A History Of New Zealand English: The Little Accent That Could

The New Zealand accent is something of a rare gem for linguists, as it was the first dialect to have its entire development recorded on tape. But first the humble Kiwi accent had to survive an attempt from the motherland to thwart its colonial twang.
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A History Of New Zealand English: The Little Accent That Could

Not quite Australian, but more provincial than British: That’s right, you’ve stumbled across the New Zealand accent.

But how did it get so… twangy? And why are linguists so interested in it? Read on for a short history of New Zealand English so that next time you meet your Kiwi mates, you can impress them by knowing more about their accent than they do.

The First Dialect Preserved On Tape

Something that makes the New Zealand accent a talking point among linguists is that it was the first dialect to have its entire development recorded on tape.

The relatively late arrival of European settlers to New Zealand in the late-1800s coincided with major technological advancements, like the invention of the tape recorder. While linguists may not have realized this gift at the time — accents develop slowly, after all — today these recordings provide incredible insight into the Kiwi accent in its various stages of development.

In the mid-1940s, New Zealand’s National Broadcasting Service sent a truck around the country, collecting oral histories from the nation’s first non-Māori settlers about their experiences in New Zealand. But this exercise wound up producing a useful resource for linguists because they could listen to the Kiwi accent developing from generation to generation.

Those who migrated to New Zealand, as well as the first-generation Kiwis they raised, tended to have the accents from “back home.” But the generation that followed told their stories with accents closer to what you’d hear if you visited New Zealand today. 

A Hodge-Podge Of British And Irish Accents

So what do we hear when we tune into the Kiwi accent?

In the 1860s, the Otago Gold Rush in New Zealand’s South Island attracted miners from the British Isles, continental Europe, China and beyond, all taking long and often treacherous journeys in the hopes of striking gold in our far-flung lands.

Up to half of the miners who arrived in New Zealand were Irish, with another third coming from England. And it is these two sets of accents — with a little Scottish thrown into the mix — that have had the biggest influence on the way Kiwis speak today.

Coming from mining families, the first generation of Kiwi kids were brought up with provincial, working-class varieties of English — they definitely didn’t sound like the Queen. Once they enrolled in school together, the children’s accents began to influence each other, leading to the fusion we hear today.

But not everyone was fond of the burgeoning Kiwi accent.

Attempts To Stamp Out The Kiwi Twang

As local school inspectors complained in 1903, the New Zealand accent was “insidiously gaining ground” in their schools, as if it was some kind of disease that needed to be contained.

In 1912, early settler Max Herz wrote home to say, “one far too often hears the young generation talk with a twang that horrifies the ear of anyone used to good English … it is gaining ground here and ought to be strenuously eradicated by school teachers, for it does not sound nice, and robs sweet girlish lips of all their poesy.”

I imagine the recent survey that found the Kiwi accent the sexiest in the world would have old Herz turning in his grave.

And yet it almost didn’t happen: British linguists so despised our colonial cadence that the Empire even sent teachers over from England in an attempt to re-stabilize the Kiwi accent. However, it wasn’t long before those teachers began copying the accents of their Kiwi students. 

Small Steps To Confidence

Despite those Kiwi kids successfully infecting their teachers with our dreaded twang, some level of self-consciousness around our accent continues to cling on today.

New Zealand television and radio broadcasters were required to use received pronunciation (commonly called the Queen’s English) right up until the 1980s. This meant that even local TV sounded like it came from the UK, rather than from our own people — hardly a vote of confidence in our voices.

When a rock chick called Karyn Hay finally arrived on our screens with her broad Kiwi accent in 1981, New Zealanders were both shocked and thrilled to hear her ask celebrities questions like, “Wots nixt on tha aginda?” (“What’s next on the agenda?”) on her cult music television show, Radio with Pictures (or, as we would call it, Pick-chas). Finally, in the history of New Zealand English, it seemed like it was OK to sound like ourselves.

Since then, the history of New Zealand English has been a slow process of taking one slightly more confident step after another. Widely regarded as the Mother of the Nation, television news presenter Judy Bailey was embraced across the country during her time on our screens from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, not least because of her cultivated New Zealand accent. Her accent was a more sophisticated version than Karyn Hay’s, to be sure, but one that still sounded distinctly like us.

The New Zealand Accent Today

Being such a small nation, the opinions of the rest of the world have always mattered to us. As Kiwi pop cultural figures like the Flight of the Conchords and Lorde have gone on to find international success, we’ve been relieved to see that, not only can people understand what they are saying most of the time, but that they are embraced. 

Hopefully that accent shame leftover from last century will remain there — in the past. But if you bump into a Kiwi someone on your travels, it wouldn’t hurt to complement their accent.

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