History and accent change

History and accent change

Accent change - different generations of speakers

Timeline of Accent Change

This timeline shows key events in Australian history which have influenced how our accent has changed since colonisation.

People of different ages have different accents and this is because change constantly occurs in the language. The accent of a community changes alongside social and political change but also because the sounds of speech make up a system that is self-regulating and constantly in flux. We can say that change can be external (social/political) or internal (linguistic/phonetic). Changes usually enter a dialect through the speech of teenagers or pre-teens who desire to express their identity independent of the previous generation.

History - a new dialect of English

Australian English is a relatively new dialect of English and is over 200 years old.

Australian English can be described as a new dialect that developed as a result of contact between people who spoke different, mutually intelligible, varieties of English.

The very early form of Australian English would have been first spoken by the children of the colonists born into the early colony in Sydney. This very first peer group would have spoken in similar ways to each other to help bind the peer group and express their group membership. This very first generation of children created a new dialect that was to become the language of the nation.

The children in the new colony would have been exposed to a wide range of different dialects from all over England but mainly the south east, particularly from London. They would have created the new dialect from elements present in the speech they heard around them in response to their need to express peer solidarity. Even when new settlers arrived, this new dialect of the children would have been strong enough to deflect the influence of new children.

There is evidence from early written sources that a new and distinct dialect was present in the colony by the 1830s.

Early Australian English

Although we can’t know exactly what early Australian English sounded like, we can make some educated guesses based on audio recordings of the speech of people who were born in the 19th century, from written sources, and from historical records of the dialect mix present in the colony.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the "proto" SAusE differentiated into a continuum of broadness based primarily on the realisation of the diphthongs. Accent varied, ranging from the most local type (Broad Australian) through to a more British sounding type (Cultivated Australian). An intermediate category, General Australian, was the most common type.

Speakers were assigned to the Broadness categories mainly according to their pronunciation of six main vowels. These are the vowel sounds in the words “beat, boot, say, so, high, how”.

Over the past 40 years, Australian English speakers have gradually moved towards the centre of this broadness continuum. The majority of younger speakers today use a General type of Australian English.

The move away from the Cultivated type is probably related to a shift in linguistic affiliation from a British external standard to an Australian internal standard of English. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Australian English became increasingly accepted as the standard form of English used in this country. This acceptance was paralleled by Australian independence in a global marketplace.

Male broad

Female broad

Male general

Female general

Male cultivated

Female cultivated

Vowel shift

This Vowel Shift animation depicts general changes that have occurred in Australian English monophthongs over the past 200 years and suggests some future change.


Cox, F. (1999). Vowel Change in Australian English. Phonetica, 56, 1-27.

Cox, F., & Palethorpe, S. (2008). Reversal of short front vowel raising in Australian English. Proceedings of Interspeech 2008, 22-26 September 2008, Brisbane, 342-345.

Fritz, C. W. A. (2007). From English in Australia to Australian English 1788-1900. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Leitner, G. (2004). Australia’s many voices: Australian English - The national language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Moore, B. (2008). Speaking our language: The story of Australian English. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

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