Aussie slang: why we shorten words

By Beau Gamble 12 September 2012
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Australian English has given birth to a flourishing fauna of diminutives.

WHEN IT COMES TO language, Aussies have a unique style. We wear boardies, eat bickies, drink coldies and have barbies. We are posties and pollies, ambos, vegos, Salvos and journos. And, if we’re feeling trendy, probs even chat on our mobes.

Not all of our diminutives are exclusive to Australia, but with more than 4300 recorded in our lexicon, Aussies use more clipped words than any other English speakers.

Sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society, Dr Nenagh Kemp, a psychologist at the University of Tasmania, is studying how and why diminutives are created.

“We don’t have a lot of information on this really essential part of our language and our culture,” Nenagh says. “It sounds obvious: we make words shorter to save us a bit of time and effort. But some diminutives actually make words longer, like Tommo for Tom. And we don’t really save a lot of time by saying barbie instead of barbecue. I think we all have an intuitive feeling that these words also make an interaction more informal, more friendly and relaxed.”

Aussie slang: does it make us more interesting?

Nenagh and Dr Evan Kidd, at the Australian National University, in Canberra, are running experiments in which participants either use or avoid diminutives in conversation. A partner then scores them on various personality traits, to answer the questions: Are slang-heavy speakers perceived as friendlier? More likeable? Less intelligent?

“If you’re someone who speaks to groups – say, a politician – it could be interesting to know whether these kinds of words make you seem friendlier, or perhaps more condescending,” Nenagh says.

Word lists collected in the past few years show that older Australians are more likely to think of slang with “o” endings (muso, smoko). Younger people still come up with those, but less frequently. Modern trends are to chop the ends off words (uni for university) and affix an ‘s’ to the first syllable (think awks for awkward).

Nenagh is taking these studies a step further by asking people to create Australian-sounding slang from made-up words such as chent and commarine. It will provide the first experimental data on how different age groups treat this type of Aussie wordplay.

“Some people accuse younger generations of spoiling our language with all these diminutives,” Nenagh says. “But the earliest examples are from the 1800s. It’s a long tradition, not a modern laziness.”

Despite that, Nenagh can’t see herself adopting some of the latest lingo. “I’m kind of bemused by the trend of saying mobes for mobiles, or totes for totally,” she says. “I use some shortened words, but those just sound silly to me.”

Source: Australian Geographic (Issue 109, July-August 2012)