Australian Broad-A

Queensland

Queensland (wikimedia)

Speaking of Shane Jenek/Courtney Act (the Australian drag queen that served as the topic of my last post), I noticed that he uses a “short-a” in words like dance, France, and demand. That is, Jenek pronounces “dance” with the same vowel as “pan” (æ), instead of using the vowel in “harm” (a or ɑ). This is apparently typical of Queenslanders, as this lovely dialect map at Maquarie University’s website reveals. South Australians, meanwhile, tend to use a “broad-a” in at least some of these words. Why the discrepancy between the two regions?

It’s worth pointing out that even in Australian regions that use broad-a in such words, the phenomenon is less uniform than it is in, say, Southeast England. Linguists Barbara and Ronald Horvath study this very factor in A Geolinguistics of Short-A[1], and find that while Adelaide natives generally always use the broad-a in “plant”, this is common but not uniform with “advance” and broad-a in “dance” is fairly unusual (it occurs about 27% of the time).

Much of Australia’s early British/European settlement occurred throughout the 19th-Century, a span coinciding with changes in attitude regarding the broad-a in words like “dance” and “demand”. As Joan Beal points out in English dialects in the North of England: phonology[2] (later quoted by Wikipedia), this sound was “stigmatized as a Cockneyism” for a large part of the century.

Indeed, one notes the change in attitude when comparing elocution books from the early part of that period to those of the late Victorian. John Walker was apoplectic over such pronunciations in 1816’s Principles of English Pronunciation, asserting that “every correct ear would be disgusted at giving the ‘a’ in these words the full sound of ‘a’ in ‘father'”. This contrasts with an American (no less!) pronunciation manual from 1885, William Phyfe’s How Should I Pronounce, which claims that “a proper use of this [broad-a] sound indicates a relatively high degree of culture in the art of pronunciation”[3].

Getting back to Australia, though, the question is why some regions and speakers shifted to (or perhaps preserved) this vowel where others didn’t. One might be tempted to find some type of socioeconomic explanation, but the Horvaths find this at best a weak predictor. For instance, they found a 68% incidence of short-a in “advance” among working-class Australians compared to a 57% incidence among middle-class Australians. As I mentioned, Australian English’s formative years were during a period of short-a/broad-a instability, so it’s hard to pinpoint what the historical factors were that led to one region adopting one pronunciation while another didn’t.

Regardless of why, though, it’s worth noting this striking difference between the two areas. By comparison, a region in the United States where people similarly pronounced “dance” with a broad-a would stick out like a sore thumb (my ears certainly perk up when older New Englanders use this phoneme). Australian English is fairly young compared to its cousins, but that doesn’t mean it lacks unique regional accents.

1. Horvath, B. M., & Horvath, R. J. (2001). A Geolinguistics of short A in Australian English. English in Australia, 341.
2. Beal, J. (2004). English dialects in the North of England. In E. W. Schneider & B. Kortmann (Eds.), A Handbook of the Varieties of English (pp 113-133). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
3. Phyfe is actually referring to “intermediate a,” a sound between “father” and “man” typical of a lot of old-fashioned American stage dialects or Mid-Atlantic English. It’s the same phoneme, but with a slightly different phonetic quality.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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18 Responses to Australian Broad-A

  1. Brythonic says:

    What is really surprising is that so many Australians use the long “A” at all. Accepted the majority of people who first went to Australia from Europe, were from the south east of England, but later on they came from all parts if Britain and Ireland. In England the extended “A” is not used north of Northampton by 95% of the population which is only 100 km’s north of London, and is regarded by most English in the English Midlands and Northern England as pompous.

