Omagoor: The quest for the Asian-Australian accent

Have Asian Australian youths in Sydney developed their own English vernacular?

The words "speak" coming from two profiles, and in the middle, an abstract drawing of an Asian-Australian woman Artwork by Grace Fu.

When I was twelve,  my mum brought a video I’d made for a school assignment to work, and showed it to her colleagues during lunch. She was obviously proud of the cinematic masterpiece I had whipped up on Windows Movie Maker during the school holidays, and like any proud parent, wanted to share it with everyone she knew. But instead of gushing praise, her colleagues, most of them white, seemed to only comment on only one thing — my accent. Despite having grown up in Sydney and having done all my schooling in English, I apparently spoke with an “Asian” accent that her workmates decided was from Hong Kong. “Don’t worry,” they reassured her, “it’s only very slight! He still sounds pretty Aussie.”

Of course I reacted with indignation when my mum told me. I’m not sure what angered me the most — the fact that she showed my school assignment to her colleagues, or the fact that they proceeded to say that I had an accent, and not just any accent, but an Asian accent. “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand them and they actually meant I sounded British?” I asked, trying to make sense of the ridiculousness of it all (Hong Kong, after all, was a former British colony, and sounding British would be acceptable — a compliment even).  Back then, the hyphen that linked my Chinese and Australian identities together was in a volatile state of flux, and finding out that someone I’d never met before thought I sounded “Asian,” and therefore different to the mainstream, shattered some of the confidence I had haphazardly built up in being Australian. At the same time, it didn’t make me feel any prouder of being Chinese either. To me, sounding Asian meant sounding like my parents, or worse, sounding like one of those late 2000s Asian Youtubers when they impersonated their parents. I’d laugh at these videos before, especially at the crazy accents, but the joke didn’t seem so funny anymore now that I was the punchline. Even if I didn’t look “Australian,” I thought I could at least sound the part.

Unsurprisingly, I angrily dismissed my mum’s colleagues as a pack of racists and refused to speak on the topic anymore. In my head, however, I was redoubling efforts to make sure I sounded more “Australian” in the future, so that no one would ever throw such an “accusation” at me ever again.

But people did. Not frequently, but over the next few years, every now and then I’d get comments about my “accent.” Each time it was raised, I’d vehemently shut it down. If they pressed any further, I would bring out the R-word, more out of frustration than anything else.

And then I noticed it myself. Towards the end of Year 10, I saw a video that was going semi-viral on Facebook of the Indian-Australian comedian Neel Kolhatkar.  The premise was quite simple  — a mock interview comparing the different studying habits of a White girl and an Asian girl (both of whom were played by Kolhatkar.) Whilst I found the content itself very funny, what intrigued me the most were the accents Kolhatkar adopted to act out the two characters. While Kolhatkar’s white girl sounded like she had stepped right out of the set of Home and Away, the accent he used to play the Asian girl was one I initially thought I’d never heard before. It definitely wasn’t one of those stereotypical “herro I’m yerrow” accents I’d come to expect from online Asian comedians,  and was very different to the one he had used for the white girl.  Strikingly so. It sounded harsh, almost aggressive, and absolutely different from any  mainstream “Australian” accent I had heard before.  Speaking to Kolhatkar many years later, he describes the accent as “very fast paced, almost like a variation of the w*g accent,” adding that the vowel in “no” is particularly elongated. After hearing it multiple times, its features become clearer.  Clusters of words dramatically slurred together, some syllables cut off abruptly, others extended for unusually long, and the catchphrase “Oh my god” sounding more like “omagoor.” And yet, despite these stark differences, it all sounded strangely familiar, as if I had actually heard it in the past. But where? Before long, it hits me.

Omagoor. That was my accent.

Not only that, it was the accent of pretty much everyone I knew at the overwhelmingly Asian selective school I attended. Suddenly, all those comments about my accent, and my complete denial of them, started to make sense. I had an accent because I existed in a bubble where everyone my age spoke like that. And because everyone around me spoke like that, I lacked any meaningful points of reference, so I had never realised that I spoke any differently to the rest of society.

