Australians do the Best Accents

Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art

Sydney's National Institue of Dramatic Art (Wikimedia)

I often use Google News to write this blog. Crude source of inspiration it may be, but searching for permutations of “dialect,” “accent,” or “language” gives me a wealth of material to ponder. There is one exception to this, however, and that is when I search for “Australian Accent.”

That query yields the same results again and again:

  • Australian actor loses his accent for American TV show
  • Australian actress loses her accent for American TV show
  • Australian needs to lose accent for American TV show!
  • So, Australian actor, what was it like learning an American accent for this new American TV show?

You get the idea. These headlines illustrate a well-known fact: there is an extremely disproportionate number of Australian actors in American television and film. Disproportionate because Australia is a small country (it only recently cracked 20 million), as far from the United States as anywhere on earth, and has an accent nothing like an American dialect.

But let’s face it: Australian actors are really good at accents. If I were an American TV producer I might hire an Australian without worrying whether they had the American accent down. I would just assume they had it mastered, the way I would assume my doctor has a medical degree. It’s a given.

So then, why are Australian actors so good at accents? What is it about this friendly island nation that breeds dialect savants?

Frankly, because Aussie actors have to be at accents. We Americans and Brits can afford to be lazier. As drama students, we have the bulk of contemporary drama at our disposal. If an Aussie actor want to be considered for the greatest roles in English speaking drama, on the other hand, that actors needs to get out of his dialect comfort zone.

This is the theatrical equivalent of why a “Scandinavian monolingual” seems as mythical as a unicorn: if you want to spend your entire life in the greater Copenhaagen area, so be it, but eventually you might want to visit Amsterdam. The more culturally small and isolated a community, the more that culture broadens its linguistic horizons.

This isn’t about geography, it’s about cultural dominence. Living in New York City, I often forget that I am only 5 1/2 hours from a province (Quebec), where the native language is French. But as members of the most widespread culture on earth, we Americans don’t feel an instinctual need to learn other languages, even those close by.

By contrast, everything is stacked against Aussie thespians in terms of accent proficiency. Their own dialect is unusual and phonetically bizarre. They are isolated from all other accents of English. Immigration from other English-speaking countries, until fairly recently, was limited. And yet, as whole, they are the most accent-proficient actors on earth.

But I am sure Aussies are not the only example of this trend. What other small or isolated countries seem especially good at languages or dialects?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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17 Responses to Australians do the Best Accents

  1. PR says:

    Not sure I understand what Amsterdam has got to do with Scandinavia? Stockholm or Oslo or Bergen maybe, but a city in the Netherlands?

    • trawicks says:

      What I meant was that if you, say, live in Copenhagen and you want to visit a major nearby city, you might want to learn a language besides Danish. Point being that in Scandinavian countries, which have languages with relatively tiny populations of speakers, learning other languages becomes unavoidable. In America, where going from one large city to another feels like international travel … not so much.

  2. Aidan says:

    You don’t mention a very important factor. Practically every single Australian actor you can name has been on “Neighbours” or “Home and Away”. The former was incredibly popular in the UK in the 1980s at the same time as Stock, Aitken and Waterman were churning out the hits.
    Two very popular cultural phenomena were merged and SAW began writing hits for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and countless others Neighbours stars. “Neighbours” was the launching pad for Guy Pearce, Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrom and, the blonde guy in “House” amongst others. Isla Fisher used to be on “Home and Away” which was particularly popular in Ireland and was shown in countless other countries. Basically the Aussie soaps were a ticket to stardom in music or at least getting a chance in Hollywood.
    As to the difficulty for Australians in learning American accents I think that it is much easier than you might think. For a start many Australians have a very neutral accent which gets mistaken for an English accent. Another thing is that they hear American accents on television from a very young age. It is no different than for Irish people. If you have a neutral accent to start with it is not difficult to switch. I can see how a Scottish person might not be able to lose the accent but Canadians, Australians and Irish people often have soft accents and that goes some way to explaining there relative over-representation in the American and British entertainment industries. Of course wanting to swim in a bigger bond is a big motivation too 😉

  3. Richard says:

    “Immigration from other English-speaking countries, until fairly recently, was limited”

    Where do you get that? Australia is predominantly populated by a continuing 200-year-long steady stream of British and Irish immigrants.

