TWELVE Australian universities are collaborating on building the first known national database of spoken Australian English.
Studies and research assignments in past decades have made recordings of the way we speak, but they are fractured and much smaller than this AusTalk project, which is driven by the University of Western Sydney's MARCS Institute.
In the past three years, more than 700 people from every state in Australia have spent three sessions reading a prepared list of words and sentences, talking with another volunteer and discussing an interesting event in their life, all while their voices were being recorded.
Nineteen people on the Sunshine Coast took part. Their ages ranged from early 20s to 60s and they represented the three basic categories of accents: broad, general and cultivated.
"Some were farmers and we had a few who were staff or students from the university," University of the Sunshine Coast lecturer in education Dr Michael Carey said.
"And we had one cultivated speaker.
"There was a mix of representation in terms of sociolects, that is, accents related to social class.
"The majority of Australians are more likely to be broad or between broad and general."
What differentiates a broad speaker from a cultivated one?
"It's all about vowels, word choice and grammar," Dr Carey said.
"If someone says 'I seen you' or 'you done good', it's a marker of being broad.
"And with vowels, a broad speaker like Julia Gillard has an onglide for the E vowel. So for the word meet, they will say 'merh-eet', but a cultivated speaker would say 'miit' (shorter, more clipped).
"It's the same with the A diphthong. A broad speaker says maay-te for mate, as opposed to mate (as in wait).
"The general thinking is Australia is very homogenous in its accent. It is not like the UK where you go 100 miles up the road and native speakers sound completely different.
"This study generally is interested in looking at how much Australians vary regionally."
But what is the point?
"We are assessing tone, word formation and the way Australian English has evolved since the last time recordings were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s," Dr Dominique Estival, from MARCS, said.
"We wouldn't expect a truck driver or an English teacher to speak the same way, but we need to document that.
"We are hoping this will serve as a record that can be used in any linguistics research.
"When you call a taxi or the airport, you get speech recognition systems that try to analyse your voice.
"We can also build teaching materials for deaf children so we can tweak cochlear implants.
"The English language around the world is fragmenting, so you get more differences in spite of globalisation because people want to keep their own identity through their language.
"But not everybody in the world is using English in the same way and some differences are becoming more and more noticeable. People don't want to talk like an American TV series."
Dr Carey, who has a speech science background including involvement in the Australian Voices Macquarie University study in 1999, said the data could be used to improve speech- and facial-recognition security systems.
Dr Estival, a Frenchwoman who did her PhD in America and now works at an Australian university, said the goal was to have all the project's data collected by November 15.
Anyone wanting to access the data will be able to download it for free after logging in.
Dr Estival said the project could evolve to include immigrant speakers of English as a second language, an area of interest for Dr Carey.
She is working on a study into aviation communication examining the issue of non-native- English-speaking pilots talking to air traffic controllers and the communication problems that arise.
THE ART OF SPEECH
- While Australia does not have formal dialects, there is no doubt people from different states speak differently.
- Go to South Australia and hear the locals put a very posh spin on the words chance, dance, France and plant.
- Go to Queensland or New South Wales and hear the natives draw out every letter of words like pool and school.
- Go to Victoria and ask someone to say the word "castle" or try to figure out if they are discussing celery or salary.
For more information visit clas.mq.edu.au/voices/
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