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Aussie Lingo 101: Oh Naur! Diphthongs in Australian Vowels

By Rebekah Bradshaw

A young man in a blue tank top, green shorts and a terrible blonde wig stares in horror at the camera, bringing his hands to his face. “Oh nor, Cleorrr!” he cries in a thick Australian drawl.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, chances are you have been enjoying the H2O challenge on Tik Tok in recent years. This challenge saw young people of the internet recreating scenes from the Australian teen drama H2O: Just Add Water, which aired between 2006 and 2010. A hallmark of these low-budget remakes is the attempt to imitate the distinctive accent of the main characters, and particularly the way they pronounce the long /o/ sound in words like ‘go’, ‘Cleo’, and the very commonly uttered ‘oh no!’ Actor Tyler Warwick proved himself particularly adept at this on Tik Tok.

He even began to imagine what it might sound like if the Aussie drawl found its way into other franchises, like Frozen (“let it gor”) and High School Musical (“stick to the stuff you knorrr”). As a Kiwi (a New Zealander), Warwick is exercising his birthright to playfully mock the speech of his neighbours, just as we Aussies consider it our solemn duty to return the favour. But he is far from the only one to be charmed by our particular brand of pronunciation.

The rise of ‘naur’
Whilst wonder or amusement at the Australian pronunciation of the word ‘no’ is not new, it has been experiencing a resurgence. The rediscovery of H2O dates back to 2019, but it wasn’t until early 2021 that ‘naur’ (another way of phonetically spelling the Australian English ‘no’) started to take off as a meme on its own. Know Your Meme credits this rise in popularity to the usual champions of the internet: the K-pop stans. They took notice of the way some Australian K-pop idols expressed themselves in the negative, and then ran with it online. From there, ‘naur’ exploded over Twitter, with people finding more and more scenarios where a simple ‘no’ could be Aussie-fied. Someone imagined an Australian victim in the Saw films (“oh naur it’s jigsaur”). Another person wondered if they could use ‘naur’ to win a game of Scrabble. Someone else considered the horrifying prospect of having a marriage proposal turned down by an Aussie sweetheart (“imagine u propose to someone and their response is ‘naur’”).

In the real world, my sister at university in the UK observes that a simple utterance of “oh no” always provokes a playful ribbing from her classmates. But what is ‘naur’? Why do Australians say ‘no’ like that? I have to admit, my non-rhotic Aussie accent means spelling ‘no’ phonetically as ‘naur’ or ‘nor’ confuses me – I read ‘nor’ as ‘naw’, for example, which is not like how I pronounce ‘no’. But with a rhotic /r/ on the end, it does sound closer, albeit a little broader than I would normally speak. Pronunciation does vary based on the strength of a person’s accent – but there is one feature that unites Australian English speakers when it comes to these kinds of vowels. Let’s break it down: if I was to spell my version of ‘no’, it would be closer to ‘noe-ooh’. I would speak it as one syllable, but with the first vowel sound quickly sliding into the second. (I would then hold the ‘ooh’ for as long as the situation demanded – the longer the ‘oooooh’, the more emphatic the no!) In linguistics, this “gliding vowel” is what we call a diphthong. And as it turns out, the diphthong is a key component in many of the long vowel sounds in Australian English.

Monophthongs and diphthongs and triphthongs, oh my!
Not all vowels are created equal. To understand what a diphthong is, we need to go back a step to the monophthong.
The word monophthong comes from the Late Greek monos meaning ‘single’, and phthongos meaning ‘sound’, and it is exactly that: a vowel producing a single sound. Monophthongs are found in words like ‘ran’, ‘not’, ‘bed’, ‘up’, and ‘ship’. When pronouncing a monophthong, the tongue stays in the same position throughout.
A diphthong, then, is a vowel that produces two sounds in the same syllable, with a continuous transition from one sound to the next. When pronouncing a diphthong vowel, the tongue moves from one position to another. Some common examples of diphthongs include ‘tail’ and ‘coin’.

My theory is that because vowel sounds in Australian English are often longer and more drawn out compared to other dialects, it gives our diphthongs extra time to flourish. But some Aussies are not content with only two phthongs in their vowels. In a recent Tik Tok, lecturer Amy Hume from the University of Melbourne explained that for a particularly broad and juicy ‘no’, a triphthong might even be employed! Using the IPA, Hume notated the triphthong in ‘naur’ as ‘əoʉ’. Phonetically, I would write this as something like ‘nuh-oe-ooh’. Online, Aussies and non-Aussies alike express glee at the humble Australian’s ability to fit so many syllables into just one syllable.

Speak like an Aussie: practise your diphthongs
The Australian accent is a notoriously difficult accent for an outsider to master. I can list on one hand the number of actors from elsewhere who have delivered near-perfect renditions in film (that’s Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, Dev Patel in Lion and George MacKay in The True History of the Kelly Gang, for those who were wondering – and the latter has an Australian father, which may count as cheating). Practising long vowel sounds and diphthongs might be a good start for the aspiring Aussie to get used to the way we produce our sounds. Once you have mastered your “oh no, Cleo!”, I have included a small handful of other words to try, with my best interpretation of their phonetic spelling.
Mate. This classic word is much more versatile than you might think! When I’m annoyed at someone for merging lanes without indicating, I will give them a very broad “maaaaaaate” to express my disapproval.

This is where the diphthong really comes into its own. It sounds a bit like ‘may-eat’ or ‘may-it’, with significantly more stress on the ‘may’. Here. I chose this one because for a speaker of a rhotic English dialect, the pronunciation may be quite different. Because we don’t pronounce the rhotic /r/, the end of this word becomes a diphthong. It sounds like ‘hee-ah’ or ‘hee-yuh’, with a stress on the ‘hee’. Tour. Similar to above, especially in a broader Aussie accent. My Scottish tour guide colleague makes fun of us locals for welcoming visitors to our ‘too-ah’, or ‘too-wah’.

Practice saying each sound in the vowel as an individual syllable until you are familiar with them, then put them all together in a single syllable. Be aware that the timing of that “glide” between the two vowel sounds is important to get right in order to sound natural. Have a listen to native speakers, paying attention to the way they pronounce their diphthongs in everyday conversation. Give it a go… or should I say, give it a gaur!

Sources:
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=naur
https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/naur
https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/australian-accent-no-pronunciation-peach-prc/

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