How to write Australian dialog
May 6, 2014 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Short of being in Australia*, I'm writing a story that takes part in Sydney, Australia. Are there any online resources, etc. that could give me an idea who to write dialog that an Australian citizen would speak (certain phrases, slang, etc). *(Warning to Australia, I'll be visiting next year)
posted by acquiredtarget to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just a tip here, as I've read (and written) stuff in a dialect other than my own: you should follow the Chanel rule. “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

Write what you want, and then take one thing -- or more -- out. You will almost always be overdoing it in an attempt to show that you've done your research.

There's really no substitute for having someone from that area look it over, even if it's someone from Australia and not Sydney proper. I'd imagine non-Sydney people could still give a pretty good approximation, though.

Here's a blog/post you might like.

posted by Madamina at 12:08 PM on May 6, 2014

It's not too difficult to sprinkle in some local dialect markers of Australia, but dialogue will still come out fake-sounding unless you're really good at spotting all the unintentional markers of your own home dialect. If you know anyone in Australia, ask them to read it over to pick out all the (American/wherever you're from) pieces.
posted by aimedwander at 1:28 PM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just as an indication of the variations within Australia: I grew up and live in Adelaide, and I wouldn't feel confident writing for a Sydney-based character based only on a knowledge of general Australian colloquial English use. You'll need specific information on 'Sydney' Australian English.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:36 PM on May 6, 2014

I was born and bred in Sydney but I'd worry some of my slang was picked up from other sources and not "pure".

No one these days lives in a cultural vacuum.

If you had something to look at I would be happy to throw some thoughts your way. But more Australian Australians are likely to come your way. There are a few of us here.

Also, I'm old and originally from the north shore. So that could be disqualifying.
posted by taff at 1:48 PM on May 6, 2014

And it's not just a matter of region. Sydneysiders speak differently to Adelaidians and but working class Melburnians speak differently to upper middle class denizens from Toorak Road. And then there's ethnicity... I'd take Madamina's advice to the extreme and take it all off. It's hard to sound authentic. The thing that bestows authenticity on speech is, well, authenticity. Good luck!
posted by firstdrop at 2:40 PM on May 6, 2014

It's not only Sydney vs Other-city accent, it's the era as well that will make a difference to the slang used. 1980s slang is different from 2014 slang, and the ages of the users will also make a difference. For example, young Sydneysiders these days will have a lot more international slang in their vocabulary.

However, if you want general aussie slang used by someone in working/middle class/tradie/small-business Sydney born in the middle/latter half of the 20thC, Madamina's link is a very good start. Alternatively, read a few Robert G Barrett books about a bouncer from Bondi called Les Norton.
posted by Kerasia at 3:51 PM on May 6, 2014

It's not just slang either. Australian English manages to be less polite than American English (for example, we don't use ma'am or sir; people who work in customer service tend to be friendly but not deferential) but retain many of the polite 'fillers' of British English (for example, "would you mind picking up some milk on the way home" rather than "buy some milk please").

Slang can also be a marker of class and gender. Men use more slang than women and educated people use less slang in general conversation. Women seldom use 'mate' and would be more likely to say "I think" rather than "I reckon". Men will use more slang and Australianisms in a conversation with other men than with women.

You might have better luck making it authentic by using the non-slang words that are different. For example, Australians will walk on the footpath to the shops, not on the sidewalk to the store. They park their cars in garages or carports at home but car parks in other places, and they fill the cars with petrol not gas. We go to University, we're not in college. You should be able to find a list of these online.

One other thing I noticed on a recent trip overseas (by the way, Australians go overseas, not abroad) was that Australians use the second person singluar more than other English speakers to denote a general case. So for example, it's common to say "you can't do that" meaning "people in general can't or shouldn't do that" rather than the other person in the conversation.
posted by girlgenius at 4:30 PM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having lived in Australia and elsewhere, I can tell you that even when heavily slang-y, it's not overtly different than English dialog elsewhere - however, there are really subtle differences that end up tripping up non-Australians that (to me) don't even seem like they should be a problem.

For instance, I get a lot of glazed looks over "bugger all" (nothing), and spelling things with a Zed rather than a Zee takes some translation. There's also the shortening of everything to "-a" (McDonalds becomes Maccas for instance) but that's a tricky one to get right.

And yeah, the above notes about city and era making a difference are key. For reference, this is based on living in Brisbane and mostly hanging out with 20-to-35-year-olds that are somewhat internationally aware, as well as some time spent in Sydney, Melbourne, and random cities.
posted by divabat at 5:18 PM on May 6, 2014

Oh and people swear more freely there - it's not a huge deal to pepper your speech with "fuck".

