Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
The funny thing about accents is, it can be really hard to hear your own. This is also true for New Zealanders, but our somewhat uncouth accent does come with a good dose of self-consciousness. Our colonial ancestors were appalled to hear the dialect that developed following their arrival and set about trying to stamp it out in favor of British English, to no avail.
So how do you go about nailing the Kiwi accent without accidentally slipping into Australian English? Read on for some tips for understanding New Zealand English, famous among linguists for being the first dialect to have its entire development recorded on tape.
Vowel Play In The New Zealand Accent
The easiest way to distinguish a Kiwi accent from that of our Aussie neighbors is the particular way we mangle our vowels.
Ask any Kiwi or Aussie and we’ll tell you our fish and chips are far superior to those found in Old Blighty. But the sounds we make to tell you this will vary wildly. While an Australian will claim their “feesh and cheeps” are tops, New Zealanders will tell you their “fush and chups” takes the cake. You see, we Kiwis turn our short I-sounds into U’s, so “fish” becomes fush and “chips” sounds more like chups.
Unfortunately for newbies, the vowel fiddling doesn’t stop there. We’re also fond of transforming our short A’s into E’s, so that our beloved All Blacks (the rugby team best known for the haka they perform before their matches) become the All Blecks.
Fans of the TV show Flight of the Conchords will also have noticed that band member Bret struggles to introduce himself to New Yorkers, who hear his name as Brit. Similarly, in New Zealand, eggs are iggs.
Say it with me: A’s become E’s, E’s become I’s, and I’s become U’s. One exception, just to keep you on your toes: In New Zealand English, our definite article “the” is increasingly pronounced tha. You may not be able to stomach pronouncing it this way yourself, but this should at least give you a better chance of understanding what we’re saying.
Almost Anything Can Be A Question
Coming from such a small and far-flung nation, New Zealanders feel like we have to work a bit harder to prove ourselves in the global arena. But what can make us seem like we’re even less sure of ourselves is what is referred to in linguistics as the High Rising Terminal. Also known as rising inflection or upspeak, this is where speakers raise their voices at the end of sentences, causing ordinary statements to sound more like questions? (Read that sentence aloud and you’ll hear what I mean.)
A simple statement spoken with confidence in any other English dialect comes out sounding peculiar in New Zealand English. Compare:
- “I’m going to the beach,” with, “I’m going to the beach?”
- “My mum is a teacher,” with, “My mum is a teacher?”
While this is one aspect of New Zealand English you wouldn’t need to adopt to fit in, it’s good to be aware of. Otherwise, you might find yourself in New Zealand attempting to answer a lot of strange questions about topics you know nothing about (like whether the mother of someone you just met is really a teacher or not).
Keep Your Mouth Shut
There’s a rumor in New Zealand — the kind grandmothers like to tell small children — that says our ancestors had to speak with their mouths closed in order to keep their false teeth in. While this probably isn’t the case, it can be a useful way to get your head around how we speak in New Zealand (or should I say, New Zild).
In 1966, an informal New Zealand English dictionary was published called, New Zild and how to speak it. The author began his book by asking the reader, “Air gun?” In this case, it was a simple question (How’s it going?), but written to mimic a broad Kiwi accent that removed at least half the syllables. Make sure to listen for this one when you meet a Kiwi, as we like to chat and it would be “bed menace” (bad manners) to ignore the question.
When it comes to swallowing letters, the letter L seems to have a particularly difficult time permeating New Zealand speech. Visitors to our shores will find that “Zealand” really is pronounced more like Zild, and “milk” sounds like mowk.
Land Of The Long Flat Vowel
According to linguists, we New Zealand English speakers are continuing our trend of inelegance. Our latest crime: merging our diphthongs, otherwise known as a sound that is comprised of two vowels that merge together. This has led some critics to dub us the “Land of the Long Flat Vowel.”
Words that would be pronounced with at least some level of distinction in other English dialects are closer to homophones in New Zenglish. In our dialect, it’s increasingly difficult to hear the difference between hair, hear and here; beer and bear; as well as there, their and they’re. This can lead to an almost infinite combination of potential misunderstandings.
How Many Women?
Just when you thought you were getting the hang of things in New Zealand, you go on a date, tell a mate, and suddenly you’re a womanizer.
OK, that’s a worst-case scenario. But it’s one worth watching out for because in New Zealand English, it’s virtually impossible to hear the difference between one “woman” and several “women.” While some British English speakers would pronounce “women” more like wimmin, we tend to slack off, nailing the O-sound but fumbling the ending. Whoops.
Fun With The Locals
Unlike other varieties of English, the accent that first developed in the South Island by the Scottish, Irish and English immigrants has been homogenized for a long time. It spread across our two isles, and now there are very few regional variations.
One rare exception can be found in the deep south, where locals still roll some of their Rs, much like their migrant ancestors. Rs at the beginning of words are safe, but Southlanders will turn Rs in the middle of sentences into soft burrs, so that their city of Invercargill is pronounced more like Invercarrrgill. Imagine how a pirate would say it and you’re good to go.