Accent and dialect in Australian politics

Written by Jeff Siegel

In Australia, the New South Wales state elections will be held on 26 March, and once again the American accent of the incumbent Premier, Kristina Keneally, has come into the news. Many of the issues discussed in the press and on blogs are reminiscent of the themes in my book, Second Dialect Acquisition.

Ms Keneally was born in Ohio to an Australian mother and an American father. She married an Australian, moved to Australia in 1994 and became a citizen in 2000. Although she now considers Australia her home and has only an Australian passport, she has not acquired Australian English. This is not surprising, since was 25 years old when she moved to Australia, and it is extremely difficult to learn a new dialect after childhood.

Ms Keneally joined the Labor party and was elected to the House of Representatives of the NSW State Parliament in 2003. In parliamentary debates, she was sometimes ridiculed for not speaking Australian English. For example, one time she appeared to disobey a ruling from the Speaker that she should conclude an answer. The Shadow Leader of the House rose and questioned whether the minister with the American accent “doesn’t understand Australian”.[i]

In 2009, Ms Keneally began to be viewed as a potential leader of the Labor party, and thus the future state Premier. But Australian English is an important part of national identity, and there were rumours that the power-brokers were worried that her American accent would be a turn-off for voters. One political commentator specifically referred to “fears of how that accent will play in western Sydney” (a crucial political area of the city).[ii]

At the same time, other rumours began to circulate that Ms Keneally was undergoing accent modification training to learn Australian English. Commentators noted that her accent was becoming a mixture of American and Australian. One wrote that her accent “sounds as if it set off from California and, at some indeterminate point over the Pacific Ocean, met [Australian golfer] Greg Norman’s accent coming the other way”.[iii] He continued:

It is difficult to describe Keneally’s pronunciation to those who haven’t heard it: suffice it to say that, in parliament, ‘Mr Speaker’ emerges as ‘Mr Spayka’, and that she has never seen a terminal ‘g’ that she did not make a valiant attempt to drop.”

However, Ms Keneally strenuously denied any voice training, saying: “If people think I have either the time or the inclination to stand around practising vowel sounds and dropping ‘r’s — no.” She also expressed the common view that one’s accent is an intrinsic characteristic of their true self: “My voice is as much a part of me as my eye colour or my heart.”[iv]

Nevertheless, in December 2009, Ms Keneally won a party leadership challenge and became the first female Premier of NSW. But her accent was still an issue. In an interview, she was again asked if she had done voice training. Her reply was: “Do you think I’m some sort of Eliza Doolittle, sitting around with some fellow getting me to say ‘the rain in, you know, Spain’?”[v] But in a Sydney Morning Herald online reader poll, 39.8 percent answered “yes” to the question: “Does Kristina Keneally’s American accent annoy you?”[vi]

Negative comments continued during her premiership. For example, one blogger wrote: “I saw her in an interview last night on Lateline [TV show] and her accent was a painful conglomeration. She is obviously attempting to hide her natural accent and in doing so, sounds like a hybrid of numerous clashing vowel pronunciations.”[vii] There is even a facebook page titled, “Kristina Keneally’s accent kills me”, with the description: “doesnt that australian-cross-american accent just make you cringe”.[viii]

In the final sitting of state Parliament before election, the Leader of the Opposition, Barry O’Farrell, presented Ms Keneally with a copy of The Little Aussie Fact Book, reminding voters of her American origins and suggesting she still had a lot to learn about Australia. In response to this stunt and to allowing his front bench to heckle her about her American accent, she said:

I go to question time and comments are made about my accent, interjections are hurled that I wasn’t in the country at this point or that point and then that sort of really immature, juvenile gesture by the leader of the opposition (to present the book).[ix]

The campaign had begun.

While the vast majority of the electorate will be rightfully focusing on political issues rather than superficial characteristics of the candidates, some voters are still hung up on the Premier’s accent, reflecting the common folk view that by changing their accent, a person is pretending to be someone they’re not.


[i] “Blinking Hazzard makes Keneally see red”, Andrew Clennell, Sydney Morning Herald, October 22, 2009. http://www.smh.com.au/national/blinking-hazzard-makes-keneally-see-red-20091021-h92u.html

[ii] “Labor Right’s future linked to an American accent”, Imre Salusinszky, 
The Australian, September 19, 2009. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/labor-rights-future-linked-to-an-american-accent/story-e6frg6o6-1225776607760

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Tear and fears: a day in the life of the Premier”. Andrew Clennell, Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2009. http://www.smh.com.au/national/tears-and-fears-a-day-in-the-life-of-the-premier-20091211-komj.html

[vi] Sydney Morning Herald, December 12-13, p.4.

[vii] sporty1, April 15, 2010, http://sfcu.com.au/smf111/index.php?topic=14915.90;wap2

[viii] http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kristina-Keneallys-accent-kills-me/345703735177

[ix] “I’ll get personal, Keneally warns”. Heath Aston, Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2010. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/ill-get-personal-keneally-warns-20101211-18tgv.html

Jeff Siegel’s title Second Dialect Acquisition is available now:

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