And just like that, I went from thinking that comments about my accent were racist fabrications designed to attack my Australianness, to firmly believing that I, along with many other people like me, speak with a unique accent that is not purely Australian or Asian, but a true mixture and compromise of both.

* * *

Naturally, I chose to study linguistics at university, and I was lucky enough to conduct my own research project looking into whether an Asian-Australian ethnolect has developed in Sydney. While doing a preliminary literature review for it, it seemed like virtually no Australian had ever done any research into this. Even when I looked to America, a country arguably more abundant in academic literature about race, I could only find marginally more research papers on Asian-Americans, which was surprising given how extensively other American ethnolects had been studied. Thinking about it more, I couldn’t help but find the scarcity rather amusing. Not only are Asians underrepresented in Hollywood, I thought to myself, they’re also underrepresented in sociolinguistics research.

There is the argument, however, that Asians have not lived in the West long enough, or in large enough communities for them to have developed their own unique ethnolect. Whilst this is true in many instances, the unique social topography of Sydney makes it an ideal location for ethnolect formation. For starters, using the broadest definition of “Asian,” Sydney is one of the most “Asian” cities outside of Asia, with almost 30% of the population having Asian heritage according the 2016 census. Even more striking are the demographics of certain suburbs of Sydney, such as Eastwood, Hurstville and Cabramatta, which are majority Asian, suggesting that there is cohesive geographic structure to the community. But while Asian enclaves exist in almost any Western city (though perhaps not to the scale of Sydney’s), what is not as common is having so many schools which are overwhelmingly attended by second-generation Asian students like Sydney’s selective school system. Disregarding for a moment the intense debate about their social value, the 16 selective schools in Sydney, where the percentage of Asian students generally hovers at 80% but can be high as 97%, have unintentionally provided the perfect environment for the formation of a unique Asian-Australian diaspora culture and ethnolect. Due to the geographic closeness of the community, second-generation Asians who attend their local public high school are also likely to be surrounded by students from similar cultural backgrounds. Consequently, while we often hear stories in the Asian diaspora of people trying to become more “white” in order to fit in with those around them, this may not be as common in Sydney. And so, in the period of their life where they are most susceptible to change, many if not most young Asian-Australians in Sydney are in an environment where there is little racial pressure to conform to the mainstream because, in their social bubble, they are the mainstream. If they speak differently to the rest of society, it’s because no one is telling them not to. “As such, it would be highly unlikely that a Sydney-wide ethnolect hasn’t arisen among Asian-Australian youths,” my introduction concludes.

But an accent only exists if people can actually hear it, and so I decided to conduct a perception study where I compiled a list of 12 short voice clips from YouTube videos of young people from Sydney, six featuring Asian-Australians, and 6 featuring white Australians. All of the voice clips had been made since 2010 and were carefully chosen to exclude any possible markers of ethnic identity in what was being said (which meant even references to studying couldn’t be used).  Then by means of an online survey, I asked respondents to give each voice recording a score from one to five — one being the most “white Australian” and 5 being the most “Asian-Australian”.

Just as I had hypothesised, the respondents, regardless of background, were able to tell with remarkable accuracy the ethnicity of the speaker just from listening to their voice. In the end, Asian and white voices averaged a score of around 3.7 and 2.2 respectively. Of course, this was not to say that ethnicity can uniformly dictate a speaker’s speech patterns, and there were instances where respondent’s couldn’t accurately tell the ethnic identity of the speaker. One case featured the voice recording of an Asian-Australian who attended a majority white private school, who most respondents thought sounded “white.” This is to be expected as other social factors, such as class or degree of identification with one’s heritage culture, play an equally important role in shaping the way we speak. More interesting was the case of a clip featuring a white Australian who attended a majority Asian selective school, who many respondents thought sounded very “Asian-Australian,” leading to an average score markedly higher than the other white speakers.  Whilst it could ultimately be statistically insignificant, this seeming subversion of linguistic power dynamics suggests a degree of panethnicity to the hypothesised ethnolect, and that there is enough cultural cohesion and capital in Sydney’s second-generation Asian community that they can lead language change as opposed to being mere passive recipients of it. This level of panethnicity can help explain how second-generation South Asians fit into this sociolinguistics puzzle. Wary of how the nebulous nature of “Asian” can make it meaningless as a demographic label, I limited “Asian” to East and Southeast Asian for the sake of reducing the variables. However, given that the South Asian community and other Asian groups are in very close proximity to one another in Sydney, living in the same suburbs and going to the same schools (some selective schools in Sydney are majority “Asian” due to the large population of South Asian background students attending them), it could very well be that they are also leading a unified linguistic change together with their East and Southeast Asian peers. Kolhatkar, who first observed the accent in his classmates at the selective school he attended, believes the different Asian groups share many features in their speech patterns, but notes that there is a vague difference he puts down to South Asians speaking with “less of a twang.”

