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Dec 14, 2015

From milk bars and potato cakes to delis and fritters: a taste of Australian English regionalisms

In Australia, we sometimes have multiple words for the same thing. Sydney Kingstone reports on her current research into who says what where.


Do you wear bathers, cossies, swimmers or togs to the beach? Do you shop at a milk bar, a deli, a corner shop or a corner store? These debates are more relevant than ever right now, judging from the media frenzy surrounding Australian English regional dialect variation. From an article published earlier this year profiling my PhD research, to the viral maps produced by the Linguistics Roadshow, interest in regionalisms in Australia has recently sky-rocketed.

While many Australians claim to recognise where other Australians are from based on the words they use or the way they pronounce things, many early linguists considered Australian English to be a regionally homogeneous variety, with only recognisable sociolects. Linguistic interest in Australian regionalisms took hold in the 1980s with Pauline Bryant’s PhD research into regional lexical differences. Bryant’s PhD proved the regional homogeneity theory wrong, as her work showcased widespread regional differences within the Australian English lexicon. A number of phoneticians have also examined regional sound differences across Australian English, with research projects such as Australian Voices and AusTalk once again demonstrating established regional variation.

My new project is taking a closer look at regional variation in Australian English, exploring questions such as: How has the language captured in Bryant’s PhD changed over the past 30 years? Are people still using the same words in the same places? Or has there been dramatic change in lexical variation? Does pool rhyme with fuel or rule? Can people actually recognise a South Australian from a Western Australian from a Victorian? My results not only look at reported regional lexical and phonetic differences, but also take into account social and cultural identity factors that may play into these differences. For example, does South Australia’s free-settled statehood play into its residents’ identities – and is this related to the maintenance of a British-sounding ‘long a’ in words like dance?

Data collection is ongoing, but here are a few of the intriguing preliminary results for lexical variation so far:

What do you call a small homemade hill trolley?


The data show that most people use billy cart and go-cart. However, some older speakers –particularly from Western Australia and South Australia – call them hill trolleys. And only a handful of older speakers from South Australia refer to the carts as bitzers, which could show a shift away from this term as younger speakers show a preference for other words.

Slices of potato dipped in batter and deep fried.


This is a classic regional shibboleth. Many Australians can recognise a South Australian for eating fritters and a Victorian for loving potato cakes, while people from NSW love scallops and Queenslanders eat potato scallops. Did you know that younger kids are calling them hash browns? And that Western Australians is all over the place with names for them?

What do you call a small, thin pin worn in hair?


While most Australians surveyed call these little hair pins bobby pins, hairpins is a term also used throughout Australia. Hairclips is regional to South Australia, Victoria, and southern NSW, while Tasmanians are the only Australians to refer to them as hairslides.

What do you call a thin band made from rubber?


Did you know Western Australians call them lacky bands? Or that Victorians call them lacker bands? Both forms come from elastic band, which is primarily used by speakers from New South Wales and Victoria. The Australia-wide term is rubber band, which is the term predominantly used in Tassie, NT, and Queensland.

What do you call a small shop selling groceries and general goods?


Most respondents from Western Australia and South Australia say they go to a deli to buy ice cream treats, while most Victorians buy them at milk bars. People from Tassie, NSW, NT and Queensland shop at either corner stores or corner shops.

So the next time you argue over where to buy your icy poles or by-jingos – remember there is no right word – it’s all relative (or in this case, regional).

If you’re interested in taking part in the research, follow this link. Get your family and friends involved as well – the more data, the more interesting the results!

Sydney Kingstone is a PhD researcher in linguistics at the Australian National University. She is interested in how language attitudes influence regional and sociocultural language variation. When she’s not creating surveys for her thesis, she’s busy documenting her baby’s language acquisition. 

[Editor’s note: interactive versions of the maps above can be found here].


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2 thoughts on “From milk bars and potato cakes to delis and fritters: a taste of Australian English regionalisms

  1. David Moncrieff

    My economics prof, Geoff Harcourt, used to refer to delis as ‘ham and beef stores’ and the same phrase is used in Louis Stone’s book Jonah, if I recall it correctly.

  2. Suzanne Blake

    Miss the old Milk Bars….


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