Towards the tail end of 1933, Londoners realized something strange: BBC announcers seemed to take multiple approaches to pronouncing the word Australia and Australians. In one, the first syllable rhymed with the title of Patrick White’s then-unpublished Voss. In the other, the first syllable resembled the vowel sound in ore.
This state of chaos terrified the British public so much that newspapers lobbied the BBC to go with (their orthography) Osstralia. Actual Australians, hearing of this debate, argued for a third way.
“I agree that Australia should not be pronounced Orestralia,” said the Reverend GE Hale, a lecturer in public speaking at the Workers’ Educational Association of Adelaide. “But neither should it be pronounced Osstralia.”
For Hale, there was a third way — closer to Orestralia, but without stress on the first syllable. Orstralia. That this great country had not settled on a single pronunciation of its own name, even 30 years after Federation, didn’t seem to faze its residents.
On the contrary: there is some evidence to suggest that speakers of Australian English used these variant pronunciations as a handy form of social marker. In his autobiography, the writer Hal Porter observed that he was “an unmistakable Australian, albeit of the Awstralian rather than the Osstralian variety”.
Porter’s remarks on the Australian accent, written in 1963, neatly mirror today’s anxieties around pronunciation. Where contemporary complainants bemoan the “uneducated pronunciation” of Austraya, Porter reckoned those who said Awstralia possessed “an ineradicable and perverse” accent.
“Wealth cannot taint [their accent] nor education undo it,” Porter wrote, adding that such an accent telegraphed the “certified weaknesses” of the Australian character.
This ex nihilo linking of feature-of-speech to national moral failure is first-rate demonising. You get the sense Porter, who died in 1984, would have really hated Crocodile Dundee.