Sydney Speaks

Language variation and change in a diverse society


Like all languages, Australian English has changed substantially over time. By examining English as spoken in Australia’s largest and most ethnically and linguistically diverse city, the Sydney Speaks project seeks to better understand both the nature of these changes and their social trajectory, such as who leads and who lags in change, and what impact we see from Australia’s changing demographic makeup.

As part of CoEDL, the Sydney Speaks project, led by CI Catherine Travis, compiled a collection of over 150 hours of speech, totalling 1.5 million words, with some 250 Sydneysiders, born from as early as 1890 to as recently as 1990. The speakers capture some of Australia’s diversity. They include Australians of Anglo-Celtic background, as well as second-generation Australians of Chinese, Greek and Italian background. Occupations range from plumbers and hairdressers to university students and teachers, to lawyers and doctors. The stories they tell provide not only linguistic data for analysis, but also social information about experiences over their lifetime, allowing us to use patterns of language variation and change as a window into Australian society over time.

Story Collections

The Sydney Speaks Project brings together 250 speakers from three collections of spoken language. Each dot on this map represents a speaker, or group of speakers, according to the size of the dot.

The earliest interviews were recorded for the NSW Bicentennial Oral History Project from 1987 – 1988. This is a collection of 200 oral histories from people across NSW born around the turn of the 20th century. Sydney Speaks includes 31 of these people from Sydney; where they lived is displayed in orange on the map.

The Sydney Social Dialect Survey is a collection of sociolinguistic interviews made from 1977 – 1981, under a project led by Barbara Horvath. Barbara recorded some 180 Australians of Anglo-Celtic, Greek and Italian background. Sydney Speaks includes 92 of these speakers, adults (born in the 1930s) of Anglo-Celtic background, and teenagers (born in Australia in the 1960s) of Anglo-Celtic, Greek and Italian background. These people are displayed in blue on the map.

To capture contemporary speech, Sydney Speaks 2010s has been carrying out sociolinguistic interviews since 2016. As part of CoEDL, the team recorded 136 interviews with adults (born in the 1960s) and young adults (born in the 1990s), of Anglo-Celtic, Greek, Italian and Chinese background. These speakers, shown in pink, cover a wider geographic range, reflecting Sydney’s expansion and growth.

Sydney Speakers

At the heart of this research project are the stories told by these Sydneysiders, which give us insight into the speakers’ lives, what it was like to live in Sydney throughout the 20th Century and how English was spoken in Sydney by people from their generations. Here is a snapshot of speakers from each of the three collections.

Frank was born in Stanmore, NSW, in 1904. He was interviewed for the Bicentennial Oral History Project in 1987 when he was 83 years old. Frank’s paternal grandparents migrated to Australia from England and Ireland. His maternal grandparents came from Ireland.

Frank’s father was a baker in Paddington. Frank went to university, became a solicitor and lived most of his life in the Inner West suburbs of Sydney: Stanmore, Enmore and Marrickville.

Sandra and her younger sister Dina were interviewed in the late 1970s as teenagers for the Sydney Social Dialect Survey and then again in 2019, when they were in their 50s, for Sydney Speaks 2010s. They were born in Australia and grew up in Bondi. Their parents came to Australia from small villages in the south of Greece; in Australia, their father was a waterside worker and their mother a seamstress.

Like many Greek Australians, their first language was Greek. Sandra learned English when she started school, and Dina learned English with her older sister and other Australian kids in her neighbourhood before starting school. Today, they both retain close connections to Greece and Greek culture, and they still speak Greek, but they prefer to speak English with each other.

Mark was interviewed for Sydney Speaks 2010s at the age of 23. He was born in Hong Kong, and moved to Australia just before he turned one. Even though he wasn’t actually born in Australia, Mark feels he is “pretty much an ABC” (Australian-Born Chinese). He speaks Cantonese with his parents; his friends are mostly Chinese or Chinese Australian, but he prefers to speak English with them. Mark attended a selective high school, lives in Chatswood, and works as a senior data analyst. His high socio-economic status is typical for many second-generation Chinese Australians, and this is evident in their speech.

The Research

From this kind of data, the Sydney Speaks team can situate language change in a broader social context, which reveals some interesting findings.

The team established that there are differences in the way Australian English is spoken according to social class, but for some features, these are reducing over time [1]. For example, differences in pronunciation of the vowels in words like people, say, know, now and like are greater in the older recordings than they are today. You can listen to these differences in the way Australian English is spoken over time on the project website.

Ethnic differences are less marked than what might be expected, with Chinese, Greek and Italian Australians in general patterning like majority Anglo-Celtic Australians. One feature where the team found a clear ethnic difference was a longer -er on the ends of words like teacher and remember by Greek teens in the 1970s. But over time, this has spread across the community, and today, all young Australians produce similarly long -er [2].