Of course, the study above was still limited by the constraints of it being an undergraduate research project (glaring methodological problems and all), and it didn’t conclusively prove the existence of an Asian-Australian ethnolect, but rather pointed to the possibility of it existing. Just as it’s difficult to tell what individual paints form a colour after they’ve been mixed, it’s equally hard to disengage the various social factors that ultimately go into an accent, so perceived variations can ultimately relate to something else entirely. And even if it existed,  the actual features of the ethnolect still eluded me. From my own intuition, I could point out a couple of phonetic details, but none of these could be said to be cohesive changes, or uniquely “Asian” either. I also couldn’t find any widespread use of slang by Asian-Australians. After much research, the only words that I found that could truly be said to be Asian-Australian were LG (an acronym for little girl which denotes a member of a subculture revolving around raves), and caps (if an Asian-Australian tells you they took a lot of caps in Year 7, they probably don’t mean the drug but rather Japanese sticker photos which, for a while, you could only take at Capitol Square — hence the name.)

But while I struggled to find any unique features, some professional linguists are currently working on doing just that. There is currently a government funded research project being conducted by the Australian National University called “Sydney Speaks”, which is seeking “to document and explore Australian English, as spoken in Australia’s largest and most ethnically and linguistically diverse city.” The project is led by Dr Catherine Travis, an Australian linguist who previously spent 10 years at the University of New Mexico studying Spanish-English bilingualism in the US. Talking to me over Skype, she tells me with an obvious, effervescent passion about the increasing attention that ethnolects are receiving from the academic community — a result of more and more people finding themselves in “diverse urban centres across the globe.”

“London, Berlin, Toronto — people have talked a lot about ethnic groups drawing on their ethnic background to mark their identity.”

What inspired her to undertake the project in Sydney was a pioneering study from the 1970s by linguist Barbara Horvath, which looked into Australian English as spoken by “Anglos, Italians and Greeks” in Sydney.

“I just thought how wonderful it would be to replicate that study and see what has happened now forty years on,” she says, adding that the new study now includes Chinese-Australians in their twenties as a way to “take into account what society looks like today.” While Mandarin is currently the largest language other than English spoken in Australia, Sydney Speaks currently focuses their research on Cantonese-heritage Chinese-Australians, as they have been in Australia for longer as a community. However, Travis adds that they will be looking into Mandarin-heritage Chinese-Australians as a future step.

While they are looking at everything, of particular interest to Travis and her team are the way Chinese-Australians produce vowels. Through analysing spontaneous speech gathered from specially recorded interviews, they have found that Chinese-Australians do produce vowels of a different shape to their Anglo counterparts. However, these differences seem less to do with their Chinese ethnicity and more to do with their social standing in Australia, and Chinese-Australians produce vowels associated with the Australian middle class even more so than Anglo-Australians.

