Australian English phonology
Australian English (AuE) is a non-rhotic variety of English spoken by most native-born Australians. Phonologically, it is one of the most regionally homogeneous language varieties in the world. As with most dialects of English, it is distinguished primarily by its vowel phonology.
The Australian English vowels /ɪ/, /e/, /æ/, /ɜː/ and /oː/ are noticeably closer (higher tongue position) than their contemporary Received Pronunciation equivalents. The centring diphthongs are likewise also closer in AusE than RP.
The vowels of Australian English can be divided according to length. The long vowels, which include monophthongs and diphthongs, mostly correspond to the tense vowels used in analyses of Received Pronunciation (RP) as well as its centring diphthongs. The short vowels, consisting only of monophthongs, correspond to the RP lax vowels. There exist pairs of long and short vowels with overlapping vowel quality giving Australian English phonemic length distinction, which is unusual amongst the various dialects of English. As with General American and New Zealand English, the weak-vowel merger is nearly complete in Australian English: unstressed /ɪ/ (sometimes transcribed as /ɨ/) is merged with /ə/ (schwa) except before a following velar.
There are two families of phonemic transcriptions of Australian English: revised ones, which attempt to more accurately represent the phonetic sounds of Australian English; and the Mitchell-Delbridge system, which is minimally distinct from Jones’ original transcription of RP. This page uses a revised transcription based on Durie and Hajek (1994) and Harrington, Cox and Evans (1997) but also shows the Mitchell-Delbridge equivalents as this system is commonly used for example in the Macquarie Dictionary and much literature, even recent.
- The sound /æː/ is traditionally transcribed and analysed the same as the short /æ/, but minimal pairs exist in at least some Australians’ speech. It is found in the adjectives bad, mad, glad and sad, before the /ɡ/ sound (for example, hag, rag, bag) and also in content words before /m/ and /n/ in the same syllable (for example, ham, tan, plant). In South Australia plant is pronounced with the vowel sound /aː/, as in rather and father so are chance, circumstance, photograph, advantage and so on. In some speakers, especially those with the broad accent, /æː/ and /æ/ will be shifted toward [ɛː] and [ɛ], respectively.
- There is æ-tensing before a nasal consonant. The nasal sounds create changes in preceding vowels because air can flow into the nose during the vowel. Nasal consonants can also affect the articulation of a vowel. So for several speakers, the /æː/ vowel in words like jam, man, dam and hand will be shifted towards [eː].
|/a/||strut, bud, hud||/ʌ/|
|/aː/||bath, palm, start, bard, hard||/a/|
|/ɑe/~/ɑi/||price, bite, hide||/aɪ/|
|/æ/||trap, lad, had||/æ/|
|/æɪ/||face, bait, hade||/eɪ/|
|/æɔ/||mouth, bowed, how’d||/aʊ/|
|/e/||dress, bed, head||/ɛ/|
|/eː/||square, bared, haired||/ɛə/|
|/ɜː/||nurse, bird, heard||/ɜ/|
|/əʉ/||goat, bode, hoed||/oʊ/|
|/ɪ/||kit, bid, hid||/ɪ/|
|/ɪə/||near, beard, hear||/ɪə/|
|/iː/||fleece, bead, heat||/i/|
|/oː/||thought, north, sure, board, hoard, poor||/ɔ/|
|/ɔ/||lot, cloth, body, hot||/ɒ/|
|/ʉː/||goose, boo, who'd||/u/|
- The trap-bath split is partially in effect in Australian English. It is more advanced in South Australia, but failed to progress as far in the other Australian states, which were largely settled earlier.
- As with New Zealand English the START vowel in words like park //, calm // and farm // is central or even front of central in terms of tongue position and non-rhotic. This is the same vowel sound used by speakers of the Boston accent of North Eastern New England in the United States and most accents in Northern England. Thus the phrase park the car is said identically by a New Zealander, Australian, Bostonian, or Northern English person.
- For some Victorian speakers /ɛ/ has merged with /æ/ in pre-lateral environments, and thus the words celery and salary are pronounced alike. See salary-celery merger.
- The phoneme /ɜː/ is pronounced at least as high as /eː/, and is often pronounced rounded.[is "often pronounced rounded" in the citations, or is it an OR statement?] This glyph is used — rather than /ɘː/ or /ɵː/ — as most revisions of the phonemic orthography for Australian English predate the 1996 modifications to the International Phonetic Alphabet. At the time, [ɜː] was suitable for any mid-central vowel, rounded or unrounded.
