Australian informality

From tumblr:

Australia’s reverse-formality respect culture is fascinating […] Australians could not be trusted with a language with ingrained tiers of formal address. The most formal forms would immediately become synonyms for ‘go fuck yourself’ and if you weren’t using the most informal version possible within three sentences of meeting someone they’d take it to mean you hated them.

Twitter user Louise Johnson wrote in 2012:

I’m loving the Aussie habit of cutting long words down to no more than two syllos. It is not a nation of sesquies.

I grew up in the UK in the 1980s, so for a long time Neighbours was my main source of information about Australian culture. Like many of my peers, I was equally baffled and charmed by the new words I learned. I used to “play Neighbours” with my friends, and when we’d finished fighting over who got to be Scott and Charlene, the street would echo with cries of “Rack off!” and “Stickybeak!”  Some of the words were normal words shortened for no apparent reason – I was quick to work out that “arvo” meant “afternoon” but I was an adult before it dawned on me that “ute” isn’t just the name of a car make – it’s short for “utility vehicle”. Then I was lucky enough to gain some wonderful Australian friends, and that’s when I realised that word-shortening is a quintessentially Australian speech habit.

There’s so much that could be written about the politics of shortening words. (I wrote a few years ago about shortening place-names.) Sometimes it’s about reinforcing in-group status by excluding and confusing out-groups. Sometimes it’s about saving time and ease of reference in an established group. Sometimes it’s about claiming ownership of the thing whose name you’re shortening. Sometimes it’s about affection. Sometimes it’s about contempt. My original hunch about the Australian compulsion to shorten words was that it’s not exactly about contempt, but that it shows a desire to stop people (or things) getting above themselves. And that hunch got stronger when I learnt that Melbourne’s La Trobe university created an area of campus called the Agora, only to find that students immediately renamed it the Ag.

But now? I wonder if the Aussie shortening of words is linked to the “reverse-formality respect culture” described above. Maybe the Agora is the Ag because people like hanging out there. So the name is shortened partly through laziness and affection, but maybe also because there’s a sense of respect for the space? I suppose for that hypothesis to be true, there would have to be examples of people, institutions and things that Australians do not respect and therefore always do call by their full names. And I don’t know enough about this to know if any exist. I would love to hear some more perspectives on this.

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One Comment on “Australian informality”

  1. Julieanne Says:

    As an ex-Aussie I can confirm that the shortening a word for a place, person etc is generally a form of affection. Maybe it’s laziness too(!), but I think mainly it’s a way of expressing fondness, and yes, respect for person/place etc.

    On the odd occasion it might work the other way though. I once worked with a manager whose surname was Brock. But everyone at work called him Brockie. He was well-liked and the extension of the name conferred affection. But here is where perhaps regional differences come into play. In Brockie’s case, we were in Melbourne, Victoria, but he had moved down from NSW (which we tend to call New South), and his previous colleagues there just called him Brock. I don’t know how representative this is though.

    But I do know Aussies like to add the ‘ie’ at the end of a word too. So possie for position: a good possie is a good place to sit. In this case it’s both affection but also some smugness that you got a good possie before the rest of the people/crowd arrived.

    There might be some occasions where you might shorten a word when it is derogatory, but it would be clear in the tone that this was the case.

    Gosh, I haven’t said or heard rack off in a long time.

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