How to Do an Australian Accent

Article Image
Photo Source: Kate Winslet in “The Dressmaker” Courtesy Universal Pictures International

Taking on a role that requires an accent can be a fun change of pace, but it can also prove a worthy challenge—both in practicing the speech and doing so respectfully and accurately. Some people have a natural talent for mimicking an accent after hearing it spoken, but others likely need a bit of practice to shape the accent and become comfortable slipping into it. 

Keep reading to learn how to do an Australian-English accent, from differentiating your dialects to exercising the right muscles.


Regional variations of the Australian accent

Daniel Radcliffee in 'December Boys'Daniel Radcliffe in “December Boys” Courtesy Becker Entertainment

As with most countries and languages, there are a variety of features that can mark an Australian accent, but each dialect doesn’t necessarily embody every feature. 

Variance in pronunciations or slang words often occurs depending on where a person has grown up. For example, when someone from the United States has a distinguishable accent, it’s pretty easy to determine if they’re from, say, Southern California versus upstate New York, Boston, or the southeast. But Australia really doesn’t have those indicators in their dialects. While you’re not likely to be able to tell if someone is from Sydney versus Perth by their accent, you can probably tell if they’re from a more urban or rural part of the country.

Different Australian Accents

A paper published for the 2010 Third International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining breaks down the three classifications of an Australian accent: broad, general, and cultivated. 

  • Broad: This is the accent that is most recognizable to non-Australian English speakers, as it’s the accent typically used in non-Australian media—but it’s historically associated with the working class. It’s more of a drawl than the other accents, with a slower speech pattern, longer diphthongs—two vowels combined to form one sound, like in “join” or “loud”—and a more nasal tone. In a broad accent, a word like “kite” sounds more like “koite.” Most people that speak with a broad accent are from more rural locations. The Crocodile Hunter aka Steve Irwin’s accent is a recognizable example.
  • General: The most commonly used accent today, the general accent is what you’ll hear in Australian-made media. It is less of a drawl accent than the broad accent, but still has distinctive pronunciation differences from, say, British English. Most speakers live in suburban to urban parts of the country. Hugh Jackman’s accent falls within the general category.
  • Cultivated: Often confused for British Received Pronunciation, the cultivated Australian accent adopts a lot of British pronunciation. It’s associated with more prestige or a higher level of education. Once more recognized by foreign English speakers, it has been fading out of use. Those with cultivated accents speak slower, with more enunciated vowels and a monotonous tone. Cate Blanchett speaks with a cultivated accent. 

At the time of the paper’s publishing, it was estimated that 34% of the Australian population spoke with the broad accent, 55% with the general, and 11% with the cultivated. Today, general speakers likely make up a larger percentage. 

According to actor-director and voice, speech, and dialect coach Paul Ricciardi, when it comes to the loss of the cultivated accent, “There are people who were taught to speak a certain way, and those voices still exist. College-educated folks who are now in their sixties, seventies, and older could have been introduced to this sound, [but] they aren’t really around much anymore because they’re not taught anymore.” So, in a play set in modern times, younger characters are less likely to speak with a cultivated accent than older characters. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the broad accent is becoming less exaggerated and blending more with the general accent. David Blair and Peter Collins suggested more than two decades ago that this could be the direct result of speakers trying to separate themselves from the stigmas associated with the working class.

Features of an Australian accent

Paul Hogan in 'Crocodile Dundee'Paul Hogan in “Crocodile Dundee” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Overall, some common features of an Australian-English speaker include:

  • Elongated diphthongs: The first sound in a diphthong tends to be much longer than the sound the second one makes, and many words have audible diphthongs though they are not spelled with two consecutive vowels. For example, “nice” sounds more like “noice.” The broader the accent, the more pronounced the diphthong. 
  • Elongated vowels: Australian accents draw out long vowels even further. For example, with a long “a,” you’ll typically hear it drawn out like ah-eh-ee. It helps to try it out slowly at first—draw out the word “plain” to sound more like “plah-eh-een.” Once you get the hang of it, the sound will be more condensed, like “pl-aye-n.”
  • Ghost vowels: Many words sound like they have vowels that don’t actually appear in their spelling. For example, when “u” comes after a consonant, there is usually a “y” sound that comes before it. For example, “music” sounds more like “myusic.” 
  • Dropped letters: Australian speakers tend to drop the “r” sound throughout words if it isn’t followed by a vowel, replacing it with an “ah” sound. “Car” becomes “cah,” for example. They also drop the hard “g” sound at the end of words, and soften “t” to sound like a “d.” For example, “wridin’” instead of “writing,” and “beddah” instead of “better.”
  • The intrusive “r”: On the other hand, some words sound like they have an “r” in or at the end of them, even when they don’t. This usually happens when a word ending in a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a vowel sound. For example, “draw it” can sound more like “drawer it.”
  • An overabundance of slang: Beyond shortening whatever words they can, Australians have a plethora of slang words in their everyday language. You probably already know Australians call their friends “mate,” but also try peppering in “having a blue” in place of “fight” or using “doovalacky” to describe something you can’t think of the name of. 
  • A questioning inflection: Australia’s not the only accent with an upward inflection, turning statements into questions, but it is a prominent example. It’s even been dubbed the Australian Question Intonation.
  • A nasal tone: This can be accomplished by widening your mouth, which lifts up the back of your tongue.

