Laine Cunningham

Introduction from On the Wallaby Track: Essential Australian Words and Phrases


 Australia is a land unto itself. Its culture is surprising and its people wonderfully welcoming and warm. Many travelers who speak English expect to have an easy time whether they visit for a few days or a few months. But between the strong accent, Aussie slang, and words garnered from their United Kingdom-based history, understanding their particular form of English can be a challenge.

At one point, I spent six months camping alone in the Outback. During that time I visited a number of cities and small towns. For the first thirty days, I was lost. A lifetime of travel has honed my ability to understand unusually thick accents but in Australia, I honestly understood only half of what I heard.

The accent was only part of the problem. The other was the heavy use of slang words and terms mixed liberally with words and phrases that originated in the United Kingdom. Add to that my own accent, which was lazy, consonant-slurring American mixed with German vowels, and the Aussies had a hard time understanding me!

A few weeks into my journey, I went to a restaurant in Adelaide to dine on kangaroo steaks. When the waitress took my order, I asked for a glass of water.

“What did you want to drink?” she asked.

“Water,” I said again, which was pronounced wood-der.

 “Sorry, love. What was that?”

“I would like a glass of water,” I said slowly, as if the extra words might help.

At this point the waitress fell silent with her pencil poised over her notepad. We stared at each other for a long minute. We both knew this was going nowhere. The menu didn’t list water as an option, so I couldn’t just point like you might when you don’t speak the native language.

I racked my brain to find another way to ask for water but the only thing I could come up with was H2O. And, sorry, asking for a glass of H2O would sound like I thought I was talking to an idiot. So she and I remained in our silent communion until a guy at the next table leaned over.

“Wu-tah,” the guy said in his fair dinkum Aussie accent. “She wants a glass of wu-tah.”

I got my water. I also made a mental note to always use the Aussie accent for that word, which tends to be important for anyone heading through the desert.

During the following months I deciphered, word by word and phrase by phrase, just what the heck people were saying to me. I also adjusted my speech so that certain words were always pronounced in the Aussie way to ensure that I got the supplies I needed at each outpost.

By the time I hailed a cab back to the airport in Sydney, I shocked the cabbie by telling him I was going home to America.

“You’re a Yank?” he asked. “Your accent is so thick I swore you were straight out of the bush!”

Well, I was, in a way. Six months can change you a lot. But since most people can’t spend six months figuring out the language, I wrote this book. On the Wallaby Track contains most of what you’ll need to eat, sleep, and survive in the beautiful and astonishing country called Australia.

Enjoy!