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Department of Linguistics

Australian Style : Volume 11.2, December 2003

The Australian Word Map

Sue Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, writes about the Australian Word Map project and its contribution to the recently published Macquarie ABC Dictionary.

Australian Word Map, the corner of the ABC website devoted to Australian regionalisms, is the result of the synthesis of the special aptitudes of Macquarie Dictionary and the ABC. Macquarie does the lexicography behind the scenes. The ABC picks up our small voice and amplifies it across Australia, then follows up by providing the mechanism by which people from around the country can reply.

The idea of collecting regionalisms appealed to the ABC because its role as a national broadcaster requires it to provide services to the regions. It appealed to us as dictionary-makers because we were tired of the wellworn examples of regionalism that made up the sum of knowledge to date. After devon, fritz, polony, etc., what was there to say? The dreadful thought had occurred that perhaps regionalism was part of a colonial past and no longer existed under the barrage of national communications and standardisation.

The response from the website was immediate and encouraging. At the time of the publication of the Macquarie ABC Dictionary, 6000 contributions had been selected to go on the site from about twice that number of unedited offerings, and another 6000 people had commented on the listed items. The Australian Word Map website was being accessed at the rate of 20,000 hits a week.

The reason for the introduction of an editorial filter was that the response, though enthusiastic, was somewhat undisciplined. Con-tributors were sending general colloquialisms as well as regionalisms which, if included, would have blurred the focus of the site. It was important to keep people attuned to the notion of regionalism.

Of course, publication on the site was one thing, but publication in the dictionary was another. For that we needed evidence that an item had some kind of general currency, even if that currency was limited to a small region.

The comments from contributors helped to corroborate offerings which might otherwise have appeared to be one-off eccentricities. In addition we researched other available resources and were able to track down items and, in some instances, account for their presence in the region. Finally, we compiled a national email list from the addresses helpfully provided by contributors willing to be part of a follow-up campaign. These people were surveyed on a number of items to provide verification for their regions.

The fact that there were words and phrases appearing on Word Map which were new to the editors of the dictionary demonstrates that the spoken language is still primary, and has a range of expression and a lexicon that goes beyond what might appear in print.

There are phrases that seem to run around the countryside as a national shared joke. Each community develops its own version of the joke which makes it even more delicious. Take, for example, the range of humorous names for a cask of wine – red handbag, Dapto briefcase, etc. And the collection of words for speedos – budgie smugglers, ball-huggers, nylon disgusters, dick pokers or dick stickers, dick togs or DTs.

Just as the key items of Australian English identify Australians as a community separate from those which speak British English or American English, so too do these regionalisms in their smaller sphere identify a person from one part of the country as distinct from another. Often it is when we move out of the area in which we grew up to another part of the country that we notice the identifying features of our regional dialect. With time, that keen observation blurs and we begin to adopt the local expressions of the new community to which we belong, while retaining a distinct sense of nostalgia about the words we have left behind. Language and identity, even at this local level, are entwined.

Historically there have been two major causes of regional variation – the make-up of the original settlement community with its various language influences, and the imposition of items by state governments setting standards in matters of housing, roads, transport and education.

The original patterns of settlement made different dialects of British English influential in different parts of the country. Victorians may well ask for a piece instead of a sandwich, thus revealing a Scottish presence in their community. The Tasmanians refer to a spoiled or troublesome child as a nointer betraying a Northern British dialect. How the South Australians acquired the term gent for a maggot, a shortening of gentleman, which dates back to the jargon of anglers in England in the 1500s, is a mystery.

Background languages had their influence too. So, for example, the German community in the Barossa has given rise to a number of distinct items of English in South Australia, such as fritz (a luncheon meat), schnitter (a sandwich) and streusel cake (a cake with a topping of nuts, sugar and spices).

In some cases regional items from the early days of settlement have become fossilised in a particular community. Thus the badger box bears witness still to the fact that colonial Tasmanians referred to wombats as badgers. There are still rural areas where echidnas are known as porcupines. Queenslanders will have a duchesse in their bedrooms rather than a dressing table, the duchesse in mid-nineteenth-century England being a particular kind of dressing table with a swing glass.

The other strongly discernible influence is the statewide standard imposed in some areas of language. Sometimes these jargons are actually set by state governments, as in education and the infrastructure of roads and railways. Sometimes they simply operate within a state by custom and convenience and the influence of statewide media, as in the jargon of real estate.

Thus a kindergarten in New South Wales is a prep class in Victoria and Tasmania, and a reception class in South Australia. A power pole is a Stobie pole in South Australia, an SEC pole in Victoria, and a hydro pole in Tasmania.

A semi-detached house is in South Australia called a maisonette. A sleep-out is in most of Australia a partially enclosed porch or veranda, but in Victoria it is a building separate from the main house. This building is in Tasmania called a chalet.

In the past, collecting evidence of regionalism was a laborious exercise, carried out in the old way, with questionnaires and field research. It is just as well that new technology has given us the means to tap into this aspect of Australian English and move past devon, fritz, polony, ...

The address of the WordMap website is:

Click here to read the lead article from the previous edition (June 2003), or back to the list of articles.


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