How to practice an Australian accent

Scene from 'Kangaroo Jack'“Kangaroo Jack” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The best approach to creating a dialect, Ricciardi says, is to go straight to the source, rather than trying to piece together an accent based on what you think it sounds like. “I always start with where the character is from,” he says. “So, for example, if you’re playing a character that was born and raised in a particular neighborhood in Sydney, then I would find what is called a donor.” In this case, a donor is someone from the same neighborhood that your character is from. Ricciardi would record them speaking as an example (or suggests IDEA, the International Dialects of English Archive, for finding pre-recorded donors). “Then, using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), I would transcribe all of the sound changes between the sounds of English as we know it and as I’m hearing it in the donor.” 

As you start breaking it down, keep these simple switches in mind: 

  • Turn “i” into “oi”: for example, “time” becomes “toime” 
  • Turn a soft “a” into “eh”: for example, “sat” becomes “seht” 
  • Turn a hard “a” into “aye”: for example, “state” becomes “st-aye-t” 
  • At the end of a word, “r” becomes “ah”: for example, “diver” becomes “doive-ah”

If you’re finding it difficult to adopt the dialect you want (or to maintain it), you may want to turn to a dialect coach. “The reality is that most actors won’t be able to do a completely authentic dialogue, so coaches will work with the actor to consistently change a number of key sounds,” says Ricciardi. And it’s important to rely on experts—be they your donor or your coach—so that you’re adopting a genuine version of someone’s speech pattern, rather than creating a caricature or inadvertently speaking in a way that’s disrespectful.

Differences between Australian, New Zealand, and British accents

Dev Patel in LionDev Patel “Lion” Courtesy Transmissions Films

There are also certain aspects of an Australian accent that make it easy to mistake for others, such as a British accent or a Kiwi (New Zealand) accent, by the untrained ear. It’s only logical that each of these accents would share similarities, given New Zealand’s and Australia’s history of British colonization, but it’s important to learn the differences if you’re going to speak authentically. The biggest thing to watch out for is your vowel pronunciation.

Difference between Australian and British accent

When it comes to comparing the Australian accent to the British accent specifically, Ricciardi, who is also an associate professor of acting and voice at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College, says that many of the other sound changes are the same. Both are non-rhotic accents, meaning that when an “r” comes before a consonant or at the end of a word, the sound is dropped. For example, “hard” will sound more like “hahd” and “baritone” will sound more like “bah-ritone.” This can make differentiating the two difficult. 

“Ultimately, the musicality of the Australian dialect is a bit softer than British,” he says. “It sounds slightly flatter.” But when it comes to the vowels, the differences can be much less subtle, especially when you compare the “a” sounds. In Australia, a hard “a” sounds more like “eye” and a soft “a” sounds more like “eh.”

New Zealand vs. Australian accent

A New Zealand accent, on the other hand, is mostly non-rhotic throughout, with some dialects being considered semi-rhotic. Ricciardi points to the vowel sounds again as the biggest indicator of the accent’s origin. For example, Australians often really draw their vowels out (like in the example of “plain,” where that long “a” sounds stretches from “ah” to “eh” to “ie”), while New Zealanders shift a lot of their vowels to sound like others. Take “fish and chips”: An Australian speaker will sound more like “feesh and cheeps,” drawing out that “ie” sound, whereas a New Zealander will shift the “i” to a “u,” pronouncing it like “fush and chups.”

How to perform an Australian accent

Andrew Lincoln and Naomi Watts in 'Penguin Bloom' Andrew Lincoln and Naomi Watts in “Penguin Bloom” Credit: Joel Pratley/Netflix

When the time comes to perform in your accent, warming up your voice effectively is just as important as if you were about to sing. You want to work on your articulation and breath control so that your brain and mouth are both ready to handle your unusual pronunciation. 

“Tension is the enemy of good dialect work,” Ricciardi warns. It’s important to ensure you’re relaxed, especially in the neck, jaw, and tongue. The Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, where Ricciardi teaches voice, refers to this area—plus the soft palate—as being like the Bermuda Triangle, where impulses are lost forever. “If your muscles are tense, then you, the actor, can’t be felt or heard.” This is similar to getting tongue-tied, which Ricciardi says means the actor’s brain is muddled. “If this area is relaxed, you’re more likely to embody the dialect.” 

Still, for an unfamiliar or uncomfortable speaker, it may be difficult to slip into or maintain an accent, even if you’re well-prepared. Don’t psych yourself out. “Actors often think of dialect as a costume piece—something that’s put on,” Ricciardi says. But the dialect is part of the character. “Since one of the fundamental ideas behind acting is that there is no character—that you, the actor, are the character—then you, the actor, have to find the dialect within yourself.”