As an Australian living and working in London (coming up for 4.5 years now) I have gradually come to realise how similar yet different British and Australian English are. I don’t mean the obvious differences like ‘lorry’ instead of ‘truck’, or avoiding terms like ‘mozzie’ and ‘salvo’ (see this helpful list), or turning off intervocalic alveolar stop flapping in favour of glottal stop. What I mean are more subtle things like ‘ambit claim’.
Ambit claim? Yes, ambit claim. What looks like a perfectly well formed collocation of innocent words brought only looks of incomprehension from my English interlocutors in a meeting earlier this year (the fact that I was involved in making an ambit claim at the time made explaining the expression doubly embarrassing). A Google search for the phrase returns 15,000 hits and 7 of the top 10 of these are from Australian sites – Merriam-Webster on line doesn’t recognise it, while Encarta has a rather narrow definition that is tagged as being Australian. (I don’t have my copy of Macquarie handy so can’t check if they list it – sorry but I don’t pay for the on-line version. [Jane: Thankfully, since Macquarie Dictionary is now housed at the University of Sydney, our library does get it- see below]. Well, you live and learn.
This kind of non-obvious difference in usage between dialects reminded me of some research I was doing on Sasak a few years ago. I was fortunate to be able to work with four students in Melbourne who came from different villages on Lombok, and spoke four different varieties of Sasak. Everyone in Lombok knows there are ‘dialect’ differences, and that Meriaq-Meriku speakers from the south, for example, say mèrès for ‘sweet’ when everyone else says maiq. What became obvious in our discussions sitting around a table at Melbourne University checking vocabulary however was that there were subtle differences in semantics, collocation and selectional restrictions for cognate lexical items between each of the four varieties. These the ‘native speakers’ were quite unaware of, and rather surprised to learn of them from our discussions.
An issue for people working on language documentation is how to capture and encode this kind of ‘dialect’ differentiation, especially when it is subtle and below the consciousness of native speakers. You would need a pretty large corpus and a high degree of sensitivity to semantic contrasts in order to get a handle on it, I reckon. Or the chance to make plenty of cross-dialect mistakes, as I am doing in London.
ambit claim (say ‘ambuht klaym) noun a claim made by employees to a conciliation and arbitration court which anticipates bargaining and compromise with the employer and is therefore extreme in its demands. Macquarie Dictionary Online