Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).
Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.
It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:
- Broad – think of the late Steve Irwin (link). The accent is alive and well in the fantasyland of TV – listen to how every single “Australian” speaks in S4, Ep 6 of the TV series The Crown. Sometimes this has been called “Strine”.
- General – Margo Robbie (link). This is actually how most Australians speak today.
- Cultivated or refined – (some writers suggest Cate Blanchett (link) is an example, but this writer tends to the view that she too, speaks with a general accent. Instead try this comparison – Australia’s Prime Minister Robert “Bob” Hawke in 1983, with his broad accent, and an Australian Broadcasting Commission “4 Corners” reporter, with the (now uncommon) cultivated accent, discussing the forthcoming royal tour by Charles and Diana (link).
Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too).
In a very good survey of contemporary Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.
Jane E Southcott has written of concern amongst politicians and the efforts made in South Australian schools to improve Australian speech. She cites School Inspector Maughan reporting in 1912 that “a few minutes spent daily in the practice of pure enunciation would to much to eliminate what is known as ‘the Australian twang.'” Similar sentiments were undoubtedly felt throughout the rest of Australia.
1. Australian accents – tending to broad.
The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.
Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).
The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:
- Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)
Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood.
Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
- Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).
Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.
- Bill Kerr’s (1922-2014) exaggerated Australian accent and stories featured in his popular British act, the “Man from Wagga Wagga”. Here is an example from 1951. Below, however, is an example of Kerr without the broad accent, singing with Joy Nichols.
2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians
Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.
- Daphne Pollard (1891-1978) sings “The Ragtime Germ” for the stage review Zig-Zag! (UK: 1917).
Daphne Pollard (from Melbourne) had a very long career with other Australian child performers in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company before branching out on her own. She first appeared in Hollywood films in the late 1920s. By the mid 1930s she had largely retired. She is credited with composing this song with Cass Downing and John T. Murray.
Audio from recording in the author’s Collection. Photo from author’s collection c 1920.
- Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).
The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.
- Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).
Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.
3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution
Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools, the only schools that could provide a pathway to universities and better careers. Today these schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts. In the early twentieth century, for these middle class Australians, there was probably a self consciousness about accents, and therefore a desire to speak without any hint of a colonial upbringing.
- John Wood (1909-1965) from Sydney and Mary Maguire (1919-1974) from Melbourne and Brisbane in a clip from Black Eyes (UK: 1939).
Wood had attended the prestigious Shore School, (Sydney Church of England Grammar School, at the same time as Errol Flynn) while Maguire had attended the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Melbourne, the city’s oldest Catholic girls’ school. Maguire almost certainly had additional speech and acting lessons in Hollywood, before moving to England in 1938. This film was set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the two young Australians play Karlo and Tanya.
Interestingly, not long after, Wood told a journalist that Australian accents, presumably his, were preferred by some British producers to an Oxford accent.
Copy of the film in the author’s collection. The DVD is widely available. Publicity photo of Maguire and Wood in An Englishman’s Home 1939, author’s collection.
- Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).
O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.
Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But of all Australians, those who had been to private schools probably already had a “drawing room accent” – meaning they had little accent to lose.
Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection
- Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).
Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.
- Newsreader Michael Charlton welcomes viewers to Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Television station in 1956. Charlton later worked on British TV, but is Australian born.
4. Australian accents – tending more general
The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.
- Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .
Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.
- Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.
Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). One wonders whether her accent might have some American pronunciations?
Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.
- Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.
Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
5. Some other Australians speak
- Errol Flynn (1909-1959) in a 1959 episode of The Goodyear Theatre – The Golden Shanty (US 1959) (Click to watch). Although Flynn went along with the studio story he was Irish etc., he made almost no attempt to speak with anything other than his general Australian accent. In this case, it is ironic that one of his last performances was an adaptation of a popular Australian goldfields story by Edward Dyson.
One can watch his first, very wooden outing in film 25 years earlier, In The Wake of the Bounty (Aust 1933) here (Click to watch). His accent is the same. It is occasionally claimed he “picked up” his accent during his two years at an English boarding school.
- Florrie Forde (1875-1940) – a compilation of songs sung in the film Say it With Flowers (UK: 1934 (Click to watch). As Theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, Forde identified as Australian all her life, and according to many, sounded so.
- Chips Rafferty (1909-1971) – in an extract from The Overlanders (UK 1946). Rafferty was perhaps the best known Australian actor of his generation using a broad accent. He can also be heard here, being interviewed in 1971 by ABC reporter Rod McNeil.
- Enid Bennett (1893-1969) – Examples of Bennett’s accent can be found here. General perhaps?
Further Reading on Australian accents
- Desley Deacon. Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 (2013)
From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918
- Louise Bennet (6 Sept 2017) University of Melbourne, Pursuit. Why doesn’t modern Australia have more diverse regional accents?
- Felicity Cox, Sallyanne Palethorpe (2020) Macquarie University. Accent change – different generations of speakers. Timeline of Accent Change
- Jane E Southcott (2006) Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, Vol 28, No1, October 2006. Changing the Voices of Teachers and Children: Singing and Elocution in South Australia in the Nineteenth and Early twentieth Century.