- As in most varieties of English, the phoneme /ə/ is used only in unstressed syllables.
- The vowel /iː/ has an onset [ɪi̯], except before laterals. The onset is often lowered [əi~ɐi], so that beat is [bəit] for some speakers.
- The target for [ɪ] tends to be tenser than in other varieties of English—[ɪ̝]—and may sometimes sound like it has shifted to /i/ to speakers of other dialects or languages. Thus, words like bin and sin may sound almost the same as bean and seen to non-English speakers. This feature is also present in Chicano English.
- As in American English and modern RP, the final vowel in words like happy and city is pronounced as /iː/ (happee, citee), not as /ɪ/ (happy-tensing).
- In some parts of Australia, a fully backed allophone of /ʉː/, transcribed [ʊː], is common before /l/. As a result the pairs full/fool and pull/pool differ phonetically only in vowel length for those speakers.  The usual allophone is further forward in New South Wales than Victoria. It is moving further forwards, however, in both regions at a similar rate. Many cases of RP /ʊə/ correspond to the sequence /ʉː.ə/ in Australian English.
|Starting open||æɪ ɑe||æɔ|
- The first element of /ɑe/ may be raised and rounded in broad accents.
- The first element of /æɪ/ is significantly lower [a̠ɪ] than in many other dialects of English.
- The onset of /əʉ/ actually begins somewhere between /ə/ and /a/: [ɜʉ̯~ɐʉ̯]. There is significant allophonic variation in this vowel, including a backed allophone [ɔʊ] before /l/. The first part of this allophone is in the same position as /ɔ/, but the two remain distinct.
- Two additional diphthongs – /ɪə/ and /ʊə/ – are traditionally included in descriptions of Australian English. The sound /ɪə/ is usually pronounced as a diphthong (or disyllabically) only in open syllables. In closed syllables, it is distinguished from /ɪ/ primarily by length and from /iː/ by the significant onset in the latter.
- The phoneme /ʊə/ is rare and almost extinct. Most speakers consistently use [ʉː.ə] or [ʉː] (before /r/) instead. Many cases of RP /ʊə/ are pronounced instead with the /oː/ phoneme in Australian English, but unlike in some British accents there is no general merger between /oː/ and /ʊə/. "pour" and "poor", "more" and "moor" and "shore" and "sure" are homophones, but "tore" and "tour" remain distinct.
- Australian English is non-rhotic; in other words, the r sound does not appear at the end of a syllable or immediately before a consonant. A final -er is pronounced as lowered [ɐ] in most speakers, or [ə] for some. So the words butter [bɐɾə], here [hɪɐ] and park [paːk] will not contain the /r/ sound.
- The /r/ sound can occur when a word that has a final ⟨r⟩ in the spelling comes before another word that starts with a vowel. For example, in car alarm the sound /r/ can occur in car because here it comes before another word beginning with a vowel. The words far, far more and farm do not contain an /r/ but far out will contain the linking /r/ sound because the next word starts with a vowel sound.
- An intrusive /r/ may be inserted before a vowel in words that do not have ⟨r⟩ in the spelling. For example, drawing will sound like draw-ring, saw it will sound like sore it, the tuner is and the tuna is will both be [ðətʃʉːnərɪz].
- Intervocalic /t/ (and for some speakers /d/) undergo voicing and flapping to the alveolar tap [ɾ] after the stressed syllable and before unstressed vowels (as in butter, party) and syllabic /l/, though not before syllabic /n/ (bottle vs button [batn]), as well as at the end of a word or morpheme before any vowel (what else, whatever). For those speakers where /d/ also undergoes the change, there will be homophony, for example, metal and petal will sound like medal and pedal. In formal speech /t/ is retained. When coating becomes coatin' , the t remains voiceless, thus [ˈkəʉtn]. [t] in the cluster [nt] can elide. As a result, in quick speech, words like winner and winter can become homophonous. This is a quality that Australian English shares most notably with North American English.
- Some speakers use a glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in final position, for example trait, habit; or in medial position, such as a /t/ followed by a syllabic /n/ is often replaced by a glottal stop, for example button or fatten. Alveolar pronunciations nevertheless predominate.
