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How Kiwi language is changing for both plebs and prime ministers

Kiwi as: John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Photos/Getty Images/New Zealand Herald

The Pak’nSave stick figure says it; former Prime Minister John Key said it; current PM Jacinda Ardern has even said it.

“Nuh-think.” We might be stuck with this corruption of “nothing”, because aside from its being easier for many people to pronounce the hard K than the indistinct G consonant, “think” seems subconsciously to reinforce the meaning of the word better than “thing.” It’s as if the true meaning of “nothing” is “No thing that I/you can think of.”

Similarly, it might grate that “cute” and “fit”, once applied to kittens and cardiovascular condition, now both mean attractive and sexy and that the boat with “gay” meaning bright and jolly sailed decades ago.

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Sometimes the appeal of a sound beats our sense of correctness. Mischievous is widely pronounced mis-chee-vious because it sounds naughtier than the correct miss-chi-viss. Other times, when consonants don’t trip off the tongue, we behave as if they’re not there: the “l” is often dropped from vulnerable.

Nouns are increasingly becoming verbs, and some really do fill a gap in the market. Who hasn’t had a day when “adulting” is simply too hard? This can jar with some when the process creates a new word where a perfectly serviceable one exists: “Auckland is versing [opposing] Wellington”.

Impacting is a frequent cause of complaint, but we’re probably stuck with it because of common confusion over the difference between “affect” and its close relative and near-full-time homophone “effect”. In turn, verbs are becoming descriptors, à la “Quinoa is a fail food”; “Robert is a cringe actor.”

Telescoped expressions such as the Kiwiana motto “sweet as” (as what?) are expanding in use. The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer popularised “much”, as in “Embarrassed much?”; now it’s almost old hat. Still handy is “because”: “Not coming because ’flu”; “Busy because Netflix”; or just “Because reasons”.

Habit and age can make some of us irritable about such transgressions and malapropisms morphing into majority usage – but that is, after all, how language evolves. As former English teacher Joe Bennett says, English has never had, as French does, an official academy of guardians ordaining what the language will and won’t include. Teachers are gatekeepers of sorts, but no one has the power or moral authority to stop people communicating as they see fit outside the exam room. “Whom” is already out to pasture. With it could go the distinction between less and fewer. British language commentator Oliver Kamm argues the received-wisdom rules about their usage are inherently contradictory. People say that they’re “less than 50 pages into War and Peace” and no one dies.

“Yes, ‘fewer’ usually sounds more idiomatic for count nouns,” Kamm told BuzzFeed. “But not always, and especially not when used of units of measurement. ‘Fewer than 10 miles’ sounds ridiculous.”

Guerrilla grammar nuts may correct apostrophe abuse on billboards in the dead of night, but that small punctuation mark is also circling the drain. Bennett is one who argues that they matter only to aficionados. It’s seldom that context does not make it clear whether an s indicates possession (Andrew’s car) or a contraction (Janet’s having a morning tea). What’s more, the rules are confusing, and incorrect apostrophe use is common.

The venerable sport of mocking greengrocers’ signs may soon be a thing of the past. A recent tweet from Wisconsin featured an (unshown) item of produce labelled “.25 by the each.” Unorthodox, but crystal-clear.

Even those awkward translations of instructions and signs from another language into English are only hilarious because we instantly understand what it means when, for instance, Swedish firm Bodum recommends of its coffee plungers “Do not depress with violence” or a Japanese park urges “Do not empty your dog here.”

BuzzFeed’s style-guide compiler Emmy Favilla is among those relaxed, to the point of being celebratory, about common corruptions such as “irregardless”, because she says their meaning is clear.

We’re also stuck with “literally”, not in its traditional meaning, but as an exclamatory multiplier. Similarly “decimate”, which originally meant to cull one in 10, is now accepted by all but sticklers as a word in the same ballpark as devastate.

“Hopefully”, once strictly laced up as in “she entered the competition hopefully,” is no longer infra dig in a phrase such as “hopefully, my team will win”.

There’s even a “stop the full stop” movement. It’s increasingly seen as finicky to use in texts, tweets and the like, to the point where some language-watchers think it’s expendable. Provided sentences are coherent and start with a capital letter, period-less writing should be comprehensible.

In fact, lexicographer David Crystal warns, in these punctuation-light times, a full stop can be passive-aggressive. At a recent language conference, he contrasted a texted reply of “Fine” with one of “Fine”. The latter, he argued, could be construed as the responder indicating huffy annoyance rather than neutral or polite acceptance.

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.