  2. Susan Michaud says:

    I first asked about the South African accent as compared with a British accent because it always seems, at the start to sound similar and then veers off. And ditto the Australian
    accent. My question is why “mate” and other words with long a’s, as we designate them
    here in the States, are pronounced with a long I; as in “might”, and so forth. Surely
    the origins have been duly explained, but I must confess the Australian accent sounds
    to my ear as an Alabama accent must sound to the Brits. And you are so right about
    Boston (often pronounced “Bahston”, with an “a” like “bath”, in America, and a multitude of other words, including “car”, sort of like they want to say “car”, but then they’d just
    as well say “care”, and they split the difference.

    • O'Doyle says:

      I’m not a linguist, but I’m kind of an amateur one who reads a lot of blogs like this one. What has probably happened in Australia is what’s called a vowel shift. What may have happened is that the vowel in “meet” came to be pronounced more like the vowel in “mate”. Then the vowel in “mate” reacted to that by changing to became more like the one in “might”. Then the vowel in “might” became more like the one in “joy”. Or maybe the vowel in “might” changed first and in doing so gave the “mate” vowel permission, if you will, to sound how it used to sound. I don’t know which change happened first.

      So all of those vowels have changed in Australia, but they all still sound different from one another just as they do in other parts of the English-speaking world. It’s funny you mention Alabama, because Alabamans can do a similar (but not identical) thing to Australians with some of their vowels, including those of “meet” and “mate”. They treat the vowel in “might” differently from Aussies though. It can come out as “maht”. For Aussies it’s kind of like “moit”. But both accents don’t use the standard American or British pronunciation of “might”.

      But just because vowels can change, doesn’t mean they have to of course. So I can’t tell you why a vowel changed in the first place.

  3. Susan Michaud says:

    I meant to thank the linguist for his incredible body of knowledge before logging off,
    and to say how important and interesting his chosen field of study is, albeit over my head, I remain interested.

  4. Warren says:

    I remember reading somewhere that South Australia was settled later than other parts of Australia by non-convicts. That’s all I have to say :)

    • DfNZ says:

      New Zealand experienced a pattern and timeframe of migration similar to that of South Australia and the “broad A” was adopted because only a slight majority of migrants used it, so it was probably the same case with Adelaide. If the timeframe had been just five or ten years earlier it is likely /æ/ would have become standardised.

      I think accents in today’s South Australia have been very influenced by elsewhere in Australia and post-war immigration from the UK. Many older South Australians sound like New Zealanders to varying degrees. Pronunciations like “chance” are the more basic remnants of the former accent.

  5. Bryn says:

    Words where “a” is followed by a nasal + consonant (like “chance”, “dance”, etc.) can have the vowel of “back” in TRAP-BATH splitting types of Welsh and Irish English too. That probably doesn’t help explain the regional differences we see in Australian English, but I just thought I would point out that words like that can be exceptional in other varieties of English besides Australian for what it’s worth.

  6. Moonfriend says:

    Here are the 2 cents of a Melburnian.

    In my experience, Adelaide people ALWAYS say dance with a broad-a. In fact, I have been mocked in Adelaide for using a short-a.

    Melburnians most often use the short-a across the board, but some people (posh private school types where it is considered superior and others with pretensions) use the broad-a in words like demand and chance. The word castle is pretty evenly split here, so the town of Castlemaine has a short-a, but most defer to the local (NSW) pronunciation of Newcastle (broad-a).

    Sydneysiders use a short-a in gasp and grasp, which no one else does.

    Some people switch depending on their audience, which seems silly to me.

    And the l-vocalisation happens in places other than Adelaide too. I know I have it.

    • Rob says:

      In my experience, people from Adelaide don’t always say “dance” with the broad a.

      • Moonfriend says:

        Are these young folk? Maybe the youngsters have been influenced by east coast TV accents.

        I’d be surprised if they were old-timers like me (40+).

        • Ben T-S says:

          @Moonfriend,

          I should mention a few things more about the study I reference in the post. First, it was definitely focused somewhat toward younger speakers, and had a relatively small sample (11 subjects) for Adelaide. Although the researchers didn’t find a strong link between age and broad-a for Australians as a whole, I could see this being a more important factor in Adelaide specifically. It’s also worth noting that the study had a fairly large proportion of working-class subjects, slightly outnumbering middle-class subjects.

