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The rise and rise of the Kiwi accent

Our “ixceent” has been a source of cringing and mockery for decades but is now celebrated as part of an emerging, distinctive culture.

It’s generally thought that the distinctive New Zealand accent first hit its straps in the 1960s, when chef Alison Holst went on television talking about how to cook “fush”. But our Received English vowels had been soaking up the colonial-twang marinade since at least the 1900s.

And to read the archives, notably letters and articles in the Listener over many decades, many of us fought our “ixceent” every step of the way.

Linguistics professor Elizabeth Gordon has studied New Zealand’s distinctive speech patterns more closely than most and can attest that the great vowel changes were well under way more than a century ago. Initially, locals and settlers deplored the changes as the influence of Cockney – not generally regarded as quirky and endearing as it is now. But, Gordon says, Cockney was not a particular influence.

Clearly, colonial New Zealand was a soup of different incoming accents. But the templates don’t fit neatly. The Scots might perhaps have given us “fush” for fish, the Northern Irish “flayce” for fleece. But where did “ket” for cat or “dreess” for dress come from?


Gordon says the “eh” sound in trap, cat and tap probably originated with English settlers. But, however it happened, it started a vowel-slide. “One moves and the next one has to move to get out of the way.” The dipthongs, the double-vowel sounds in words like face, price, choice, goat and mouth, have also been in motion.

A useful sample of the trajectory is recordings of Radio New Zealand’s now-retired rural presenter, Jack Perkins. The 1972 Perkins is a careful speaker; his vowels are strict, his pronunciation more clipped. In 2015, he’s talking to an older woman from Wellington’s wealthier middle classes who remembers as a child the declaration of World War II. She says “glowing” like a UK drama graduate, pronounces white as “hwite”, and spells out every syllable of words such as “particularly”. But his diction, three decades on, is looser, his vowels roaming more.

Wellington broadcaster Garry Ward, who died in 2009, used to reminisce that when he started with the NZ Broadcasting Service, he was instructed to pronounce his name as “Gedd-eh”, and it was years before he was allowed to use his authentic accent. Among the habits he and other broadcasters were encouraged to fight was the perceived over-pronunciation of -y and -ies endings, as “ee” and “ees”. Cultured British speakers snipped those -y and plural endings ever so crisply so that “babies” became “bay-biz” and lorry was lor-reh – not forgetting the slight roll of the R into not quite a D.

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener

Hewn from the bush

Further clues to the origins of our speech and language come from poet and educationalist Arthur Wall (1869-1966), a professor of English who wrote and broadcast on our speech with some authority. He defended in the Listener an apparent tendency for New Zealanders to use the uglier, harsher-sounding synonym for a word when a more euphonious one was available, explaining that as in-comers to a fairly exacting new environment, settlers had to work with what they had. And what they had bore little resemblance to where they’d come from. The New Zealand and Australian wilderness looked nothing at all like English woodlands, copses and spinnys. The general landscape seemed hard to describe in terms of vales, fenns and fells. The stock grazing areas were nothing like British meadows. New words for them made sense: bush, paddock, gully, even creek for what turned out to be parts of magnificent rivers.

Wall wrote that Australia’s earlier settlement was highly influential on the subsequent New Zealand lexicon, as initially New Zealand immigrants came through Australia. In the harsh and challenging environment for settlers on both sides of the Tasman, he wrote, “the pioneers … were, of course, rigidly practical in their outlook and their main aims were strictly material, so that anything in the nature of poetry or sentiment was alien to their manner of thought and speech.”

Wall also charted our habit of self-deprecation. “… From the early days, the colonists adopted almost as a national idiom the figure of speech called meiosis or litotes … the ironically modest form of speech, [which is] the opposite of boasting. Thus, they still called their horse, however proud they were of it, ‘the moke’ and their dog ‘the mong’.”

