Why we shorten barbie, footy and arvo

By Emma Young 2 August 2010
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
New research looks at why Aussies use abbreviated slang terms.

IF YOU’D LOST YOUR mobes in Melbs at a barbie on a Sunday arvo you couldn’t be anything but Australian. In fact, Australians use abbreviations and diminutives more than other English-speakers – and a new study is trying to find out why.

“There are many theories,” says Nenagh Kemp, a psychologist specialising in language at the University of Tasmania, who’s leading the work. “Australians who use these diminutives might be trying to sound less pretentious, more casual and more friendly than they would by using the full words.”

Nenagh and her colleague Evan Kidd at La Trobe University in Melbourne have asked more than 100 Australians aged 18-90 to write down as many abbreviations and diminutives (which can be shorter or longer than the original word) as they could think of in 10 minutes.

Abbreviations and diminutives of the Aussie language

The most common words they’ve identified so far were barbie (barbecue), arvo (afternoon), footy (football), sunnies (sunglasses), rego (registration), servo (service station), brekkie (breakfast), cuppa (cup of tea) and sanga (sandwich).  But people also came up with a lot of abbreviations for brand names, like Maccas, Woollies, Blunnies (Blundstone boots), Subie (Subaru) and Suzy (Suzuki).

While there’s a good deal of overlap between the abbreviations used by older and younger Australians, there are also seems to be some differences. Nenagh and Evan’s preliminary analysis of their results suggests that older people use ‘cosier’, family-oriented words like cardi, lippy, rellies and oldies more often than younger people.

Younger people were more likely to come up with technology-related words, like lappy (laptop), webby (webcam), remi (remote control) and mobes (mobile phone). “So it’s not a dying part of Australian English, but one that is continually being added to as different words come into the language,” Nenagh says.

Aussie slang promotes social cohesion

Nenagh and her student Jo Underwood now plans to play recordings of people using these words to volunteers, to see how they respond. She wants to find out what people think about the speaker – whether they do seem more relaxed and friendly, for example.

And she’d also like to find out whether a conversation with someone who uses lots of diminutives makes the other person start to do the same. “If the use of diminutives in one speaker encourages it in another, these words can be seen to have a social cohesion role, as well as other potential roles,” she says.

The new study sounds very useful, says Roland Sussex, an expert on Australian language at the University of Queensland, who has compiled a dictionary or about 5,000 diminutives. “We have more of them than anybody else and use them more than anybody else – but exactly what the psychological motivation is, is difficult to say.”