If you’re good with accents, you can probably recognise the difference between a southern American and the quintessential Bostonian twang. The same goes for a Cockney versus Scottish accent.
But can you distinguish differences in dialect across Australia?
These days it may not be as hard as you think, particularly when it comes to Melbournians. Start by simply asking them where they’re from.
They’re likely to respond by saying ‘Malbourne’, says linguist Dr Debbie Loake from Melbourne University.
Dr Loake has been looking at the mechanisms of sound change and said there is a specific sound change evident in Melbourne and Southern Victoria, where ‘el’ sounds are becoming confused with ‘al’ sounds.
A word like the female name ‘Ellen’ is commonly pronounced as the male name ‘Allan.’ Others include ‘salary’ instead of ‘celery’ or ‘talevision’ rather than ‘television.’
In her research Dr Loakes said she’s looked at speakers of all ages in Melbourne and Southern Victoria, as well as those in the border towns of Mildura and Albury-Wodonga.
“It’s something that’s not happening outside Melbourne, even on northern borders," she said. “No one in Albury-Wodonga or Mildura was producing a sound change at all.”
Dr Loakes calls it ‘geographical diffusion.’
“Generally sound changes happen because of little, slight differences. Basically it’s these little micro-processes that happen and they start impacting on the larger system.”
But why is it happening?
Dr Loakes understands it to be a physiological process, stemming from the way a listener interprets a word.
“It’s basically thought to be a misperception. So if I were to say a word like Ellie, my ‘e’ may sound very similar to an ‘a’ and it’s basically listeners misinterpret what is said.
“It’s as if people build up a store of how language should be. So people are constantly hearing ‘el’ with an ‘al‘ and so they start building up stores of how that word should sound and they produce that word similarly to what they hear around them".
She said generally people are unaware they're doing it which means the changes have a greater chance of spreading.
Could this result in distinct accents across in Australia?
Dr Loakes believes that as Australia becomes more diverse, this could be the case.
“The population is rapidly changing. And people do tend to talk like people in the community around them so it’s highly possible we’ll get more sound changes. Especially with respect to lots of migrants from elsewhere, so people taking WITH features of other people’s speech.”