is still a style that the young Korean American boy drinks in and its one that I see many young Aussie men embrace. I don’t condone it but I get it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s