Sydney Speaks research also found that social class and ethnicity are closely linked [3]. For example, the speech of the Italian Australians — especially teenagers recorded in the 1970s and adults recorded in the 2010s — tends to be associated more with Working Class Australian pronunciation, while the speech of the second-generation Chinese Australians tends to be more similar to the pronunciation of Middle-Class Australian English. This is a reflection of the social background of these communities.


The Researchers

Compiling a corpus of spontaneous speech is a mammoth effort that requires a team of people with diverse skills. Team members are listed below

Catherine Travis - Chief Investigator Barbara Horvath - Project Advisor
Simón González - Post-doctoral Fellow James Grama - Post-doctoral Fellow
Katrina Hayes - Project Manager Cale Johnstone - Project Manager
Benjamin Purser - Lead RA Heba Bou Orm - PhD Student
Gan Qiao - PhD Student Elena Sheard - PhD Student
Esther Lee - Honours Student Marcel Reverter-Rambaldi - Honours Student
Amy Sanson — Honours Student Carly Bray - Community RA
Eleni Dimitriadis - Community RA Anne Dwyer- Community RA
Baopu He - Community RA Jennifer Lee - Community RA
Antonietta Marchetta - Community RA Hannah Newman - Community RA
Samantha Poulos - Community RA Talia Walker - Community RA
Sam Yuen - Community RA Arwen Blackwood Ximenes - Transcription RA
Caroline Cheng - Transcription RA Charbel El-Khaissi - Transcription RA
Bonnie McLean - Transcription RA Renate Plehwe - Transcription RA
Kira Scaife - Transcription RA Thomas Wyatt - Transcription RA
The Future of Sydney Speaks

The wealth of data that Sydney Speaks compiled for CoEDL provides an ongoing resource for the study of Australian English in this major urban centre. The project continues to expand to reflect Australia’s growing diversity by including different ethnic communities and communities in regional Australia.

A new angle of research the team is developing is the perception of Australian English. Australians have strong ideas about the way different people talk, but how accurate are these? It is important to understand this because false assumptions can lead to negative stereotyping and linguistic discrimination. To help raise awareness, in conjunction with the Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney Speaks developed an app that was displayed in the “This is a Voice” exhibition (August 2017 – January 2018). The app revealed that people are very bad at guessing others’ background. Test this out with the Australia Speaks App, another online interactive tool developed by the Sydney Speaks team.


Further information


Hero image: The Sydney Opera House. Image: Nico Smit via Unsplash.

Image 1: A map displaying the geographic distribution of speakers included in the Sydney Speaks corpus, colour-coded according to sub-corpora. Image: Cale Johnstone.

Image 2: A timeline of the Sydney Speaks Project participants according to their age and the sub-corpora their stories were included in. Image: Sydney Speaks.

Image 3: A collage of scenes from across the city of Sydney. Images: open sourced.

Image 4: Members of the Sydney Speaks team (L – R) Simon Gonzalez, James Grama, Cale Johnstone and Catherine Travis. Image: CoEDL.

Image 5: Visitors at the “This is a Voice” exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences interact with an app developed by the Sydney Speaks team. Image: CoEDL.


[1]Grama, James, Catherine E. Travis and Simon Gonzalez. 2021. Ethnic variation in real time: Change in Australian English diphthongs. In Hans Van de Velde, Nanna Haug Hilton and Remco Knooihuizen (eds), Studies in Language Variation, 292-314. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. https://www.jbe-platform.com/content/books/9789027259820-silv.25.13gra

[2]Grama, James, Catherine E. Travis and Simon Gonzalez. 2020. Ethnolectal and community change ov(er) time: Word-final (er) in Australian English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 40(3): 346-368. https://doi.org/10.1080/07268602.2020.1823818

[3]Travis, Catherine E. 2021. Ethnolectal variation in real time: Ethnicity, gender and class in Sydney, Australia, Ao Vivo, Abralin (14 July).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLEI67i9E-w.

Grama, James, Catherine E. Travis and Simon Gonzalez. 2019. Initiation, progression and conditioning of the short-front vowel shift in Australian English. In Sasha Calhoun, Paola Escudero, Marija Tabain and Paul Warren (eds), Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS), Melbourne, Australia, 1769-1773. Canberra, Australia: Australasian Speech Science and Technology Association Inc. https://assta.org/proceedings/ICPhS2019/papers/ICPhS_1818.pdf

Gonzalez, Simon, James Grama and Catherine E. Travis. 2020. Comparing the performance of forced aligners used in sociophonetic research. Linguistics Vanguard 6(1).https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2019-0058

Purser, Benjamin, James Grama and Catherine E. Travis. 2020. Australian English over time: Using sociolinguistic analysis to inform dialect coaching. Voice and Speech Review 14(3): 269-291. https://doi.org/10.1080/23268263.2020.1750791

Travis, Catherine E. 2021. Sydney Speaks: Examining language variation and change through the stories people tell. Blog post: Sydney Corpus Lab. https://sydneycorpuslab.com/sydney-speaks-examining-language-variation-and-change-through-the-stories-people-tell/