Example poetry

Literature and “popular poetry” – Monash Lens

I enjoyed reading Betoota-isms (2021), ‘a’guide t’ Australian slang, from the responsible team (or should it be irresponsible?) Lawyer Betoota.

Described as “a deep dive into Australian culture, invention and creativity with a full record of ‘English’ as ​​used from the MCG members box to the locker room at rugby league club Betoota Dolphins”, the work demands to be taken seriously.

It includes phonetic transcriptions and sample expressions used, as you can see in these examples:

Mock dictionary definition of the phrase

The publisher is surely entitled to claim of this work: “As authoritative as the Macquarie Dictionary and as exhaustive as a Fortitude Valley pub crawl, Betoota-isms is your one-stop guide to the greatness of Australia’s great vernacular.”

But do these examples seem real? And why don’t any of the phrases above yield relevant Google results? (This varies by subject; phrases listed under “Australian Archetypes”, such as “Irish twins”, “Karen”, and “bean counter”, are much better attested elsewhere.)

Read more: Getting into the grog: Immerse yourself in a guide through Australian slang terms for alcohol

I think the answer has already been given – this book examines “Australian invention and creativity”.

And in that, I think it’s part of the tradition that certainly also includes the work of Barry Humphries. Did anyone use expressions like “yawn in technicolor” or “point Percy at the china” before Humphries put them in the mouth of Barry MacKenzie?

In our research, we have identified a trend of creative reuse of certain constructions (such as “an X short of a Y” – see this piece by Kate Burridge), and what we see in the work of Humphries and the Betoota team is a more performative extension of this one.

If no one actually uses these expressions, we nevertheless easily imagine that an Aussie dinkum could use them.

Image of the cover of the book 'Let Stalk Strine'

Stalking Strine: The Sounds and Rhymes of Folk Poetry

There is another approach to the vernacular in Australian humor writing which attempts to represent the sounds of Australian speech which are considered (heard?) to be non-standard.

Examples of this include Charles Corbyn humorous accounts of the magistrates’ court in Sydney in the 1850s, and Afferbeck Lauder (Alastair Morrison) books on strine (Lauder, 1965).

Read more: Listen mate, I just want to know the best Aussie slang term

Such writing is the continuation of a tradition of performing varieties of English that goes back to Dickens at least until Shakespeare.

And as Kate and I described it somewhere elsethe part of this tradition which provided a stereotypical portrayal of Irish speakers was imported wholesale to Australia.

But even the stereotypical version of Irish speech is based on observation, drawing attention to, for example, differences in vowel quality and a different pattern of consonants.

In contrast, humorous writing about lexical inventions is much less data-driven. As already noted, many Betoota-isms are unattested in Google searches, and the reliance on phonetics in this work is an appeal to spurious authority.

Image of the cover of the book 'Ginger Mick'

‘Jist to intrajuice me cobber, an’ ‘is name is Ginger Mick’

The embarrassing question that these humorous lexicons raise in my mind is that of CJ Denis and Ginger Mick. Records of actual speeches from the turn of the 20th century are limited, and we can’t really tell if anyone actually spoke using the expressions Denis puts in Mick’s mouth.

Is it possible that the language of Ginger Mick is as much a work of creation as that of Barry MacKenzie or a Betoota-ite?

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