Pondering Pronunciation

I’ve lived in Minnesota as an adult longer than I lived in Australia as a child. Most of my American friends would say I still have an Australian accent (at least until they meet my dad), but most of my Australian friends would probably say I have an American accent by now.

I guess that means it is neither one nor the other. There are still words I tend to say the Australian way, words I make an effort to say the American way, and words that now come naturally the American way. When I visit Australia, or even talk to another Australian some of those words slip back to the Australian pronunciation, and some remain American.

Some years ago I read a book titled Digging to America, and I wrote down this quote:

“. . . how long had she been in this country? And did she like it? Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine that maybe she didn’t always, instantly, come across as a foreigner.”

Wherever I go, I am that foreigner. Language is a funny thing. A series of things, though, have perhaps made me think about this more lately than usual …

  • Last summer I took my family to our first ANZAA event. It was so surreal to be surrounded by Australian and Kiwi accents and food after an hour in a car rather than a day in a plane.
  • In December my girls and I were hooked on Call the Midwife on PBS. So much so, that when one of them had a gift certificate to spend at Buffalo books, this is what she selected. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, just as I did the mini-series, but perhaps my favorite part was the unexpected appendix, ‘On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect‘. It made me think about the great similarities between Cockney and Australian, and it was interesting to see the hallmarks represented in that way.
  • In January I was able to be a guest speaker at a local elementary school when they were studying Australia. That always brings up both great questions about the language, and attempts by the kids to mimic my accent with varying success. Here are the slides from my presentation.
  • I’ve recently had cause to speak more regularly to an American Natalie, as I did yesterday, and every time I say that name it sounds foreign coming out of my mouth. Each time I think of my Australian childhood friend Natalie, and how the two names are so NOT the same.

Before I go any further, let me be clear with a couple of disclaimers

  • I don’t know nothing about the ‘right’ way to notate phonetics.
  • Language varies all over Australia, and even more so all over America. It is probably different where you are. This is just my own experience.

Anyway, to me there are a few words that come to mind which illustrate some pronunciation differences.


Australians have a tendency to shorten some 3-syllable words into 2 syllables. Natalie falls into this category (nat-ah-LEE vs NAT-lee), but rotary is the first one I dealt with. I was a Rotary exchangee, so had to say that word a lot! In Minnesota it is pronounced RO-tah-ree, while in Australia it is ro-TREE.

Now, even when I go back and visit my sponsor Rotary Club, it comes out as RO-tah-ree and I feel like it is the thing that immediately marks me as an American. The town of Westbury is WEST-bree, not west-BUR-ee. My childhood friend was NAT-lee, and my more recent acquaintance is NA-tah-lee.


While we’re on names, there’s also Barb. For years when I would refer to one set of my host parents as Mike and Barb I got confused looks. Eventually I came to understand that when I thought I was saying Mike and Barb, others were hearing Mike and Bob. It took several years longer to learn and remember to pronounce the R in Barb.

Now, my Australian friends can maybe not comprehend how Barb becomes Bob. Because Australians would put a short O in there (just the way it looks), but Americans make it sound more like Bahb.

By the way, here’s a fun post I found on the pronunciation of names with accents. Makes me wonder what my own family thinks of my weird pronunciation of their names, especially the ones with Rs in them … wow, I never thought about that before …


Here we go with the Rs again. I live on a farm within sight of a barn. My brother farms in Australia (not so many barns there though). In America the R is right there, jumping out at you … this time they are the ones who pronounce it just how the word looks. In Australia the R almost disappears, and becomes fahm. Barn becomes bahn.


This is one that still gets me … no one understands me at all if I don’t remember to say it the American way, and I don’t always remember. If you have ever served me in a restaurant or offered me a cold drink in your home I apologize. There are actually two separate issues with this word. Dictionary.com lists the pronunciation of the word as ‘[waw-ter, wot-er]’, and I think in these parts (Minnesota) it sounds to me more like ‘WAH-ter’. To make things fun, I have ‘issues’ with both parts.

The ‘wah’ comes out ‘wohd’, but not exactly. I’m sitting here saying it aloud over and over (good thing no one else is home)! Maybe ‘word’ … but it isn’t like the word ‘word’ at all because there is no ‘er’ at all and barely an ‘r’ … and I’m trying to think of another example, but if there is another word that starts like water it is eluding me …

The ‘ter’ is perhaps easier to explain. Just like barn and barb, the R disappears an becomes more of a ‘uh’. Butter becomes BUD-ah, hammer becomes HAM-ah, mother becomes MUTh-ah and so on.

Put them together and WAH-ter comes out WOHD-ah … or something like that. No wonder I confuse servers!


All of the other days essentially translate just fine, although in Australia they all end with a ‘dee’ instead of a ‘day’. Tuesday is particularly odd, usually pronounced CHEWS-dee. Australians think TOOS-day is equally odd. Same goes for tuna, TOO-na in America and CHEW-na in Australia (and sometimes in my kitchen). Other examples would be tune (CHOON) or tube (CHOOB) A similar thing happens to some D words … due is d-YEW in America but JEW in Australia and dune is pronounced d-YUNE while in Australia it sounds exactly the same as June.


I don’t say it often. It happens that I don’t tend to use even mildly questionable language much at all. But, there is something lovely about a word that sounds so coarse in American English becoming decidedly more refined. Almost like Violet Crawley might say it … almost.

Oh, and isn’t the class that rhymes with arse so much classier than the class that rhymes with ass?*

I love this blog post on Ass vs Arse🙂

Although the spelling doesn’t change, there is the same difference with grass.  The first time I realized my eldest child had noticed my accent she was about 3, we were walking along a grass roadside and I heard her singing to herself grass-grahss-grass-grahss.


Today, I was asked the inevitable question, “so where are you from.” I resisted the urge to say “Buffalo.” Yes, sometimes that is my actual answer, which never actually avoids the question they are really getting at. So, I  say “os-TRAIL-yah” … somewhere between the hos-TRAY-lee-ah I think people expect, and the uh-STRAY-uh inside my head. Of course, the one-syllable STRAYA also makes perfect sense to me, although I imagine that would be completely unintelligible to an American.

Assorted Links

* added 3/15


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