This ironic modesty became a firm habit. One’s thousand-acre block might be referred to as “the paddock”, and even when surveys found that erstwhile-labelled creeks were tributaries of mighty rivers, creeks they remained

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener


Debating our voice

A general rule is that language change has been around for 30 years before it gets noticed, Gordon says. The noticing was well under way by the time the Listener first went to press. Many comments about the particulars of our language were first recorded in this magazine’s letters pages, a treasure trove for Gordon’s early studies – including two dozen letters in the 1940s disputing the pronunciation of Yarmouth and Marlborough. The Listener was one of the few publications in this country to run a regular language column – by professor of English Ian Gordon (no relation), for at least a decade. That “wonderful resource” of language change – and our views about it – now sits in about five ring binders in the Canterbury University linguistics department.

The poet and essayist ARD Fairburn was pitiless in his mocking of our speech in these pages, writing that it sometimes seemed New Zealanders all had cleft palates or loose dental plates. He regretted that we mis-stressed words, saying FIN-nance instead of fin-NANCE and AD-dult instead of ad-DULT, and he rued our “lazy” shortenings, such as Bri’in for Britain. Our “now”, he observed, rhymed with “meow”.

But arguably worse, Fairburn wrote, were the attempts to genteel-ise the accent. The socially pretentious would, to his ear, further torture the language to try to dissociate themselves from the common folk. “The round O diphthong (is) … pinched and drawled so that home becomes hao-ome. No becomes Na-ow or even neh-yoo.” Fairburn also deplored “fast” for first and “pah-sons” for persons, and other random borrowings from perceived-posh English.

Concern at the lack of euphony of our brogue moved some schools to introduce elocution in the form of “standard English pronunciation” in the 1930s. Ian Gordon recalled in a column that their pupils’ beautifully enunciated poetry readings were “a joy” later ruined by hearing them resort to their real accents in the playground.

Elizabeth Gordon has quoted a 1910 report that New Zealanders’ speech patterns were causing nasal and throat afflictions. “In other words, the New Zealand accent was so bad it could make you ill.”

Many made helpful suggestions from afar. An idle tongue, a rigid jaw and atrophied labial muscles was the diagnosis of Trinity College Dublin examiner Andrew Morrison. Our vowels were vey-oools, he winced. In an NZBC talk reprinted in the Listener, he instanced the stock elocution exercise being extruded as “Heyow neyow, Brey-own Cey-owe”. As for consonants, he was sad to say that we seldom troubled our tongues to sound Ls, and our plosives tended to “vanish without trace”.

Illustration/Anthony Ellison/Listener

Morrison also complained about “bull for bill, mulk for milk”, our inability to communicate a short-vowel sound without lengthening it – yes becomes yeeeees – and fretted that our “diphthongs frequently expire in a drawl and resolve themselves to triphthongs”. It especially upset him that we called our beautiful country “Nu Zilland”.

On the other hand, there was some rejoicing in the sheer exuberance of what we did with words, especially when we decided we needed new ones. Frequent YA radio correspondent, New Zealand-born philologist Sydney J Baker, said New Zealanders and Australians should be proud to have invented dag, ripsnorter, pearler, corker and wonky, among other playful words. An academic celebrant of linguistic diversity down under, he cited American scholar HL Mencken’s view that slang was to language what dancing was to music.

Baker did tell us off for our mispronunciation of Māori, “a graceful, charming language in which little harshness appears” but which Pākehā “mutilated practically to beyond recognition” with such travesties as Paikok for Paekākāriki and Wai-mac for Waimakariri.

These days, we seem to be coming to better terms with both English and Māori pronunciation – taking a nascent pride in our ixceent for the former, and putting sincere effort into pronouncing the latter correctly.

Education, social class and ethnicity influence how we speak, as does the region we live in. And it’s far wider than the famous Southland burr or the rural Northland broadness. There are many other recognisable aspects outside the vowel changes: local words such as togs and jandals and bach; the many dozens of te reo imports into New Zealand English – ongoing with words such as kaupapa, rāhui, mahi – something that was absent beyond flora, fauna and place-names before about 1970, says Gordon. Then there’s “eh” – what linguists call a tag particle, the high rising terminal where our pitch goes up at the end of sentences – and the “eyebrow nod”.