          All this is to say that, if you take into account class, age, and perhaps other sociological factors, I could see broad-a in “dance” being significantly higher among certain contingents of Adelaide’s population.

        • Rob says:

          Yes, they are young folk.

        • Moonfriend says:

          Thanks everyone. Very interesting.

          Just as an aside, in the eighties, I was at the Adelaide Oval watching Australia play Australia A in the one-day cricket series and could not believe my ears. I swear on my mother’s life that I thought I was in the middle of London, but the people around me were all locals. The amount of glottal stops, clipped vowels, broad-as and yod-dropping was simply astounding. Things must have changed.

    • Aussie says:

      Yes, it is class based in melbourne to some degree, although the short-a seems to becoming standardised amongst younger people regardless of schooling.

    • Peter says:

      L-vocalization is more common in Adelaide than elsewhere though. Maybe other parts of Australia are catching up now though.

  7. Pingback: AOS 1 unit 4 journal: Australian Broad-A | Andrew's English blog

  8. Ngamudgi says:

    The Macquarie dictionary website (to which you gave a link) gives a plausible explanation for the different pronunciation of ‘a’ in SA (and NZ). It says: “South Australia had a different settlement chronology and type than other parts of the country”.

    As to settlement chronology, this appears to be suggesting that the SA and NZ’s long ‘a’ may reflect a change in pronunciation in the UK by the time those regions were settled by English immigrants, as compared with the pronunciation of settlers of decades earlier whose descendants populated the other Australian States.

    South Australia and New Zealand were mainly populated by free settlers from the UK in the 1840s and onwards, although Adelaide itslef was established in the mid-1830s.

    In contrast, NSW had been settled by convicts in the 1780s. Queensland is an offshoot of NSW (it was part of NSW until 1859) and its dialect and accent (at least in the South) are generally similar. The North Queensland accent is very distinctive though.

    Tasmania was settled in the 1800s and again was a convict settlement. Victoria was settled by Tasmanians in the 1830s and largely shares Tassie’s dialect and accent.

    Interestingly, NSW and Qld use a long ‘a’ in ‘castle’ where Victoria and Tassie use a short ‘a’.

    Western Australia was settled in the 1820s. Initially it was free settlers only, but it later received many convicts, and in fact tranportation continued longer there than in any other State . There was also a large influx of easterners (especially Victorians) to WA during the 1890s gold rush, which more than tripled its population.

    As to settlement type, this is a polite reference to the fact that South Australia is the only State that never received convicts. Consequently, there were fewer Irish and poorer English in the mix in SA. This is the explanation preferred by the OAFs (Old Adelaide Families) for their ‘toffy’ SA accent.

    In short, it seems possible that the ‘free’ English immigrants of the 1840s to SA and NZ brought with them a different pronunciation than the free immigrants and convicts of decades earlier whose descendants populated the other Australian States.

    If we’re talking about Queensland, the North Queensland accent is probably the most distinctive of all. If you want an example, listen to Robert Keane’s song “The Old North Queensland Accent”. You should be able to find it on the net.

  9. Dave says:

    Most Aust. English speakers use both forms depending on exactly which word is being used. Adelaide is a more extreme case as it is more widespread there on words which it is rare in other places. (some relatively good words for spotting an adelaidian are dance as dahnce, plant as plahnt, and graph as grahff).

    Most people use a quite varied jumble of words with both long and short a. There is a quite good table here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variation_in_Australian_English#Phonology

    Some of these can be explained by local phonological reasoning, castle as cah-sul is universal in NSW (Sydney is the capital of NSW) as the major city of Newcastle uses that pronunciation only.

    I beleive some of the values in that table may have shifted since 1995 when it was compiled. I would be surprised if that pronunciation of graph and demand is still that widespread in Sydney.

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