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The changing language around us: A great big melting pot

Phil on patrol in the Star Mountains  early 1970s
Phil Fitzpatrick as a young kiap patrolling in the Star Mountains


TUMBY BAY - Back in the stone-age when I was a kiap it was reasonably easy to work out where people came from.

The difference between someone from Buka and, say, the Papuan coast was immediately obvious. Very black skin and wavy hair were dead giveaways.

Even smaller subtleties were easy to pick and it was possible to tell whether someone was a Kiwai from Daru or a Kerema from Gulf.

Among the highlanders, people from the Wahgi Valley stood out because of their height. Stubby Simbus from the steep mountain slopes had a certain stance and set of jaw and mouth.

Nowadays, with all the intermarriage and breaking down of boundaries, these physical markers are going.

In terms of physical appearance Papua New Guineans are becoming homogeneous.

There are exceptions, of course, but these are largely confined to the more isolated areas such as high mountain valleys, the vast lowland swamps and the outer islands.

Another pointer to a person’s origin in those early days was accent.

I think I especially picked this up among the police on the patrol posts. A corporal or sergeant from the Sepik was easy to pick because of his rapid fire Tok Pisin.

Contrast this with a tall Kiwai corporal or sergeant who spoke in the slow, languorous coastal manner with a tendency to revert to Motu when flustered.

Accents are interesting. I discussed the issue when I was recently putting together a memoir about growing up in a working class suburb in Australia.

Among Australians in the street, accents were fairly even. But there was a noticeable dfference among certain other sectors; radio and television announcers, particularly on the Australian Broadcasting Commission, for instance.

They all had plummy voices in those days, as did politicians from the conservative side of politics. We used to refer to it as “educated Australian”.

On the other hand, the Labor members of parliament, both state and federal, went out of their way to emphasise their backgrounds and Australianness by way of broad and sometimes exaggerated ocker accents.

It was a useful signifier; as soon as a politician opened his mouth you immediately knew which side of politics he came from.

It was all a hangover from the British class system.

In the 1950-60s our apron strings, although loosening, were still tied to Britain.

I suppose an analysis of the accents of broadcasters and politicians through those years would point to a time when our geo-political allegiances finally switched from Britain to the USA.

Although it is still possible to pick up regional differences, the Australian accent is now universal across the country.

Funnily enough, South Australia, which had a large British migrant intake, is the plumiest of those home grown accents.

Nowadays the only place you hear a plummy voice is among the monarchists, who are opposed to Australia becoming a republic.

I think the latter is inevitable and long overdue but when it happens I wonder whether those people will drop their plums and talk like normal people.

In Papua New Guinea learning Tok Pisin in the early days was reasonably easy because it was largely spoken in a flat and classless Australian overtone.

Tok Pisin was largely developed by Papua New Guineans but when they spoke it to a European they moderated both their diction and accent to suit.

Nowadays there is a distinct Tok Pisin accent and if you want to speak the language properly you have to master it.

There are regional variations and there are special styles. One style is mediated in bigman oratory, another in academic discourse.

And, of course, Tok Pisin has evolved. The language I spoke in the 1960-70s is now positively mediaeval.

If I revert to it people laugh and wag their fingers at me. They recognise where and what time I come from, just as I used to do with them.


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Bernard Corden

Dear Phil

I could not agree more about your remarks regarding the need for another Whitlam. Unfortunately their is nobody of any stature in the ALP.
The Hayek and Friedman acolytes are trying to screw the last drop of blood from society and it was most appropriate its origins emerged from the Chicago School of Economics, the city where another notorious gangster plied his trade during the 1920s

Philip Fitzpatrick

I don't think a lot of people appreciate the impact that the Whitlam government had on the Australian psyche Ed.

I guess this is because of the way his government was assessed, mainly in economic terms.

We probably need another Whitlam-like prime minister right now.

The Australian soul definitely needs rescuing.

Ed Brumby

If I remember correctly, Phil, ABC news readers shifted their accents from quasi-British to 'Australian' not long after the Whitlam government was elected.

Daniel Kumbon

Paps, bai mi tok wanem.

Mi mix blut ya.

Na dispela em besti blo mi.

Na mitupela skul wantaim.

Lindsay F Bond

Yeaahh Phil, ORE Stralianness? A tick for your tok.

William Dunlop

Time blong Tabuna.

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