Australian English is difficult for actors to perfect. Now there’s a guide helping silver screen stars say our slippery vowels.

Hollywood actors have found the Australian accent a notoriously tough nut to crack.

Megastars including Elizabeth Moss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr, Kate Winslet and Dev Patel have all given it a shot, with varying degrees of success. But cringeworthy Aussie accents in films could soon be a thing of the past.

Linguistics researcher Professor Catherine Travis has developed a guide for actors and dialect coaches, focusing on the tricky Australian vowels. The Sydney Speaks project is based on her work documenting changes in the way Australian English has been spoken over the past 100 years.

“We know that once people reach the age of 20, their language is generally pretty fixed, so someone in their 50s will carry the idiosyncrasies of the language 30 years prior,” Travis says.

“We’ve documented and compared Australian speech patterns used across five different age groups from people born from the 1890s to 1990s. We used recordings made in two time periods, the 1970s and the 2010s.

“As a result, we have an enormously rich resource which allowed us to produce the first comprehensive guide to the Australian accent prepared specifically for the performance industry.”

As more Australian stories are brought to life on screen, we are seeing more of these roles played by foreign actors, Travis says.

Winslet has attempted to replicate the Australian twang twice — first in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! and then as Tilly Dunnage in The Dressmaker. Her efforts are generally thought to be among the best captured on camera.

“There’s a firm belief that the Australian accent is one of the hardest to master. The key is understanding our vowels and how they have changed over time,” Travis says.

“Meryl Streep was famously mocked when she played Lindy Chamberlain, but people forget Lindy was actually from New Zealand, so Meryl Streep’s vowels were trying to accommodate that.

“We’ve all heard American and English people trying to imitate our much-loved salutation g’day mate and getting it wrong because they treat mate and might and day and die as near homophones.”

According to Travis, until now,there has not been a comprehensive profile of the full set of Australian vowels prepared with the performance industry in mind. The constant evolution of language makes things even trickier.

“Vowels are slippery things and can change depending on what sound follows them. The vowel in words like hand and stand used to sound the same as back, bad or catch, but in the speech of today’s young people, they sound quite different,” Travis says.

“These things happen gradually, so we give average vowel positions to provide coaches with clear points of reference, but we also highlight the range of variability and window of acceptability for any vowel’s pronunciation at particular points in time.”

Actors often spend a lot of time working with a voice coach to get these distinctions right. Patel was lauded for his accurate accent as Saroo Brierley in Lion, later telling reporters it took eight months and “a lot of effort” to get it right.

ANU alumnus, and now dialect and voice coach, Benjamin Purser worked with Travis on the Sydney Speaks project. He says dialect coaches have to balance sociolinguistic accuracy with the expectations of the audience.

“I agree Meryl Streep did a phenomenal job recreating Lindy Chamberlain’s style of speaking, which had Australian and New Zealand features. However, audiences went to the cinema expecting a generic Australian accent and therefore felt she’d missed the mark,” Purser says.

“As dialect coaches we’re focused on developing believable characters and adding to the soundscape of the film or show, just like costumes or sets are used to establish a visual world.

“We may not get it right in the eyes— or ears — of every person who experiences that film.”

Purser says credible portrayals of accents are important because the performance industry plays a key role in the production of narratives that represent our social realities. We want to see ourselves reflected on screen or stage.

“Australians, and particularly Australian performers, have some level of cultural cringe associated with the way they speak,” he says.

“In part, this comes from industry pressure to learn American or British accents in order to gain more work, but also because representations of Australian accents, especially overseas, are predominantly of an older Paul Hogan style that many actors today don’t necessarily identify with.

“That’s why having this guide for Australian accents is so important. The need for our work to be grounded in real-world language patterns is vital.”

Purser is quick to point out the guide addresses styles of speech by Anglo-Australians living in the urban areas of Sydney and shouldn’t be taken as representing a single Australian accent.

There is an increased push within the performing arts for a more diverse range of Australian voices to be represented in performance. The team behind Sydney Speaks says this is a very welcome change.

“We’ve been collecting data from the Italian, Greek, Chinese and Lebanese communities around Sydney and one of our aims is to transform that data into a similar guide for dialect coaches to showcase a variety of Australian ways of speaking,” Purser says.

Sydney Speaks was developed by Professor Catherine Travis and her collaborators from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

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