The diminutive in Australian English

In language, we have different forms of expressing endearment or how small something is. For people, we often notice this in names. In Russian, for example, the diminutive for names is often suffixed with a “-nya”, “-k”, or “-ka”. For instance, Alexander has Sashok or Shurochka, Fiodor has Fedyenka, and Danil (or Daniel) has Danya. I might have picked up the last example from chess YouTube videos featuring GM Daniel Naroditsky. In English, we do have some diminutive forms for names, which in turn could also be given names in English. We derive Chuck from Charles (as I learnt from reading the Peanuts comics), Charlie from Charles, and Liz or Lizzie from Elizabeth. To further give an example of endearment in English, we call someone “darling”, which derives from “dear”. The suffix “-ling” or “-let” is often spotted in English diminutive forms, but here, we will look at a variant of English that cranks this expression up a notch.

Australia. Known for its wildlife and in meme culture, how everything in there seems to have a thing against human life, the English spoken in Australia is also known not only for its accent, but also how extensive one can find the diminutive being used. “Barbie”, “arvo”, “footie”, these are some of the over 4000 identified diminutives in Australian English. Even the demonym, Australian, is also commonly expressed as Aussie, although we could find this form in other English dialects. Studies like the one by Roland Sussex published in 2004 in the Australian Journal of Linguistics have also tried to explore why so many of these forms are found almost uniquely in Australian English. However, we do find some overlap with diminutives in the English used in Scotland, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Before diving into the function, we should take a look at how the diminutive is generally formed in Australian English. From the patterns of words like “arvo”, “barbie”, “footie”, or even “Dacca”, we see that the diminutives of words in Australian English are very shortened, and typically end in sounds like “o”, “a”, “ie” or “y” (like in Chardy, for Chardonnay wine). Many of these words tend to be two syllables long, including the diminutive ending mentioned earlier. This suggests that the diminutive is typically formed from the first syllable of the chosen word, and the diminutive suffix. But how this suffix is chosen does not seem to follow an obvious pattern. McDonald’s is famously shortened to Macca’s, but the name Barry has a diminutive form of Bazza. Ambulances are called ambos and not ambie nor amba, and even the band AC/DC has Acca/Dacca.

Much like its extensive inventory of diminutive words, so too is its use in Australia. For some of these words, the diminutive form was almost always preferred by speakers, while for others, that preference could depend on the location, the state, or city the speaker is in. And of course, just like how our colloquial lingo changes (like, why does “no cap” suddenly mean “no lie” or “for real”), some Australian diminutives enter regular usage while some also fall out of favour.

But here is the more interesting bit. For some cases, the use of the diminutive in Australia is so common, such that the original word becomes less preferred than the diminutive. The Salvation Army is one of the more prominent cases, which is referred to as Salvo in Australia, such that the original name of the organisation is not recognised. Similarly, when people want to go to a delicatessen, people just say that they want to go to a deli. Even local areas can be given diminutives, but generally by the residents of that area or in the vicinity.

So, what about its function in speech? This is where, despite it being one of the things that make Australia Australia, there is not quite a solid explanation for its use. Diminutives are known to be generally used more often in colloquial conversations, suggesting that the more common use of diminutives serve to make conversations more casual or informal. Some sociolinguists have suggested that such usage can form and facilitate social cohesion, tying in to the values of mateship and solidarity in Australian culture. One study in published in 2019 however, sought to investigate how colloquial Australian English could affect social cohesion across social and linguistic (Australian or non-Australian English) backgrounds. They found that there was an association between shared accents or shared culturally significant words (cue Australian English diminutives) and within-group identity.

Additionally, new words keep arising, showing how speakers continually seek to form diminutives to support social cohesion. From technology-related terms like “lappy” (laptop) and “mobes” (mobile phones), to more colloquial slang like “totes” (totally), many shortened forms continue to arise, and some entering popular use. In fact, the word “iso”, while also meaning “isopropyl alcohol” somehow, has also come to mean “isolation”. This was popularised during the initial phases of COVID-19 in Australia, gaining ground to become named as the word of the year in the Australian National Dictionary Centre in 2020.

Although this phenomenon is not unique among the various variants of English, the usage of such diminutives in Australian English are so globally known, Australian stereotypes often include some of these words. You may have head of the phrase “shrimp on the barbie”, propagated by the Australian Tourism Commission for United States audiences in 1984. While the diminutive “barbie” is accurate, there are several elements this had that would annoy the Australian. For one, “prawn” is the word used in Australian English, and not “shrimp”. Other elements include things that would craft a rather cheesy or disrespectful image of Australia, so much so that that phrase is essentially disowned by the Australians. Perhaps a better example is the good old Macca’s, or perhaps getting a cuppa on your way to uni.

Further Reading

Kidd, E., Kemp, N., Kashima, E. S., & Quinn, S. (2016). Language, Culture, and Group Membership: An Investigation Into the Social Effects of Colloquial Australian English. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 47(5), 713–733.


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