A recent survey – of admittedly questionable provenance – rated the New Zealand accent as the world’s sexiest. TVNZ 1’s Seven Sharp celebrated by overdubbing famous romantic movie scenes in the broadest variant of it, these days a sort of Lyn of Tawa meets the Māori English of the “ghost chups” road-safety commercial.

Our accent, one of the “more mobile” in the English world, is still on the move. The “r” that’s appearing in South Auckland speech has nothing to do with Southland, says Miriam Meyerhoff, linguistics professor at Victoria University, who won a Marsden Fund grant to  investigate the language changes in the city’s diverse suburbs. It’s in more words than “nurse” or “turn”, for a start. And, sorry, but nobody in Auckland looks to Southland for their social influences, says Meyerhoff, particularly Auckland’s urban youth. It’s possible it comes from media influences, or the strong links between Samoa and American Samoa – though Samoans have been noted as saying “that’s a Tongan thing”.

Other changes are in play in our young people’s speech, says Meyerhoff. There are indications that their vowel sounds are jostling again as they forge a new Kiwi identity. “They don’t want to sound like Barry Crump.”

Meyerhoff and Elizabeth Gordon believe the use of “eh? at the end of sentences arrived courtesy of the Māori interrogative word “neh”, though not all linguists agree.

David Lange and Helen Clark. Photos/Getty Images

Talking heads

Our more recent political leaders are sounding increasingly broadly Kiwi. We’re now amused by tapes of plummy “Kiwi” Keith Holyoake, prime minister in 1957, then from 1960-72, who, despite his common-man appeal and his pride in New Zealand’s functional independence from Britain, found it necessary to speak Received Pronunciation. We were rather tied to the British apron strings economically in his time. Robert Muldoon was plum-free, eerily appropriate for a time when Britain abandoned us to join the European Economic Community.

In a category all his own was David Lange, with his swooping, orotund courtroom oratory. But Jim Bolger – despite an unconscious habit of (badly) imitating foreign accents from wherever he visited – restored the wool shed-debating accent to our domestic politics. Helen Clark introduced us to “pover-dee” and “tuh-dye (today)” and Kiwi-isms like “Ahv had a gutful!” John Key worked for decades overseas without it denting his state-house Nu Zild. His successor, long-time finance minister Bill English, had a textbook Southlandic honk which endured, perhaps even intensified, during his years in peee-ar (power).

John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Photos/left, Hagen Hopkins; right, Newspix

Budder them up

Present Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who’s tertiary educated and spent time in the UK, is a great one for “t-flapping”, notes Meyerhoff. That’s “pover-dee”-plus: her t sounds often migrate to d, so that butter sounds like budder. And, like Key, her somethings and nothings often emerge as somethinks and nothinks (a usage that’s been around since the time of Dickens, says Gordon).

New Zealand First’s Shane Jones has brought a bilingual version of marae oratory to politics, while his leader, Winston Peters, is a pioneer of racing-commentary-fast speech, which seemingly requires  only one breath per soliloquy from him, and no use of the space bar by Hansard typists.

Simon Bridges, despite a high-powered law career and a postgrad degree at Oxford, has retained a broad West Auckland accent that makes his name sound like “soymun brudgiz”. A couple of decades ago, Bridges and his Westie deputy, Paula Bennett, would have been packed off to speech lessons as part of the politicians’ standard media-training and image-makeover factory.

The fact that their vowels and diction don’t vary (and aren’t seen as needing to vary) depending on their audience as much as politicians of the past suggests they probably represent a wider acceptance of the Kiwi accent, perhaps even a national pride. “They have good New Zealand accents, no apologies,” says Gordon.

English is a foreign language

Dialects the world over can defy interpretation.

Wellington journalist Andrea Vance was recently being teased by Kiwi colleagues about the heroic extrusion of vowels in her native Northern Ireland.

