What are the linguistic features of "Waltzing Matilda"?

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Perhaps the most significant linguistic feature of "Waltzing Matilda" is the colloquial language. The first verse, for example, is packed with colloquialisms (e.g., "swagman," "billabong," "billy boil," and "Waltzing Matilda"). To someone other than an Australian, these colloquialisms might render the opening verse almost incomprehensible.

However, if one understands the...

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Perhaps the most significant linguistic feature of "Waltzing Matilda" is the colloquial language. The first verse, for example, is packed with colloquialisms (e.g., "swagman," "billabong," "billy boil," and "Waltzing Matilda"). To someone other than an Australian, these colloquialisms might render the opening verse almost incomprehensible.

However, if one understands the sayings—a "swagman" is an itinerant worker, a "billabong" is a pool of drinking water, a "billy boil" is a metal bucket used for boiling water, and a "Waltzing Matilda" refers to walking on foot with one's belongings on one's back—then the verse becomes much more comprehensible.

There is also lots of repetition in "Waltzing Matilda," with the title phrase being repeated often in the chorus. The repetition is used in part to make the lines more memorable, and thus the song easier to sing. The repetition of "Waltzing Matilda" also helps to impress the rhythm or melody of the song, with the long first syllable of "Waltzing" and the long middle syllable of "Matilda" being integral to the melody of the song.

Also important to the musicality of the lines is the frequent alliteration and assonance. For example, the repetition of the vowel "u" in "jumpbuck . . . Up . . . jumped . . . jumpbuck . . . tucker" and the alliteration in phrases like "grabbed him with glee" and "sang as he shoved." These devices ensure that there is a repetition of similar sounds that is running throughout the song, creating a pleasing euphony.

The song is also written (in part) in the second-person perspective, meaning that the lines are directed to a "you," who we can assume is the listener. Writing in the second-person perspective means that there is a direct address to the listener, allowing for a more immediate and personal connection.

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Linguistics, like biology, is a branch of science that comprises several subdisciplines. “Waltzing Matilda” would be a fascinating case for many linguists, especially in the fields of geographical linguistics, dialectology, lexicography, and stylistics. Parsing linguistic features of an entire song would yield entries in the thousands, from the phonology of the smallest bits of sound to their role in a historical context. Here, though, we’re probably going to be most concerned with rhetorical figures and poetic devices. These subjects generally fall within the field of linguistics called syntax. Terms for a selection of linguistic features in "Waltzing Matilda" are below, in bold.

An apostrophe is both a punctuation mark and a figure of speech used when a speaker is addressing an inanimate object or someone or something not present. In “Waltzing Matilda,” the speaker is addressing his own bedroll. Note that he’s given it a woman’s name.

There’s alliteration in “billy boiled” and assonance in “jumbuck” and “tucker-bag.” There’s a demotic "a-" prefix intensifying the gerund “waltzing,” which is itself an anglicization of the German auf der Walz. Here, “waltzing” means to travel around, looking for work. A “swagman” is an itinerant person who can be identified by the bedroll he carries (here called Matilda). A “jumbuck” is a sheep, and a “billabong” is a creek. “Collibah” is a species of eucalyptus, a “tucker-bag” holds food, and a “billy” is a tin can used to heat food or tea. These words belong to the Australian vernacular, particularly that of the early twentieth century. The story told in this 1903 bush ballad may allude to shearers’ strikes in Australia in the 1890s.

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"Waltzing Matilda" relies heavily on colloquialisms, or common, informal words and sayings which are specific to a geographical region. The song is rife with Australian colloquialisms ("jumbug," "tucker bag," "billabong," and so on), and assumes a native audience.

"Waltzing Matilda" is also heavily reliant upon alliteration, or the repetition of consonants ("billy boiled," "swagman / grabbed / glee"). It has a refrain, or a repeating verse ("You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me"). The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, and the song conveys a narrative (that is, of a criminal who steals a sheep and pays for it with his life). Thus, we can safely say that "Waltzing Matilda" is a ballad, as it tells a story and has a consistent rhyme scheme. Like most ballads, it is a sort of musical poem which lends itself to oral history.

It could also be argued that "Waltzing Matilda" is something of a tragicomedy, as it incorporates both comedic and tragic elements. In some respects it is a fable, as it involves animals and conveys a moral message. However, the song lacks the fantastical elements common to fables, such as talking animals, and the light-hearted treatment of the criminal's death seems to belie any strong morality.

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