And to quote DeAnne Smith, "casual racism is quaint!" but I'm not sure how you'd portray that in your story without context.
posted by divabat at 5:19 PM on May 6, 2014

On divabat's point about casual racism - some of this manifests because Australians genuinely don't see some things as racist while others do. To give you an example: I work with two Americans at the moment. Yesterday, someone mentions in passing that this statue is nicknamed The Yellow Peril. Australians file this useful fact away for future games of pub trivia, Americans scrape their jaws off the floor and burble outrage. So you can work in some casual racism if you want to without needing to create a character against whom it is directed.
posted by girlgenius at 5:25 PM on May 6, 2014

I would write the story without Australian slang and get an Australian editor to make minor adjustments. I've read Australian slang done badly and it is painful.
posted by bhnyc at 6:04 PM on May 6, 2014

The yellow peril is more a play on words than a casual racism. It was so derided for its shape and colour, that is was thought of as a peril to Melbourne's reputation for good taste.
posted by Kerasia at 6:11 PM on May 6, 2014

Kerasia, I think you're making my point. It is a play on words, if you're Australian. My American colleagues' gut reaction was to see phrase "yellow peril" as having a racist connotation (they hadn't seen the statue in question).
posted by girlgenius at 6:46 PM on May 6, 2014

I understand your point, girlgenius, but you suggested you can work in some casual racism if you want to without needing to create a character against whom it is directed. Using a phrase (such as the Yellow Peril nickname) to infer casual racism, when it has no racist connotations for the person using it, is not accurate.
posted by Kerasia at 8:30 PM on May 6, 2014

I found a copy of the Penguin book of Australian Slang before my trip there 10 years ago.
posted by brujita at 1:11 AM on May 7, 2014

Definitely less is more. I have read books that I thought were written by someone trying to sound Australian and failing, only to discover that actually they were from Sydney. Obviously when feeling sick, Melburnians don't "chunder" but Sydneysiders do - or at least that particular author did!

I would really recommend watching some Australian TV shows. This may be hard to do (depending where you are) but thanks to the joy of the internets this is a bit easier. Offspring is set in Melbourne but is pretty spot-on. You can get bits of Love My Way as well, and that was set in Sydney. Both shows would give you a sense of the irreverence in speech as well as the idioms and specific words that are one of the first things I noticed when I moved here. (Massive spoilers if you watch bits online though.)

Other things that might be helpful: a somewhat more comprehensive online Australian dictionary, with some cultural context, and the Australian Word Map which tracks dialectical variations. (For example the slice of potato dipped in batter and deep-fried, available at most fish and chip shops, is called a "potato cake" in Melbourne and a "potato scallop" in Sydney.) At the moment it seems to be down but I have used it recently so hopefully it's just temporary.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:27 AM on May 7, 2014

Using a phrase (such as the Yellow Peril nickname) to infer casual racism, when it has no racist connotations for the person using it, is not accurate.

That is exactly a strong example of how casual racism manifests in Australia: casually using really racially charged terms and not seeing how they can be troublesome. It could be the Yellow Blight or the Yellow Eyesore or whatever, but no - it's using a term already well established.

I've had conversations with a Canadian neighbour in Brisbane about "esky" (icebox) and similar examples of Australians randomly using terms and not recognising why some people don't find those terms so value-neutral.
posted by divabat at 9:58 AM on May 7, 2014

Thanks a lot for the answers. They're all extremely helpful. Thanks!
posted by acquiredtarget at 5:30 PM on May 7, 2014

Somewhat tangential on the racism topic, but as an expat American in Australia, I still can't get over the use of the term "coloured" to refer to pinto/paint/particolored horses. Not sure if that actually counts as casual racism, but goodness it gives me a weird little twinge every time someone says something about "the little coloured one in the bottom paddock."

To be honest, I don't find there to really be enough of a speech difference between Sydneysiders and Californians (the two populations I'm most familiar with, linguistically speaking) to merit writing them in a different style, with the exception of, as noted above, the difference in terms for certain things and different spellings. (Kerb, not curb, separates the footpath, not the sidewalk, from the street; tyres, not tires, are on your car, which also has a windscreen, not a windshield, and a boot, not a trunk - these particular ones are held-over Britishisms. Et cetera.)
posted by po at 6:36 AM on May 8, 2014

Genuine question to people who find some Australian slang to be covertly racist... Is a term or name racist if it originated from a benign source? Eg: Esky is a 60yr old brand name of coolers made in Sydney. Coloured in relation to horses in Aust. is short for tri-coloured, also known as skewbald, but generally includes skewbald and piebald colouring. So, is it racist if it is not intended to have anything to do with race or people?

I know Australia has lots of overtly racist slang, especially against indigenous Australians and immigrants, but these two instances above seem to be overlaying racist terms from other cultures onto Australian language.

Slang, by its nature, has particular meanings for its users which may misunderstood if viewed superficially by outsiders. It takes skill when writing slang not to interpret it through one's own foreign cultural lens.
posted by Kerasia at 4:13 AM on May 10, 2014

Getting to this question late, but just wanted to suggest that you can watch a Sydney-based courtroom dramedy called "Rake" on Netflix (make sure you stream the original Aussie version, not the American re-make). It's full of Australian slang and idioms and is a pure joy to watch. (You'll probably need to turn on the captions to get it all.)
posted by amusebuche at 4:05 AM on May 25, 2014

« Older I need wide-legged, elastic waist, petite pants -...   |   Lawnmower and Oil (Please tell me no math is... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.