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Gogglebox and what it tells us about English in Australia

Gogglebox, where you watch people watching TV. AAP Image/Foxtel, Nick Wilson

Gogglebox and what it tells us about English in Australia

The premise of Gogglebox may sound shallow to many: a TV show where you watch people watching TV. Yet the Australian incarnation of the British-born series is now in its fifth season, with a cult following and a 2016 Logie award ahead of programs with arguably more sophisticated premises, such as the ABC’s Australian Story and Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS.

Gogglebox’s charm comes from its familiarity. Viewers have tuned in over five seasons to visit the same households each week as they react to the same programs across all channels and genres. Importantly, the series gives viewers a fascinating snapshot of Australians’ diverse opinions.

Gogglebox is a kind of social-science-lite: a popcorn version of what real social scientists might investigate. For linguists like us it’s a fascinating snapshot of English in Australia: a nuanced and vibrant view that goes beyond stereotypes that Australian English is only about “ocker” English.

Australian English ≠ Alf from Home And Away

The first thing many people think of when it comes to Australian English is the “ocker” stereotype – a predilection for vulgarity, colourful euphemisms like those used by Home And Away’s Alf, and a love of shortening words.

Beyond “ockerisms”, Australians often search for regional differences. The “Great Scallop War of 2014” is a perfect case in point, when Australians across the country argued about the best name for deep-fried potato snacks.

But Australian English is richer and more dynamic than stereotypes suggest, and the Gogglebox participants illustrate this perfectly. We do see minor accent differences linked to geography, but more interesting is the diversity of speech that can be linked (though not perfectly) to a host of factors, including ethnicity, class and sexuality.

English in linguistically diverse households

Around one in five Australians speak a language other than English at home, and the Goggleboxers offer great insights into how language is used in Australia’s many bilingual households.

Anastasia and Faye are two middle-aged women with Greek heritage, which, for Anastasia in particular, is a great source of pride. They deploy what might typically be called an “ethnic broad” Australian English accent in conversation and, at times, we see codeswitching (language mixing) between English and Greek.

Gogglebox’s Sri Lankan Australian family, the Delpechitras, show generational differences in their accent, and demonstrate how quickly some Australian-born children of immigrants adopt local norms. The Delpechitra parents were born in Sri Lanka, are part of more recent waves of migration, and have a discernible Sri Lankan accent.

Their oldest child, Wendel, was born in Sri Lanka and retains hints of a Sri Lankan accent, but his siblings do not. Wendel’s slight accent shows us how difficult it is to acquire a native accent without prolonged childhood exposure. The Australian-born Delpechitra kids’ accents highlight how we converge on the speech patterns of our peers rather than our parents.

Similar to the younger Delpechitras, Asian besties Vivian and Zina have very few obvious features in their English that identify their ethnicity. Across the Goggleboxers of South Asian, East Asian and Greek heritage it becomes clear that while some speech patterns can be linked to ethnic identities, we can’t assume how an Australian of minority linguistic and/or ethnic heritage speaks English.

Social class doesn’t always drive how we speak

The rest of the regulars appear to be of Anglo-Celtic background, yet we can still see diversity in their English. This is attributable to factors such as age, education and class. But, as with the Goggleboxers of other ethnicities, stereotypes about these categories don’t always hold.

Since the mid 20th century, linguists have described Australian English accents as varying along a continuum from broad, through general, to cultivated. The broad end of the continuum has typically been associated with the working classes (think Steve Irwin). The cultivated extreme, associated with upper classes, was based on norms imported from British English.

Since at least the 1980s, this continuum has been contracting. Research by Felicity Cox and Sallyanne Palethorpe shows how the relationship between class and some features of Australian English is rearranging.

This gradual movement towards a general accent is nicely illustrated in the speech of Lee and Keith when compared to the Jacksons. In many respects the two families are comparable, representing two generations of “Aussie battlers”, but they have clear differences in their accents. Lee and Keith speak with a broad Australian accent (see below), yet the Jacksons speak the more general variety.

There has been an equally strong retreat from the cultivated accent. Mick and Di provide a good demonstration of the cultivated variety of Australian English, as do the older generations of the Silberys. These Australians would have grown up in an Australia where British-sounding Received Pronunciation was prescribed and prestigious, which you can hear when grandma Emily Silbery describes her blind date.

But in younger cast members the cultivated accent is used in a more ironic sense. Angie and Yvie demonstrate this in their “Prue and Trude”-style Kath and Kim features such as exaggeration of t-sounds (called frication):

To further explore the history of broad, general and cultivated classifications, Macquarie University provides an informative account of changes in Australian English over time.

Does a ‘gay’ accent exist?

The gay couple on the show, Wayne and Tom, appear to exhibit characteristics of what some try to characterise as a gay accent.

Linguists don’t have a good handle on what constitutes a gay accent, with some putting it down to hearers’ perceptions rather than anything that can be objectively observed in the speech of gay people. With Wayne and Tom ,though, there are examples of them using wide variations in pitch and greater use of vulgar language – features that some linguists believe are more prevalent in gay men’s speech. There are examples of this in the clip below.

Adam and Symon, a couple of hipsterish, non-gay Melburnians (also seen in the clip below), use these features less, providing a good point of comparison.

Across all the Gogglebox households, viewers hear a cross-section of Aussie society, all speaking English in slightly different ways. Pay attention to the nuances and viewers will realise that there’s more to Australian English than “ocker” and “ethnic”. Like all of us, the Goggleboxers speak in ways that reflect who they are, where they’ve come from and where they’re going.


Season 5 of Gogglebox is screening on Foxtel’s Lifestyle Channel and free-to-air on Channel Ten.