I Thought He Was Australian!

I’ve recently noticed several comments on my weeks-old Orphan Black post taking issue with my praise of lead actress Tatiana Maslany‘s “Southeast English” accent. Here’s a representative example:

I’ve only just watched the first episode and presumed Sarah was meant to be Australian. Perhaps to a non-Brit she may sound like she’s from the south east of England but she really doesn’t. I’ll give it another episode to see if it gets better but it’s hard to maintain the necessary suspension of belief when something fundamental jars you out of it every so often.

A valid point, but I should mention that the original post clarifies that I did not actually find Maslany’s accent representative of how Londoners talk. The actress plays a character who has lived in Canada since childhood, and thus any inauthenticity on Maslany’s part would arguably be due to her accent not being muddled enough. (A cursory listen to either of the Osbourne children will give you a sense of how much “damage” an accent can sustain from an early trans-Atlantic move!)

The comment above is perceptive in a way the commenter may not have intended, however. At least in my experience, Brits from Southeast England who’ve spent years in North America often do end up sounding a bit Australian.

I once worked closely with a British co-worker during his first year in the States. While observing his speech during this period, I noticed that one of his earliest shifts was to replace glottal stops in words like “better” with the more “American” tapped t (ɾ). This variant is common in Australian English as well, so it can give American-influenced British accents a bit of a Aussie flavor right off the bat.

This is not the only such quirk. Common “intermediate” qualities of the vowel in “nurse” for those transitioning from rhotic to non-rhotic English tend toward front or front-lax rounded vowels like ø or ʏ, not that far from a marked Down Under pronunciation of the phoneme (although I find this more typical of New Zealand than Australia).

None of this is meant to suggest that Australian English lies “in between” British and American; its vowel system remains far far closer to London than General American. It’s AusE’s very cousinhood to Cockney, perhaps, that makes Londoners sound vaguely Aussie when they have lost certain Londonisms.

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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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15 Responses to I Thought He Was Australian!

  1. Lou says:

    I also think Australian prosody is more like that of American English than London English. That could be part of what makes Londoners who have spent a lot of time in America sound a bit Australian to some.

  2. Ed says:

    I find it remarkable how similar Australian is to Cockney, given that they are on opposite sides of the Earth. In the crazy world of English language, London and Birmingham are further apart than London and Australia.

    AJ Ellis wrote about the similarity amongst Australian, New Zealand and Cockney back in 1889. See pages 236-248 in this copy.

    I once mistook an ex-pat Londoner, who had been living in Germany for several years, for an Australian. He was not impressed. This fits with your theory that the loss of a few distinctly London features makes the accent easy to mistake for Australian.

    • Rachel says:

      When you consider that most of the original settlers (convicts) were either Cockneys or Irish, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of Cockney influence in the Australian accents. (This also explains why South Australians are different – less Cockney influence, more Scottish and upper-middle class influence).

    • DfNZ says:

      Some Londoners with more conservative accents do appear to have a bit of similarity with the broad Australian accent, search “Regional Dialect Challenge – North London England” on Youtube for an example.

      I once saw a vlog of somebody who moved from London to New York and at the mid point of transitioning from RP to an American accent they sounded quite Australian. A few Queenslanders with more archaic broad accents sound a little like the Southern US accent.

      I wouldn’t say the New Zealand accent was simply “Cockney” but that Cockney qualities have been present in the speech of some people. New Zealand speech was created from an assortment of different accents and the mixing was not always as even between different individuals, social groups and regions as it has been made out to be. I once caught the tail end of a documentary from the early 1970s about a primary school; to say those children sounded like actors auditioning for Oliver Twist would be no exaggeration. If it had been just one child I would’ve presumed they had came from London. Some individuals still show a greater similarity with one or another of the root accents but New Zealand has seen regional and sociolectual differences decline over time. Noticeable Cockney qualities may have been present in part of the population but that appears to have steadily diminished.

      I’ve also noticed some English children born from the end of the 1990s onwards have been subtly (and in some cases, not so subtly) shifting their vowels across the Atlantic. Perhaps the story from 2007 about casting directors complaining that they were having difficulty finding children from south eastern England who spoke appropriately because many were sounding “Australian” from “watching too many Antipodean soaps” was not quite what it seemed.

  3. Rodger C says:

    I once read an account by two Tennessee women who were mistaken for Australians in Alaska. I take it that, for one thing, Alaskans tend to be more familiar with the circum-Pacific world than with the other end of the United States.

  4. Ngamudji says:

    As an Australian, Cockney doesn’t sound like Australian English to me at all. The closest is NZ English, followed by Sth African English although that has a strong tinge of Afrikaans. This is subjective, but North American English and British English both seem as far from southern hemisphere varieties of English as from each other.

  5. oneblankspace says:

    There was an episode of The Story of English with the episode title ‘The Muvver Tongue,’ which discussed Cockney and Southern Hemisphere English.

  6. Andrej B. says:

    Ben mentioned the reduction in glottalling and increase in t-tapping. In addition to those two I find the darkening of prevocalic /l/ to be the accommodation Londoners adopt early on which makes them sound more Australian and less English. If they dial down the postvocalic L-vocalization as well, it only adds to the impression.

  7. Caitlin C. says:

    Your post today was reassuring. A few years ago in a new class I heard a classmate speak for the first time and excitedly turned and asked him where in Australia he was from. He patiently informed me that he had never been to Australia and that many Americans couldn’t tell the difference in accents. I sat there rather humiliated trying not to point out that most Americans don’t spend major holidays hosting family members from Sydney.

    I later found out he was originally from Kent, but had moved to the US at 13-14 and hadn’t been back to the UK in nearly 4 years. I’ve since talked to quite a few English ex-pats who’ve been in the USA for many years and noticed they all sound Australian after a while.

  8. Tony says:

    I’m from the SE London/Kent border and lived in Texas for five years. While there I was constantly being mistaken for ‘that guy who fights crocodiles’.

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