Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
Similar to how Canadians can be offended if you mistake them for Americans, New Zealanders (or Kiwis, as we affectionately call them) might feel prickled if you mistake them for Australians. As an Australian, I can understand: I’d much rather be known for Lord of the Rings landscapes than small furry bears with sexually transmitted infections (most koalas have chlamydia — no really). But how do you tell the difference between the New Zealand and the Australian accent?
In order to get off on the right foot with your Kiwi and Aussie friends, here are some cues and clues to tell your island-nation friends apart!
1. Vowel Pronunciation
Although Australians and Kiwis might sound comparatively close to the untrained ear, research has shown there is a distinct contrast in the pronunciation of vowels. Australians tend to pronounce their vowels with more emphasis on the sound [ee], whereas New Zealanders are more prominent with [u] sounds. A clear example of this can be found in how most Kiwis pronounce “fish and chips.” They’re likely to say something closer to fush and chups or f’sh and ch’ps, whereas most Aussies would say something closer to feesh and cheeps.
The same goes for Aussies pronouncing “Sydney” like Sidney, rather than Kiwis who might pronounce it closer to Sudney. These kinds of vowel differences may sound subtle to an American or a Brit, but they’re what you’ll need to listen out for if you want to make an accurate guess. If you can’t trick a Kiwi or an Aussie into pronouncing “fish and chips,” there are a few more things you can listen for — like their vocabulary.
2. Slang And Vocabulary
Australians and New Zealanders are two countries that are particularly fond of using colloquialisms and slang in everyday speech. It’s almost as though we have two words for everything in Australia — and it seems our Kiwi neighbors love to do it too! For example, Australians will call a portable cooler an esky while New Zealanders know them as a chilly bin.
New Zealanders have their own slang too, like the term Jandals — which is used to refer to thongs, or “flip-flops” as Americans know them. You can also recognize a Kiwi by the rather shocking phrase “I went tramping last weekend,” which actually refers to the act of “hiking,” rather than anything salacious.
Australians also love to shorten and abbreviate their words, which is a key aspect of Australian English. For example: breakfast = brekkie, McDonalds = Maccas, dinner = dins, and so on. It took all my self-restraint, as a true blue Aussie, to write “vocabulary” in the header above rather than vocab. Seriously.
Our abbreviations are a language all their own, and we can barely count the number of videos where Australians list all the unusual abbreviations we use. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find the Australians who even drop the last letters of words like “running” or “crying” to instead say runnin’ or cryin’.
Aside from the difference in vowel pronunciation, studies suggest these accents are the most homogeneous out of all the English-speaking countries. If we were to visualize a spectrum of aural difference within English accents, where Australians are on the leftmost side and Americans on the rightmost, you could place New Zealanders closer to the Aussie side and Brits somewhere in the middle.
Additionally, both New Zealand English and Australian English are varieties of non-rhotic English. If you’re curious as to what that means, rhoticity refers to the degree that the R is pronounced in an accent. Non-rhotic English, or non-rhotic accents, are characterized by dropping the [r] sound with words ending in R, like in most British accents.
Theories About The Distinction
So why are these two accents so close and yet so far apart? Linguists have proposed two central theories to explain the similarities between the Australian and New Zealand accent: the “Mixing Bowl” theory and the “Single Origin” theory.
Proponents of the Mixing Bowl theory believe that the new accent evolved from the mixture of accents and dialects of original immigrants to both New Zealand and Australia. Meanwhile, those who believe in the Single Origin theory believe that Kiwis and Aussies are both descended from a particular variety of British English. Since they had similar immigrant groups, their accents must be similar. But there’s still a lot of debate both in the academic world and in the local pub!