    • trawicks says:

      Wow. I have no idea why I wrote that. There was probably some other modifier to “English-speaking” that I forgot to add, but I’m not sure what it was now.

  4. Stuart says:

    First off, may I say how pleased I m to have been directed to your excellent blog by languagehat?
    Next, and without wanting to denigrate the accent-adaptation skills of actors from the giant pnal colony to my west, why do you say “We Americans and Brits can afford to be lazier”? While that might be true for American actors, surely British actors have long had to master different accents? Hugh Laurie’s perfomance in House is just a recent example, but watching British television suggests that many British actors master many different accents.
    Another interesting question related to your post might be why so few actors from anywhere have “returned the favour” by mastering the Australian accent, and far fewer still have managed the Kiwi accent. Admittedly, not many have tried, but the only one I’ve ever heard that didn’t have me almost literally rolling on the floor laughing was Anthony Hopkins in “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Stuart! I will say that I think younger British actors these days are more accent proficient. That being said, I have often found that older generations, particularly “Great Shakespearean Actors,” are surprisingly bad at accents. Some of it was training, and some of it is that RP was once treated as the only accent an actor ever needs to learn. But for the record, there are many Brits AND Americans who are excellent at accents; they just tend not to be the famous ones.

      As to why Americans/Brits don’t learn Aussie accents? Probably because there isn’t a huge body of Australian dramatic literature that has cracked into worldwide consciousness. Ireland is a country with less than 1/3 of the population of Australia, but guess which accent we had to learn in drama school? Actors learn accents when they are necessary, and Australian accents aren’t all that necessary outside of Australia.

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  6. Dave Again says:

    There is actually not just the one ‘Australian accent’. There are broadly what are described as three ‘sociolects’. One is the ‘broad’ Australian sociolect, often found spoken by country people, and the accent often thought to be Australian by the rest of the world. It is characterised by being spoken slowly and not opening the mouth widely. Then there is the ‘general’ Australian sociolect, as spoken by most Australians. Thirdly, there is the unfortunately termed ‘cultured’ Australian sociolect, often found in privately educated Australians (especially Catholic schools) which sounds more English. Most of us can imitate the the alternative two sociolects to our own. Australians often ‘broaden’ their accents when travelling overseas. It is not unusual for Australians generally to be able to imitate accents of other countries.

  7. AUDIO NOIR says:

    my take on this issue is that the u.s. is by far the market leader in movies and television and so actors from other english speaking countries find their career possibilities widen considerably if they can do a good american accent. but as was mentioned earlier british actors from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s were generally horrible at imitating american accents whereas actors today (like hugh laurie) are practically flawless. why that is i don’t know but people like benny hill and the monty python guys were awful and folks like hugh laurie are incredible. i’ve had this argument before with both british and australians who are convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that american accents are just plain easier to imitate than their own which i do not believe to be the case. as was mentioned earlier people in other english speaking countries are exposed to american accents almost as soon as their own by way of movies and t.v. and therefore if they have any talent for doing accents that’s the easiest to imitate whereas american exposure to british or australian accent is negligible by comparison. as a kid i literally could not tell australian accents from english and still can mistake one for the other at times.

    btw, for reasons i’ve never been able to figure out people from english speaking countries are notorious the world over for not being able to speak other languages. it’s usually americans that get called out on it but as someone who’s done a fair bit of travelling in my time i can say with total certainty british and australians are just as bad if not worse when they travel overseas. the british in spain and australians in bali both being perfect examples. perhaps we in the “anglosphere” are just a little too aware of the privileged status english enjoys as “the international language”.

  8. Jesse says:

    Australia isn’t very isolated to the rest of the world. We have Indonesia (and other South East Asian countries) to the north, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and other Pacific Islands to the north east and New Zealand is only a couple hours flight away. Also many Australian cities have the same timezone as Asian cities, therefore allowing people who live in Darwin or Adelaide to fly to Tokyo or Seoul without much jetleg, whereas an American or Canadian will have many more hours jetlag because they cross over the international date line. But an Australian actor would have to fly quite far to get a job in a major movie (that’s filmed in London, Los Angeles or New York, rather than Sydney), so you’re right. 🙂

  9. Freya says:

    Just discovered your blog and loving it.

