In 1966, English filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger adapted for the screen the Australian comic novel They’re a Weird Mob. The story of Nino Culotta, an Italian immigrant coming to Australia with the promise of a job at his cousin’s magazine, allows the directors to play with the Australian slang and portray a stereotypical Aussie Identity.
The Australian Slang at the Service of the Comical
The arrival of Giovanni “Nino” Culotta in Sydney is the perfect excuse for the writers to have a little fun with the Australian vernacular. Nino, a well-educated man, speaks British English but is at a complete loss when confronted with the expressions and idioms of the natives.
This language barrier between the immigrant and Australians leads to burlesque situations, where the misunderstanding of the Italian merges with the viewer’s incapacity to make sense of Australian idioms. The following scene is a perfect example of the comedic aspect brought about by typical “Australianisms”: Nino goes to a bar to get a drink, but finds himself struggling with the simple task of ordering a beer, unable to tell the difference between a “schooner” or a “middy”, or his “turn to shout”.
While the scene is clearly designed to be comedic, its didactic aspect can be underlined: confronted to Nino’s incomprehension, the man at the bar patiently explains to him the particularities of the culture at stake here. With the help of the different natives he meets, Nino will progressively understand and eventually adopt typical cultural idioms and attitudes himself as the movie progresses.
“Australianisms”, the Affirmation of an Original Identity?
If the Australian slang takes a comedic aspect in They’re a Weird Mob, the political significance of adopting a somehow distinctive language in such a country should not be undermined. Much like other former British colonies, Australia has inherited of a common language with Great Britain. The construction of “Australianisms”, that is idioms and colloquialisms proper to Australian English, allows Australians to differentiate themselves.
While the language barrier can be easily overcome, Phoebe Lee, an Australian expatriate in London, reports with amusement some of the most common misunderstandings she encountered, linked to the fact that one word had different meanings in British and Australian slang.
If the use of a slightly different language can be seen as anecdotal, one must not undermine the sociological aspect of any language in a given culture. In his Introduction to Language and Identity, John Edwards points out the scholars’ tendency, in the field of sociolinguistics, to center their attention on language only, forgetting the social and political background attached to it. He intends, in his manual, to highlight the connections between language and identity, and present language as an identity marker among members of a given group.
The adoption of particular idioms could thus be interpreted, in Australia, as just as many identity markers of Australian identity. As early as the 1950s, writer John Douglas Pringle “already felt that the similarities between Britain and Australia were only superficial” (Leitner, 87). As a result, Gerhard Leitner explains that “a particular form of English has become the national language”. Through the adoption of Australianisms, the natives differentiate themselves from their British counterparts and create a linguistic community around the meaning of specific idioms and slang.
But certain emblematic words, far from being removed from any social of political background, reveal key markers of Australian identity, such as the notion of “mateship”.
“How’ya going Mate?” Australian Mateship
The term “mate” is probably one of the most emblematic idioms one would remember after watching not only They’re a Weird Mob, but a fair number of Australian films. If the term of endearment could simply hint at Australian’s general friendliness, it is less anecdotic that it may seem. While the first meaning of “mateship” in the MacQuarie dictionary refers to the simple “quality or state of being a mate”, i.e a friend, the second meaning seems to raise an interesting aspect of Australian culture, assimilating mateship with “a code of conduct among men stressing equality and fellowship”.
Far from being a meaningless term, “mate” reveals Australian values and the structure of relationships among men. Glenn Davies, history editor of IndependantAustralia.net, explains that the word “mate” embodies the ideas of egalitarianism and solidarity in the Australian Culture. Mateship, according to him, is “the antithesis of class structure inherent in the British Monarchy”. As Marek Haltof points out in In Quest of Self-Identity, the term is embedded not only in the working-class culture but among all men. The openness and fellowship of Australians towards their “mates”, regardless of their social background, is a constitutive element of Australian identity. That, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, mateship is a required notion to learn for the Australian citizenship test, is a further indication of the importance of the concept to Australian culture.
If the term is central and constitutive of the structure of relationships among men in Australia, it has however proved to be problematic towards women. The MacQuarie clearly expresses the masculine aspect of the egalitarian code of conduct. In his article “Is Mateship a Virtue?’ James S. Page mentions the exclusion of women as one of the main issues the concept presents. This marginalization of women is one of the reasons the term wasn’t eventually mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution, as suggested by Prime Minister Jon Howards in 1999.
When Nino arrives in Sydney, he quickly finds himself surrounded by mates of his own, drinking in bars and strolling down the streets in groups, a sign of his own acculturation.
Language, Behaviour and Acculturation: a Propaganda Movie?
They’re a Weird Mob, film critic Adrian Danks argues, is essentially about Nino’s acculturation through adoption of mainstream concepts of Australian culture, and particularly through language. An essay published on the website SlamDunkStudios argues that “the political message that underlines They’re a Weird Mob, is assimilation […] Nino is taught that mastering these elements of language and behaviour, such as learning how to speak “ocker” and the importance of returning a “shout”, is enough to be accepted as a “true-blue Aussie””
They’re a weird mob, shot in the 1960s, could be considered a good insight into the assimilation process of European immigrants coming to an Australia in search of its own identity. Language was then a key element in the acculturation process. In the first volume of Australia’s Many Voices, Gerhard Leitner explains that, in the 1960s and 1970s, when assimilationism was still the main attitude towards European migrants, it was expected that newcomers learn the language and teach it to their kids in order to facilitate the assimilation of Australian culture.
Speaking about a “propaganda movie” may seem irrelevant for the 21st century viewer, who will most likely never encounter Australian attitudes towards immigrants as it was in the 1960s. However, They’re a Weird Mob does not lose its didactic function: through the eyes of a European immigrant, the viewer discovers Australian folklore and particularities, and delights in the depiction of an optimistic and overwhelmingly cheery people as well as in the idiom which characterizes the Australian identity.
Danks, Adrian, “They’re a Weird Mob”, Directory of World Cinema, Web.
Davies, Glenn. “On Australian Mateship”, IndependantAustralia.net.
Edwards, John. Language and Identity: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009
Lee, Phoebe. “Australianisms – teaching the Poms to speak ‘Strayan”, AustralianTimes.co.uk, May 8, 2012.
Leitner, Gerhard. Australia’s Many Voices: Australian English – The National Language. Walter de Gruyter, 2004
Haltof, Marek. “In Quest of Self-Identity: Gallipoli, Mateship, and the Construction of Australian National Identity” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 21(1), March 1, 1993,
Pages, James S. “Is Mateship a Virtue?” Australian Journal of Social Issues. 37(2): 193-200
Powell, Michael, dir. They’re a Weird Mob. Williamson/Powell, 1966
“Migrants need to learn mateship : PM”, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2006.
“They’re a Weird Mob (film essay)”, SlamDunkStudios, Web