Cheese for the bee-ah: a Limerick man’s struggle to learn Australian
I was not quite prepared for the assault on my senses the Australian accent would bring
That’ll be 900 Dollarydoos, mate: The Simpsons go down under
Mark Twain, almost bankrupt from a bad business investment, did a lecture tour in Australia from September 1895 to January 1896 and was captivated by what he found. “It is full of surprises and adventures ... incongruities and contradictions,” he wrote in his 1897 book Following the Equator.
Twain was fond of the people, describing them as having “English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out”. But this didn’t stop him having a crack at Australians’ propensity to turn an “a” spelling into a “y” pronunciation. He recalled a hotel chambermaid’s comments: “The tyble is set, and here is the pyper; and if the lydy is ready I’ll tell the wyter to bring up the breakfast.”
A century later The Simpsons set an episode in Australia and featured a local yokel who referred to the country’s currency as “dollarydoos” and had a barman trying to interest Marge in having a “bee-ah”. While the former was taking artistic licence with the Australian habit of infantilising language, the latter accurately portrays how the word beer is pronounced in most of Australia (in New South Wales the second syllable is dropped and people ask for an alcoholic beverage with the same word they would use to describe a creature that makes honey).
In 2011 Barack Obama, on a brief visit to Canberra, told a story about how US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq were confused by their Australian colleagues saying “cheese” when they were having a drink. They eventually twigged the Aussie soldiers were saying “cheers”, but dropping the r in their non-rhotic accent.
Computer says no
Irish woman Louise Kennedy knows how confused those American soldiers felt. Despite spending two years working in Australia as a vet, Kennedy failed a computer test to prove she speaks English well enough to get permanent residency.
I feel her pain. When I did my English-language test for permanent residency, it was while standing in front of a public servant in the department of immigration, not talking to a computer. I put on my best FM radio voice and the tester told me to stop after a few sentences of what I was asked to read. I had passed but my subsequent experiences of dealing with voice-recognition machines have made me realise I was lucky to have been dealing with a human.
When phoning automated services in Australia, I sometimes get so frustrated at the machine saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that, can you please repeat it” that I start swearing like a sailor on shore leave until I get through to an actual human being. If machines had feelings, those feelings would be hurt.
When I moved to Sydney 15 years ago, having taken years for my sensitive west Limerick ears to figure out that when RTÉ types said “rindabite” they meant “roundabout”, I was not quite prepared for the fresh assault on my senses the Australian accent would bring.
Watching a TV news report I could not for the life of me figure what this word “Pooth” was. When they showed a map I realised the newsreader was referring to the western Australian city Perth. It was an extreme example (newsreaders in Australia are prone to the same strangulation of vowels as some of their Irish counterparts), and not one that watching Home and Away or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo prepared you for.
Despite spending most of my adult life in Australia (and having a lovely Limerick accent), some people still can’t understand me. Sometimes it seems like I spend half my life spelling my first name, and even then people write it down wrong. I have utility bills that know me as Padrig and Podrig and I have to get people to repeat my email address because they always get it wrong.
But Australians have their own troubles with voice-recognition technology. Last month Amazon advertised that they were “seeking a linguist with an Australian background to join our data team”. The job involves transcribing and annotating speech and language data. The ad didn’t say so, but it’s probably to do with the Australian launch of Amazon Echo, a voice-recognition device with a digital personal assistant called Alexa.
Amazon is smart enough to know that there is no point in launching Echo if Alexa can’t understand the locals. If the Australian government’s immigration technology was that thoughtful, Louise Kennedy would have permanent residency now.