“Wey-ill, ard lay-est way-y eee-yews arh-rah varrh-wells!” she retorted. (Translation: well, at least we use our vowels.)

She has a point. Spoken New Zealand English can seem, to incomers, as using vowels as mere condiments – optional and lightly sprinkled. Actually, we can take or leave quite a few of our consonants, too.

But a random trawl through any of the world’s English dialects would show ours is probably not any more or less idiosyncratic than anyone else’s. All dialects have features at once both mockable and endearing. Brummies call their city Bear-ming-gum. Geordies call theirs Nuke-Astle. Arkansas folk hailed their Governor, then President, as Bill Clin’in. His successor, Texan George W Bush, said he was proud to represent the “’Merkin people”. (A merkin is a pubic wig.) Shop in Louisiana and the staff will ask “K’nah hep y’all?”

In parts of Scotland, a girl is a gurrell and the world is the wurrold. Aberdeen is sometimes called the furry boots city, because visitors are asked, “Furry boots are ye from?”

Then there are the extra “doing” words. The Irish seldom say, “Are you painting the kitchen?” when they can say, “Are you after painting the kitchen?”

A Dublin woman, talking about the size of the city’s annual Pride parade, exclaimed, “Are dey all after being’ gay now, d’ye think?”

Doing words are even more compounded in the Southern US, as actress Reese Witherspoon described in a book. The future tense is denoted by “fixin’ to” do something, and the past is what she calls “did-done” As in, “Yeah, he did do,” or “He done did it.” She says her husband and children “can’t understand a word of it, but it makes perfect sense to me. I mean, why would you did do what you already did done?”

A Listener account of British emigres to Wellington describes the importance of bending one’s vowels kiwi-ward in order to be understood. Wartime child-evacuee from Yorkshire, Ada Bradley, recalled, “When I explained on one occasion that I was late for an appointment because I’d lost mah bark pooomp, there was a roar of laughter.”

We can all, in our own words, sound bonkers to those who haven’t yet got their ear attuned to our dialect.

Shifting vowels

The fish’n’chips test is the surest way to tell an Australian from a New Zealander – but why our fush is their feesh, no one knows.

Linguists told the Listener in 2005 that our differing vowel movements are as yet unexplained. It’s fairly standard that when a vowel sound does start to move in a community, it displaces other vowels down the chain. But our two sets diverged in different directions.

The documentary New Zild that year postulated that our accent first emerged in the gold fields. Linguists say it might have appeared that way because there was such a busy confluence of people in the area in early colonial times. But the main directional thrust of most dialects is from the ground up: from the lowest classes on up, rather than the other way round.

Canterbury University linguist Jennifer Hay told the Listener the most innovative speakers of any time are usually those whose accents and sayings are considered the most cringeworthy or undesirable. The language of youthful mall hangers-out will be far more influential on how we speak in coming years than, say, the Governor-General.

Linguist Laurie Bauer said there was nothing particularly Darwinian about the evolution of language. Ways of speech started as a means for certain groups to differentiate themselves, some of these in time becoming an “in” group which others emulated. A group exploits the variability of the language of the time, and eventually if some of that new variability becomes meaningful to people outside the group, it can become widespread and even the norm.

There’s also a demographic imperative, as there is with music, for each generation to dissociate itself from its parents. As Hay said, “By the time someone is seven or eight, it doesn’t matter where their parents came from, they’ll be talking like their friends at school.”

The linguists’ predictions from 14 years ago? That our “oo” sound in words like “good” would move further towards “gid”; that our “oo” sound in words like “goose” would be closer to “gerse”; words like “sure” would morph from “shooer” to “shore”; and the “th” in words like “father” would succumb to the old Cockney “v” as in “’Ow’s yer farver”.

Elizabeth Gordon said if such changes seemed alarming, it was worth noting that once “sea” and “see” were pronounced differently; sea was “say” and see was “see”. Vowels never stay still.


This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.