    As an Australian of the ‘cultured’ or Patrician accent I have to say you reference to Catholic Private Schools breeding this accents is not quiet correct. They have historically had Irish Nuns as teachers & have a H sound that is common class distinction due to the hard H sound as in Haitch used by Catholics. A soft H is the RP preference as in aitch.

    This is one of the few historical class distinctions you can hear in accents, poor Irish Catholic’s emigrating for the Gold Rush & from the Potato famine. Historical issues like the Eureka Stockade show how inflammatory these class & ethnicity divides where. The Protestant/Catholic divide was only really broken down in the 60’s & 70’s in some areas like Politics. Use of derogatory terms for things like Police Vans as Paddy wagons is most common in NSW but I doubt most would know the origin of it.

    But a hard H is a dead give away that they are Catholic, Country or Bogan (our word for redneck).

    Kind regards 😉

    • Nick Wolff says:

      Freya, I went a catholic primary school and was taught, by the nuns, to say “aitch” and also “hwite” for white. So I don’t know where you get this idea about catholic education and accents.

  10. Rachel says:

    My first thought is that it’s because a lot of our TV isn’t actually Australian. Turn on the TV, and you stand a fairly good chance of hearing a “foreign” accent. The ABC is swamped in BBC programmes (and, although less so recently, Kiwi ones), while other channels feature a lot of American shows. Although, yes, at least 50% of our television programming is Australian-made, children certainly grow up exposed to a wide variety of accents. Unlike American children, who probably rarely watch a show or movie not made in America, Australian children hear English and American accents all the time.

    But yes, I agree that Australians do speak a bit of a more “neutral” accent. And no, I’m not just saying that because I grew up in Australia, because my base-standard for accents is probably more English (an RP accent seems “accentless” to me). What I mean is, and you’ve noted this in other posts, too, the general Australian accent falls somewhere between English and American. Therefore, it’s a lot easier for Australians to mimic either accent than it is for an American to imitate an Englishman and vice-versa. If an Australian teenager tries to sound “cool”, they very quickly push towards the American end of the spectrum; whereas if they’re trying to sound formal or “posh”, they’re immediately speaking more towards the English end.

    Another interesting thing to note – very young Australian children, say under 4 years of age, sound English. It isn’t until about 5 or 6 that most of them develop an “Australian” accent, even if their only (live person) influences speak with Australian accents and not English ones. I’d always just assumed that it was a “kiddie accent” that all small English-speaking children had when learning to speak, until I visited the US and was stunned by the realisation that small children there already sound American. (Silly, I know).

    • Untrilled R says:

      Ill have to respectfully disagree with the last section of that post. Aussie kids sound like Aussies. The voice would of course be a childs voice and not an adults. Much the same way as a 20-something cant pull-off a 50-somethings voice well. The character of the voice will change over time, the accent stays. I could imagine some kids in some areas (particularly SA and/or “cultured accent” areas) might have some british sounding words, but in general they would still definitely have an Australian accent. Ive never had any problems identifying AU vs. UK with child actors speaking their native accent.

  11. Jase says:

    And because we see actors like Heath and Hugh and Naomi and Nicole nail foreign accents every time we go to the cinema, we have high standards.
    When someone like Elisabeth Moss shows up in a role playing an Australian (Top of the Lake, directed by Jane Campion) and COMPLETELY fucks up every vowel she attempts, the whole show is ruined!

  12. chloe says:

    I was taught by a linguist that it was to do with the fact that the Australian Accent is characterised by a general under pronunciation of words when compared to (many but not all) British accents and North American accents with a compound of having far less ‘lyrical’ quality as found in some of the British sub-accents. E.g. The word “butter” with a US accent sounds much more like “Butteeerrr” whilst Australians tend to pronounce the whole word but very subtly. Many English accents are either slower and have a more formal entire pronunciation, or under pronunciate but in a lyrical fashion (e.g. cockney etc).
    The point being, Australians find it much easier to ADD to their accent to put on another by over pronunciating compared to their norm, than people from North america or Britain do ‘taking away’ or ‘under pronunciating’.

    As an Australian I find it very easy to mimic British and North american accents but am truly thrown by South African, which is similar to ours but confusingly different and hard to pick up.