Thursday, May 12, 2016

Funny language barriers

I expected the obvious English language differences when I moved to Australia. There are literally hundreds of results to a "How to Speak Australian" search on YouTube, so I had expected there to be quite a few slang terms that I was unfamiliar with.

These two break down a lot of the Aussie English vs. EVERY OTHER English differences pretty well, but I still haven't heard a lot of those words used. I'm sure there are parts of the country where the shortened version of "derelict" is probably used as the first video cites...though I feel like if you're going to be that sophisticated you should show it off and use the whole word!

TLDR: Essentially, to speak Australian, you want to cut a word in half and either add an -o or an -ie/-ey at the end of it.

Anyway, those kinds of language differences have been fun to learn. I'm certainly not adopting them in my every day vernacular, but I feel really accomplished when an Australian friend uses one of those slang words and it doesn't cause me to miss a beat in the conversation.

There are  a few language differences, however, that I find really intriguing and unexpected. For example, Australians use a lot of the same idioms that we do in America, but they are ever so slightly different.

When Americans don't want to jinx something, they'll say, "knock on wood." Australians, however, will say, "touch wood." It holds the same meaning, just phrased slightly differently.

Some of the differences stem from British-ism and I've heard them in my travels, but they still trip me up. I call them "cultural homophonyms." Words that sound the same and are spelled the same in both countries, but do not mean the same thing.

1. Jelly. In America, jelly is what goes with peanut butter. It's a sweet fruit preserve that is generally made from the fruit juice and thus won't have chunks of the fruit mucking up the spread-it-on-the-bread process. In Australia and other British speaking countries, jelly is the stuff hospital patients get after surgery when they can't have solid foods yet:

Jello. Why is hospital jello always green!?
I still get confused when people talk about eating jelly with a spoon.

2. Biscuits. What Australians and Brits call a biscuit is what Americans would call a disappointing cookie. In Australia, a biscuit is generally not sweet, is something you'll dip in your hot tea, and is often called a "digestive biscuit" because it's chock full of fiber and will things out. Here, cookies are cookies and are something you have with dessert, but they're still disappointing because for some reason Australian bakeries are incapable of making a soft cookie! ...but I digress. "Biscuit" is a widely known British-ism, and being from the South I frequently have to correct people when they say, "a biscuit in America is what we call a scone." Nope. Scones are disappointing cousins of the biscuit. Scones are typically bland, dry, not-buttery-at-all chunks of dough that only serve as a vessel with which to eat jam. They don't sop. They don't flake. They're typically served cold or at room temperature. Ick.

I do love seeing Australians' reactions to my love for biscuits and gravy. And then further blow their minds by telling them it is a breakfast food! Cultural differences are fun.

3. Australians put milk in their coffee, NEVER cream. If we're honest, it's frequently milk that Americans put in their coffee, too, but we just call it cream or creamer because we want to sound fancy and not admit that we forgot to pick up half-and-half at the store. Here, however, cream is not a liquid. It's like whipped cream, but just before it becomes light and fluffy. Anyone who has ever whipped cream by hand knows the stage I'm talking about. I have had to politely laugh when customers have made fun of me for asking if they take their coffee with cream and sugar. For an Australian, cream is what you put on your scones because you're disappointed with how bland it tastes and you don't yet realize that what you actually want is a biscuit.

4. Tomato sauce! Working in a restaurant, this one has tripped me up so much! Tomato sauce is ketchup, not what you put on pasta or in recipes. It's what you dip your fries in. The other day at work it took me like 3 minutes to finally figure out that the chef was envisioning me asking for a plate of pasta with ketchup on top and why would anyone want to eat that?! Instead of asking for pasta with tomato sauce I should have asked for pasta with bolognese. I feel like that is just a lot of effort and makes me sound way more snobby than I actually am. Plus, in my mind, bolognese is a specific kind of tomato sauce and I didn't care what kind of sauce he put on the pasta as long as it was hot and tomato-based!

5. I don't know if it is a British-ism, but here instead of calling it lay-away, stores call it lay-by which I just find to be a waste of a perfectly good rhyming opportunity.

6. I think this one is exclusively Australian, but the place in the wall where you plug in your vacuum cleaner is called a "power point." Not to be confused (though I frequently get it confused) with PowerPoint, the presentation software from Microsoft.

I knew there would be some small differences in the English spoken here, but I have been surprised by just how different our languages can be. I love that in this age of globalization where the world can feel so small, we still find unique cultural differences that remind us that the world is a big, diverse, and fascinating place. And that you still have to go out and experience some things for yourself to fully understand just how connected -and disconnected- we all are.

Vicariously yours,


  1. Have you run into the "flip-flops" and "thongs" debate, yet? I never got over people complimenting me on my thongs in public...

  2. "Peanut Paste" threw us off when we were in Brisbane. It did not sound as appetizing as the butter option...

    Also I fumbled with my words quite a bit when asked "How ya goin?". It took me a while to reply.