HISTORY TALKING: The evolution of language from ‘bonzer’ to ‘salty’

WELL READ GROUP: Orange Oral History Group members Bill and Helen McAnulty, Tom Hogan, Jeff Morrow, and Keith and Doreen Rawsthorne with (front) Rosemary Curry, Barb Hurst, Pat Daly and Tim Vivers.

WELL READ GROUP: Orange Oral History Group members Bill and Helen McAnulty, Tom Hogan, Jeff Morrow, and Keith and Doreen Rawsthorne with (front) Rosemary Curry, Barb Hurst, Pat Daly and Tim Vivers.

“The world ‘as got me snorted just a treat.” If you said this to someone today they would probably think you were speaking a foreign language, but the readers of The Sentimental Bloke by CJ Dennis in 1916 certainly knew what it meant, as it was just the way they spoke.

Some years later in the 1940s and 50s we said, “see ‘ya th’ sarvo, we’ll have a bonzer at the flicks”.

It is normal for language to change over time and today’s technology has had an enormous effect on our spoken and written words.

The influence of globalisation and migration has introduced us to other cultures and different ways of speaking. The pace of today’s world has also required a whole new vocabulary, and the use of abbreviation and acronyms in the new methods of communication are common.

With white settlement in 1778 came a host of different manners of speech, as the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish were thrust together in an upside-down world where they were forced to mix with people from all over the British Isles.

There was also a predominance of convicts who would have had quite a big influence on the vocabulary and manner of speech which emerged.

It is thought by those who have studied the subject that the Australian accent developed through a process of ‘levelling’, where speakers of different accents come together, major differences gradually disappear and a homogeneous way of speaking is adopted.

It is also thought that this would have taken place within the first three generations of European settlement.

Those first generations developed speech characteristics which were completely their own. In fact, James Dixon wrote in 1822: “the children born in Australia and now grown up, speak a purer, more harmonious language than is generally the case in most parts of England”.

With all this in mind, the Oral History group wrestled with the brave new world in which we find ourselves, and thought back to the language of our youth and how and why it has changed.

When we discussed the Australian language three years ago, we decided that it was rich in slang reflecting experiences from the country’s history, borrowing from the Aboriginal language, through convict sources, gold rushes and bush ranging, to the world wars.

We acknowledged that we like to abbreviate words like barbie, cossie and blowie to name a few. We like to call a tall man Shorty and a redhead Blue. We used words like cobber, digger, dinkum, dag and drongo. Now we wonder if those words are used at all except by people of our generation.

The young have always liked to invent new ways of talking and now parents are having a hard time understanding words like salty and savage and shook and lit, which is exactly what is intended by our children.

Now that email and texting have almost taken over from letter writing it is interesting to remember the very careful way we were expected to write.

Parents are having a hard time understanding words like salty and savage and shook and lit, which is exactly what is intended by our children.

“I have seen postcards from soldiers in the First World War to their families which are very formal,” said Barbara.

Most of us were taught at schoolhow to write a letter and when to use ‘yours truly’ or ‘yours faithfully’, or even ‘your humble servant’ when signing off.

Jeff told about Robbery Under Arms which he recently read, “which has words and phrases we would never use today”. Similarly Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which Pat read and enjoyed many times, is written in language far removed from the present.

Having discussed the idea that, in spite of the scattered settlement of Australia and the vast distances separating the population and that we all have a surprisingly similar accent, the group tried to find if there were any differences between the states.

Rosemary was born and grew up in South Australia with an American mother.

“My mother found some of the language difficult to comprehend, as in being asked, ‘how goes the enemy?’ which, she found to her surprise meant ‘what is the time?’”.

The group felt that South Australians have a slightly different accent from other states and decided that the influence of the German settlers and the fact that it was not settled by convicts may have made a difference.

Rosemary confirmed the idea that South Australians sometimes felt they had a better grasp of language than those of us from the other states, an idea some of the group vehemently contested.

There are differences in some words used, like ‘rockmelon’ in NSW and ‘cantaloupe’ in Victoria.

We also discussed the name of a school bag – port or case? We decided that in Queensland and west of the Great Dividing Range it is port and east of the divide case.

Leslye told a story of a Queensland journalist whose luggage had been mislaid at an Adelaide airport. He enquired about it at the desk. 

“I’ve lost my port,” he told them, “please help me find it as I need it for my for my work.” The attendant called security and over the loudspeaker came the message – ‘a gentleman here has lost his bottle of port which he needs urgently for his work’.

Although we have misunderstandings, the group decided that, on the whole, we are a united country with a language that will grow in the years to come.

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