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Department of Linguistics

studying speech

Voice Portrait

For some other interesting examples of the changing Australian English accent, visit in the past.

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spoken language

an overview

Phonetics is a subfield of linguistics and comprises the study of human speech production and perception.

To describe an accent we have to look at the kinds of speech sounds (vowels and consonants) that are used and how these are put together into words and phrases. It's also important to look at the stress and intonation patterns that are used. The vowel system is particularly important in differentiating accents.

To record and compare differences in accent, linguists break words down into their component sounds called phonemes. For example, the spoken word "walk" contains just three phonemes, the word "music" has six phonemes. The word "car" spoken by an Australian English speaker has just two phonemes and doesn't have an "r" sound at the end.

what to listen for?

how do accents vary?

Accents vary:

  • systemically: the number and type of sounds that are used to contrast words (phonemic system). Australian English has the same phonemic system as Southern British English but differs from American English.
  • phonetically: how the sounds are physically made. This relates to the characteristics of the individual sounds (phones) but also to how the sounds change in different contexts (allophones).
  • phonotactically: the position of different sounds in the structure of words. For instance, Australian English does not have "r" sounds before consonants or pauses but Irish English does.
  • lexically: what sounds occur in particular words. For example, in Australian English "dance" may be pronounced in two different ways; with a short or a long "a" sound.
  • suprasegmentally: what intonational patterns are present.

analysing data

using symbols to represent specific sounds

Linguists use special symbols to represent speech sounds. It is not possible to use the letters of the alphabet because there are only 26 of them but there are over 40 vowel and consonant sounds of English. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a standard system that is used for representing the sounds of the world's languages. Linguists select a subset of symbols from the IPA to represent the phonemes (important speech sounds) of each particular language. In Australia there are two main systems for representing spoken Australian English. Both systems use the same set of symbols for consonants but differ in their vowel symbols. The Mitchell (1946) system is the traditional system and is employed by the Macquarie Dictionary. The newer system of Harrington, Cox and Evans (1997) uses vowel symbols that more accurately reflect current Australian English pronunciation.

Information about how to transcribe Australian English speech sounds can be found at the Macquarie Linguistics Department's teaching pages at the following URL: http://clas.mq.edu.au/speech/phonetics/transcription/broad_transcription/broad_transcription.html.

Further information about the International Phonetic Alphabet can be found at IPA: The International Phonetic Association.