“One way to interpret this that, rather than marking their ethnicity, they are marking their Australianness in their realisations of vowels.” Travis says, noting that this seems to contradict much of the literature on ethnolects, and indeed, my own intuition on the subject. However, she explains that this seeming lack of ethnolectal formation is more complicated than it first seems. In the initial stages of the project, Travis was able to get in contact with Barbara Horvath and discovered she still had cassette tapes of the recordings she did in the 1970s stored in her garage, all in “fantastic” condition. Tapping into this treasure trove of sociolinguistic information, Sydney Speaks has been able contextualise their findings with broader shifts in Australian English — something most studies cannot do.  Viewed simply at a single point in time, it does appear that Chinese-Australians are producing ethnically distinct vowels, but when they are compared not only with their Anglo contemporaries, but also with Anglo-Australians from forty years ago, Travis found that Chinese-Australians seemed to be at the forefront of wider changes happening in Australia. I see this almost immediately when she shows me a diagram comparing where in the mouth the three groups produce the diphthong (a sound comprising of two vowels) in “speak.”   In the past forty years, it seems the diphthong has gradually shifted to somewhere more to the front and top of our mouths, with this change being even more pronounced in Chinese-Australians.  So when Travis says Chinese-Australians sound “more Anglo than the Anglos,” that’s not necessarily to mean that they sound exactly “Anglo,” but more that their vowels are the logical “next step” in an ongoing language change happening across Australia. From one perspective, the way Chinese-Australians sound today could be the way Anglo-Australians sound in another ten years.

Travis’ work is far from complete, and while her team have not observed ethnolectal variation in the vowels, they remain open to the idea that they may find it in prosodic features — not in the sounds of speech, but in its rhythms.

“Languages differ in whether they are stress timed or syllable timed. Mandarin and Cantonese are syllable timed while English is stress timed, and some people have proposed that Chinese heritage people might have more syllable timed English.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Travis notes that as young Chinese-Australians enter the workplace, they may feel a strong pressure to conform to Anglo norms, and so any ethnolectal variation developed before then could be wiped out. Languages, after all, change all the time. Anecdotally, I was told by a friend once that I sounded more “white” when I talked to white people, and that ever since university began, my accent had drifted away from what it was back in high school. It’s both strange and sad to think that the way I and so many of my peers speak could be, like sound itself, something transient — doomed to fade with time. What a relief, then, that someone is studying and chronicling it while it’s still invigorated with youth and confidence.

* * *

I’ve told most people I’ve met about this passion project of mine, and the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. However, there was one particular moment where I questioned the social utility of what I was investigating. A respondent to the survey I made, a white university student, refused to answer any of the questions and instead wrote an impassioned critique in the “additional comments” section about how he “objected” to the research because it was “problematic,” adding that he “honestly does not and cannot judge” people based on the way they speak. At first I was furious, and dismissed him as coming from a long lineage of white liberals who think it’s their duty to lecture people of colour on what they should and should not be offended by.

However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he might be right. Indeed, when people of colour in Australia are confronted with racist assaults on their right to be in this country, what they often brandish as a weapon in defence is their accent. How many times have we angrily retorted to people that we speak English as well as they do, that our vowels and our inflections should be enough evidence for our right to call ourselves Australian? More than a sport or a mythic set of values, the thread that binds Australia together is our accent. And by trying to show that perhaps there isn’t just one, but several interlocking threads that form our nation’s linguistic tapestry, maybe I was leaving people like myself open to division and attack. But then I remembered a line from one of the only linguistic papers I found on the second-generation Asian diaspora, which talks about how Asians in Western countries are pigeonholed as either “forever foreigners” or “honorary whites.” In this dichotomy, Asians are considered either so “exotic” to Western society that no amount of integration can change their foreignness, or that they are so successfully aspirational that there is virtually no difference between them and the mainstream white population after a generation. And sometimes it does feel like there’s no in between. With the rise of Subtle Asian Traits, the Asian diaspora is currently soul-searching for their own identity, one more meaningful than bubble tea, and more exciting than good grades. With it has come a deepening realisation of the sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious confusion that comes with being an Asian who grew up in a Western country. But if we are to live in our society on our own terms and not that of our Asian families or of our white surroundings, we must forge a cultural identity that is unique to us alone. And perhaps an ethnolect isn’t so bad a place to start looking.