- Velarised alveolar lateral approximant
- The velarised alveolar lateral approximant, or "dark L", may appear in all Australian English pronunciations of /l/.
- Many speakers have coalesced /tj/ and /dj/ into /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ respectively. Pronunciations such as /tʃʉːn/ and /dʒʉːn/ (exactly like June) for tune and dune respectively are standard. This palatalisation can lead to additional homophony where dew, due and Jew come to be pronounced identically. /t/ and /d/ in the clusters /tr/-/tw/ and /dr/-/dw/ are similarly palatalised.
- Word initial /sj/ and /zj/ have merged with /s/ and /z/ respectively. Other cases of /sj/ and /zj/ are often pronounced respectively [ʃ] and [ʒ].
- Similarly /lj/ has merged with /l/ word initially. Remaining cases of /lj/ are often pronounced simply as [j] in colloquial speech, though this is stigmatised particularly in the case of the word Australia, so it is often pronounced as four syllables to avoid the /lj/.
- /rj/ has merged with /r/.
- /nj/ and other common sequences of consonant plus /j/, are retained.
- The word foyer is usually pronounced //, as in NZ English, rather than // as in British English.
- The word data is commonly pronounced //, with // being the second most common, and // being very rare.
- The trans- prefix is pronounced //, even in South Australia, where the trap-bath split is significantly more advanced than in other states.
- In English, upward inflexion (a rise in the pitch of the voice at the end of an utterance) typically signals a question. Some Australian English speakers commonly use a form of upward inflexion in their speech that is not associated with asking questions. Some speakers use upward inflexion as a way of including their conversational partner in the dialogue. This is also common in Californian English.
Relationship to other varieties
|/æ/||/æ, æː/||pat, bad|
|/ɑː/||/aː, ɐː/||balm, father, pa|
|/ɒ/||/ɔ/||bod, pot, cot|
|/ɔː/||/oː/||bawd, paw, caught|
|/ʊ/||/ʊ/||good, foot, put|
|/aɪ/||/ɑe/||buy, high, ride, write|
|/eɪ/||/æɪ/||bay, hey, fate|
|/aʊ/||/æɔ/||bough, how, pout|
|/oʊ/||/əʉ/||beau, hoe, poke|
|/juː/||/jʉː/||beauty, hue, pew, new|
|Vowels followed by /r/|
|/ɔər/||boar, four, more, moor|
|/ɜr/ (ɝ)||/ɜː/||bird, herd, furry|
Australian English pronunciation is most similar to that of New Zealand English: many people from other parts of the world often cannot distinguish them but there are differences. New Zealand English has centralised /ɪ/ and the other short front vowels are higher. New Zealand English more strongly maintains the diphthongal quality of the NEAR and SQUARE vowels and they can be merged as something around [iə]. New Zealand English does not have the bad-lad split, but like Victoria has merged /e/ with /æ/ in pre-lateral environments.
Both New Zealand English and Australian English are also similar to South African English, so that they have even been grouped together under the common label "southern hemisphere Englishes". Like the other two varieties in that group, Australian English pronunciation bears some similarities to dialects from the South-East of Britain; Thus, it is non-rhotic and has the trap-bath split although, as indicated above, this split was not completed in Australia as it was in England, so many words that have the bath vowel in England retain the trap vowel in Australia.
Historically, the Australian English also had the same lengthening of /ɔ/ before unvoiced fricatives, but, like the English accents, this has since been reversed. Australian English lacks some innovations in Cockney since the settling of Australia, such as the use of a glottal stop in many places where a /t/ would be found, th-fronting, and h-dropping. The intervocalic alveolar-flapping, which Australian English has instead, is a feature found in similar environments in American English.
AusTalk is a database of Australian speech from all regions of the country. Initially 1000 adult voices are to be recorded; the project commenced in 2011, and the first phase is expected to run until June 2015. The database is expected to be expanded in future, to include children's voices and more variations. As well as providing a resource for cultural studies, the database is expected to help improve speech-based technology, such as speech recognition systems and hearing aids.
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- Robert Mannell and Felicity Cox (2009-08-01). "Phonemic (Broad) Transcription of Australian English (HCE)". Clas.mq.edu.au. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-26.
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- Palethorpe, S. and Cox, F. M. (2003) Vowel Modification in Pre-lateral Environments. Poster presented at the International Seminar on Speech Production, December 2003, Sydney.
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