Do NZers say zed or zee? Paul Little investigates the slow creep of zee into our language.
But increasingly, and especially among younger people, that unloved straggler at the end of the alphabet is being pronounced as zee instead of the traditional and widely accepted zed.
Miriam Meyerhoff, professor of linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, was listening to The Sound radio station one day in December when she heard something that really caught her attention. “It was an ad that finished with the person saying something was ‘the best in Enzee’. It really surprised me because I would have thought that Enzed, to refer to the country, has the status of a word. It is not decomposable.”
It’s impossible to say exactly when zee started to be used here, though there are a couple of obvious cultural reference points. The American TV show Sesame Street, made in the only English-speaking country in which zee is the standard pronunciation, first aired here in the 1970s when there was only one channel, so it was able to slip zee in via those infrequent episodes that were brought to you by that letter.
And no one ever reclined in a La-Zed-Boy chair. The La-Z-Boy name only worked with the zee pronunciation. But the culprit most often cited is that innocuous, ubiquitous, infectious ditty: the alphabet song, copyrighted in 1835 in the United States.
Andreea Calude, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Waikato, sings the song to her children. She thinks the fact that the ending only works as “x, y and zee – now I know my ABC, next time won’t you sing with me” has had an effect. “It could be as simple as the fact that this culturally ingrained practice of singing the alphabet song, which every child goes through, has over the years pushed the pronunciation of the letter, especially as it’s not a very common letter, so won’t resist change as much, and that’s how we ended up with the variation.”
Calude can be more objective than most. She is Romanian and “we didn’t have an A-B-C song when I was a child. We just struggled. Though they’ve got one since then.”
Should we resist this change? Does it have any significance beyond itself? Does it even matter? Don’t bother asking the Ministry of Education, which was reluctant to provide any guidelines on how z should be pronounced other than to say by email: “We provide teachers with guidance on teaching oral language, including the phonetic approach to English. However, this doesn’t include specific guidance on how English letters are pronounced.”
In other words, it’s a classroom free-for-all and, apparently, no one will be penalised for pronouncing any letter any which way.
Some argue persuasively that zed is secure because, unlike most countries, we use the letter a lot. It is part of our name. Good old Enzed. We and z have a special relationship. It’s often been observed of us that we are so sensitive to it that we can pick the letter out of a page of type at 20 paces.
No one talks about the Bee-En-Zee or the Ay-En-Zee banks. No one listens to Newstalk Zee-Bee or music station Zee-Em. Radio station Channel Z, which showcased local music, was anomalously zee. Its cultural-identity confusion was resolved only by renaming it Kiwi FM.
“We’d done a lot of research,” says Anthony. “There were strong views around being a New Zealand fuel company. So we decided early on we wanted something that connected us to New Zealand. Z was something we all gravitated towards. Our research also showed, when we tested Z, that a lot of people didn’t have an opinion. That was good, too, because it meant we could create our own story.”
And, yes, they did agonise over the zed or zee issue and it has come home to roost. “We were all of the age where no one says the alphabet and ends with zee. But now, you hear a lot of people say zee. In the early days, I’d correct them: ‘We’re zed.’ Now I think zed or zee … We talk a lot about new New Zealanders – New Zealand has a different make-up nowadays. But we will always be zed in our hearts.”
Which suggests that even if zee is creeping into daily usage, zed seems secure. But not everyone agrees.
In fact, bibliophile, critic and Listener reviewer Nicholas Reid believes, regretfully, that the battle is over. “I’m of a generation that rankles at the infiltration – via TV, the internet, etc – of American locutions and pronunciations, but I think the trend is unstoppable. Like it or not, American English is now the dominant and standard form of English. My basic opinion is that it would be futile to make a ruling on how it should be pronounced as kids are going to say zee anyway.”
Tony Deverson, a former co-editor of the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, also thinks it’s a lost cause. “My impression, for what it’s worth,” he says, “is that zee is well established, especially among the youngest generation, and on the way to replacing zed.” He blames Sesame Street and US-made language-learning toys, and he is not worried. “[It] seems unexceptionable. Zee has more in common with other letter pronunciations than zed, which is the only one of the 26 both beginning and ending in a consonant sound, and x-y-zee makes a nice parallel to a-b-cee.”
Deverson and Reid admit they are working from hunches. But Meyerhoff believes there’s evidence to support them, including the use of “the best in Enzee” on The Sounds station. She says the very fact it was on that station has significance: “Because it was on what you’d generally say was a tradie station, and it’s quite common for language change to first take off in the upper working and lower middle class.”
In the late 1980s, Meyerhoff was involved in a research project that checked on the use of word pairs such as torch and flashlight, and at that time, zed or zee wasn’t even included in the results. She thinks that would be different now.
“My guess a year ago would have been that New Zealanders are happy with the alternation for the letter in isolation but the name of the country would be a bastion. Now, I’m not sure.”
This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.