Language Barrier Reef

Language Barrier Reef

June 30, 2016
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By Mae Anthony
Art by Kaysie Hilton

Possibly the most significant social marker of any culture is a coherent and shared language. We use it to communicate basic needs, share ideas and thoughts, and create things. Many people think that Australia is unvaried in its language. This is very much to do with the lack of awareness of the presence of 150 Aboriginal languages that are spoken in this country, and it is important to note that there used to be close to 750 before the European invasion in the eighteenth century. The English language that is spoken across majority of Australia, what has become known as Australian English, is quite poignant to our international friends who come to visit, or even stay with us. It’s also interesting to think about how in a country as small as ours that the language can be so foreign across the states and territories.

People who travel to Australia often report having a major culture shock over certain phrases and terms that we use. Let’s get the ball rolling with “Chook raffle”, a term used to allude to someone with, or imply they possess, superior organisation skills. It can also be used to refer to any random process. Now what is a “chook raffle”, you might ask? It’s where pubs, or similar institutions raffle off chickens, or “chooks” as they’re named. That’s funny enough in itself, so used in the above contexts is on a whole other level of hilarious; some real deep metaphorical connotations right there, Australia.

There’s phrases like “knock yourself out” that don’t make a lot of sense in literal terms, but somehow seem to work. This phrase would be very confusing for people, I’m sure. Another strange one is when Australians tend to use “no worries” to mean “that’s okay”. We actually have to state that it is not a worry, instead of saying “Yes, that’s fine”. Not dissimilar to the way we respond to the question of “How are you?” with “Not too bad”. You know, because I’m totally fine, but not so good that I’m singing in the rain or kicking an armadillo in passing, so you know, “I’m not bad” seems to suffice. And to think “no worries” is ridiculous enough, we actually say “no wukkas”, which also extends to “no wucken furries”, (I’ll let you work that one out.) We’re notorious for making up words left, right, and centre. A prominent example of this is the word “doona” which is a duvet, or a quilt, to the rest of the world. If you google “doona”, duvet is the top result.

Got a problem with your stobie pole? Want some Fritz? In your reception year? Go to Adelaide because that’s the only place these things will make sense. Stobie pole is electricity pole, Fritz is our Polony, and Reception year is the same as year one at school for us. Bogus right? You think it’s all so similar, but there are some major differences that cause people to note their first experiences with being a bit like a slap in the face with a wet fish.

New Zealand is one of our closest neighbours here in the Southern Hemisphere and you’d think maybe we’d be synchronised. “Jandals” are what we Aussies call thongs (and yes, Australia is the only place where that word doesn’t refer to a g-string), “trundlers” are trolleys, and they call sweet potato “Kumara”. They do call orange seeded melons “rockmelon”, though, so that’s something. An all time favourite: what we call an “esky”, they call a “chilly bin”. Our “icy pole”, is their “ice block” (which is different to what we call an ice block, as in the brick you keep in your freezer to put in your lunch box).

We have actually gone as far here in Australia to embellish regular everyday English words. Often we shorten or lengthen words, the latter of which contains little conceivable logic. Documentary, nope, that’s “Doco”, “afternoon” is “arvo”, Salvation Army Officer is a “Salvo”. “Hey I’m having a BBQ, want to come?” “Sure I’ll come to your barbie.”

One of my favourite Australian-isms is how the question “How are ya?” is a quasi-rhetorical statement. It’s a borderline heterogeneous being of which in physical form is a question, but in essence is a greeting that does not need to be answered. Again, we are just extending phrases, because if we strip it back what we’re really saying is “Hello.”

Much of the phrases and words I’ve mentioned are inherently futile whether they occur naturally in our Australian language, or as a synthesis of embellishment. All the same, what fun banter it creates for us and the large array of people who come to visit.

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