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When it comes to vowels, Sydney has spoken

Date: 24 May 2019

How do you pronounce your Aussie ‘er’ endings? Short, as in rememb-er, or longer as in rememb-a::h? The latest research findings from the Sydney Speaks project show that if you’re still in the short camp, you’re in the minority!

Sydney Speaks has been recording and exploring Australian English as spoken in our largest and most ethnically and linguistically diverse city. It is led by Chief Investigator Professor Catherine Travis with Postdoctoral Research Fellows James Grama and Simon Gonzalez.

Catherine says the team has found evidence that the lengthening of word-final ‘er’ was led by 2nd generation Greek Australians in the 1970s, and has been adopted today by Anglo-Australians, as well as Australians from both established (Italian) and more recent (Chinese) migrant groups.

“In the 1970s, Barbara Horvath did a large-scale sociolinguistic survey comparing adults and teenagers, based on the understanding that the way young people speak indicates the way the language will be spoken in the future,” says Catherine. “We’re looking at those 1970s recordings  and making comparable recordings today to test whether the changes she predicted can be seen 40 years on. And they can!

“One really interesting prediction was that migrant groups can lead in change and this seems to generally hold.”

Intrigued by the ’er’ finding, the team has turned its attention to five vowels that have featured in studies of Australian English: /i/ (as in fleece), /æɪ/ (as in face), /əʉ/ (as in goat), /æɔ/ (as in mouth) and /ɑe/ (as in price).

Socio-phonetician James Grama explains that to investigate how these vowels have changed, the team analysed over 40,000 instances, taking into account factors such as age, gender, socio-economic class and ethnicity.

“Along the traditional continuum of ‘Broad—General—Cultivated’ Australian English, we can confirm a significant weakening of class differences in these vowels and a convergence towards General pronunciation,” says James. “And in some cases, it seems that the 2nd generation Italian Australians adopted the changes before the Anglos.”

Simon Gonzalez, a specialist in computational analysis of linguistic data, says that the main motivation is to find out how Australian English is changing and where these changes are coming from.

“To do this, we need to harness the latest technology to do fine-grained acoustic analyses on large samples of conversational speech,” he says.

James and Simon, whose postdocs with the Centre end this year, are justifiably proud and particularly excited about the potential of the Sydney Speaks corpus.

“It’s a large corpus of spontaneous speech capturing a cross-section of Sydney society,” says Simon. “So there are any number of features that it can be used to investigate.”

“It’s truly a unique opportunity here at the Centre to document Australian English and better understand language change,” adds James. “In the way that biologists might look at changes in genes from one generation to the next, we look at language change across generations.”

And what motivates the change?

“Some people argue that the cultural cringe is a thing of the past, and that in shifting to a uniquely Australian norm, we are embracing our ‘Australianness’,” says Catherine. “It’s certainly possible that our changing demography has recast what it means to be Australian.”

But that is a conversation for another day, and another study…


To discuss what these changes could be saying about Australian society, you can catch Catherine, James and Simon when they present their latest findings at a public seminar at the ANU on ‘The role of ethnic minorities in variation and change: Vowels in Australian English’, on Friday 24 May.

(Main image, L to R: James Grama, Catherine Travis and Simon Gonzalez Ochoa. Think you know Sydney accents? Try out your perceptions on the Sydney Speaks app.)

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University