Americans and Australians have always had difficulty understanding each others’ accents, but this has rarely been a great problem. Other than the odd confused tourist (or confused would-be-helper-of-tourists), there’s rarely been a huge difficulty there.

Except during World War Two. At no other time have there been so many Americans in Melbourne. American servicemen – Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Airmen – thronged the city streets, and occasioned much confusion, especially when it came to different meanings of such words as ‘root’ and ‘barrack’. Several large encampments housed these men – at the MCG, Royal Park, and in the plains beyond Essendon Airport, which were not at that time greatly built up. There was no escaping them, or the problems that miscommunications caused. Even Douglas Macarthur himself ran into some difficulties, and he spent a few of his precious hours planning strategy pondering a solution to the problem. Macarthur realised that Americans, Australians and New Zealanders would all have to work together, and that mutually incomprehensible accents would create a communications bottleneck that would hinder coordination.

His eventual solution was to turn to that branch of the US military that most prides itself on obedience, and task them with learning the peculiarities of Australian phrases and untangling the messiness of Strine. These men were soon flat out like lizards drinking working on the task, and not too long after that, they understood what this sentence and others like it meant. (They also found it much easier to pick up local women after figuring out what ‘wanna root’ meant.) The men of the other service branches were given a single simple order to follow in the event of a communications breakdown with their Australian allies – one that, ironically, has been remembered by history modified by Strine accents: “Tell a Marine.”

Suburbs near Tullamarine:

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