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What is Standard Australian English and why is it 'standard'?

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this resource may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

The BOSTES would like to acknowledge that some of the video clips used in this resource have been reproduced from the Education Department of Western Australia's resource, Ways of Being, Ways of Talk (2007) with their permission.

What is Standard Australian English and why is it ‘standard’?

The idea of a standard language can be a form of gatekeeping to disadvantage certain groups, but many Australians speak a non-standard English much of the time.

What is Standard Australian English and why is it ‘standard’?


I have to remind people that the notion of standard is often used as a kind of gatekeeping to disadvantage certain groups in saying ‘You speak non-standard’. If you think about everyday average Australians and whether or not they speak Standard Australian English, what is this Standard Australian? Probably a lot of Australians, if you want to categorise their English used on an everyday basis, wouldn’t be speaking Standard Australian English, they would be using, again we’re talking about Australian English has got a lot of variation from again acrolect to basilect and from heavy to broad Australian. But the whole issue is that we have to be mindful that the notion of standard is something that could be used to the benefit of people, but could also be used to the detriment and to disadvantage people.

As I said, a lot of people on a daily basis do not really use the Standard Australian English, so it’s not the case that Aboriginal English-speaking children speak Aboriginal English and the rest of the Australian society speaks Australian English. In fact, in a lot of cases we talk about how the notion of standard is politically motivated.

In some countries, standard is associated with the prestige and the social class. In some countries, the standard is associated with a geographical area, so people from the capital are said to be speaking the standard. In many cases, the notion of standard really is not determined by linguistic factors but by non-linguistic factors, as I said, political, geographic and all sorts, or level of education, so all sorts of non-linguistic criteria are used to determine who speaks a standard, so-called standard, variety of language. And we need, I think, as educators, we need to keep in mind that our notion, the use of the notion of standard should not necessarily be in a way to disadvantage people speaking in a particular way.

At the end of the day, we speak the way we’ve been brought up to speak and appropriate to the context in which we have been brought up.

In some countries standard is associated with prestige and social class. In other countries it may be associated with a geographical area such as the dialect spoken in the capital city. In either case, the notion of standard should not be used to disadvantage anyone.

How is Aboriginal English different from Standard Australian English?


Obviously, in those areas where Aboriginal English sounds more like ancestral Aboriginal languages, it’s easy to identify the variety through its sound system. But when it comes to more urban areas and where Aboriginal English-speakers sound more like speaking Australian English, it’s a bit more challenging to identify those features.

Still, there are features, for example, syntactic features, for example, ‘he’ and ‘she’ might just be used as ‘e’, one pronoun, syntactic grammatical variation, past tense might not be marked systematically, so the person says ‘I go yesterday’ instead of 'Iwent yesterday'. But of course, again depending on the context, these features vary. Semantics and lexicon is another important area. For example, some Aboriginal English words have different meanings from Australian English words. In some varieties of Aboriginal English, ‘deadly’ means ‘great’. The word ‘horse’ means ‘smart’. ‘Shake’ may mean ‘stealing’. ‘Kill’ might mean ‘hit’. So this is the area of semantics where Aboriginal English words may have either different meanings or added meanings, sometimes they have several meanings.

The use of some features such as the use of ‘unna’ at the end of a statement, might have several meanings, such as ‘isn’t it?’, or it can be used to emphasise something. Pragmatic features is another area where it’s not so much obvious that the person is speaking a different variety of English, and that’s where, for example, the person might ask a question and you understand the question in a different way. When someone says ‘Have you got the time?’, of course, you know the time. You can simply say ‘yes’ and walk away but you understand it to mean ‘Can you give me, can you tell me what time it is?’ This is the area of pragmatics and this is where a lot of differences exist between Aboriginal English and Australian English. For example, simply someone saying ‘I’m going to lunch’ could mean an invitation and this is really where a lot of misunderstandings have happened in the past.

But one of the most, in terms of the areas of research that we have done, one of the most important areas of subtlety in terms of the difference between Australian English and Aboriginal English when it comes to more urban areas is the conceptual level, and our research has shown that there are a lot of differences in terms of the underlying concepts and conceptualisations, which I will be elaborating on a bit more later.

All students come to school speaking the language they have been brought up with. This may be a completely different language, or a different variety of English. Whether it is a different language or a different dialect, it is not wrong, it is just different. Many people who use Australian English in a work context continue to use their home language or dialect with family and friends.

Aboriginal English speakers decide on which dialect to use depending on their message and who they are talking to


As a journo, it’s my job to write and present stories using Standard Australian English. But when I’m yarning with my family or with my mates, like my colleague Narelle Thorne down in Bunbury, I don’t talk using Standard Australian English. I use Aboriginal English.

Imagine if we were able to read the news using home talk.

‘Ay ya you mob, big fire was in town t’day.
They called 30 firefighters to pud id out.
After the big fire, there big storm.
It’s comin in da town, you fellas bedder move out or ya get blown away!!!’

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Aboriginal English, that might’ve sounded ‘funny’ or even ‘wrong’. Some people even dismiss it as just an inferior way of speaking. But for us, it’s the way we’ve grown up learning to speak. It’s normal. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way it is.

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What is Standard Australian English?