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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Early Predominance of London Type of Speech

The speech of the first settlers in New Zealand was of course that of their homeland in all its varieties, so that standard and provincial English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish forms of the language were all represented. It is clear, however, that one of these various forms so far predominated that, as time went on and a more or less homogeneous speech developed, the resulting general character of the speech was fixed in what was the predominating variant. This was the speech of London and its neighbourhood as it existed in the early or middle nineteenth century, a form of speech called Cockney. In other words, New Zealand speech has a basis of this London character, and although many changes have since appeared in it, the speech of the New Zealander still retains many characteristic pronunciations of early and middle Victorian London English. Some of these will be described presently. In 1886 a visit was paid to New Zealand by James McBurney, a Scottish teacher of music and principal of the Ladies' College at Geelong in Victoria. McBurney was interested in pronunciation and had made himself familiar with the phonetic script invented by Alexander Ellis, the great pioneer in the study of the changes in the pronunciation of English throughout the ages. McBurney made an intensive study of the speech of the younger generation of Australians and New Zealanders and recorded the results of his observations in Ellis's phonetic script. He visited Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Napier, inspected the schools, heard the children sing and read, discussed their speech with their teachers, and finally wrote a detailed report on the whole subject which he sent to Ellis. McBurney found, as was to be expected, that the speech of the younger generation in Australia and New Zealand was predominantly that of the London area and he made this so clear that Ellis, when he printed McBurney's report, as he did in full, included it, rather oddly, in his general account of English speech of the south-eastern region so that it stands, in Volume V of Ellis's monumental Early English Pronunciation (London 1889), between the north-eastern and south-eastern districts of England, being treated as merely a variant form of the speech of those districts. This rather unfortunate arrangement meant that McBurney's report was generally overlooked and ignored in the countries where it should have naturally aroused the greatest interest. McBurney found that the speech of the children was generally that of their parents but already a development toward homogeneity was apparent after barely 50 years of the colony's history. He also perceived the first tendencies towards change in new directions, tendencies which not much later than his time moved forward at an accelerated pace. It may be said that the main difference between standard English and the speech of New Zealand, presently to be discussed in detail, began to appear during the years from 1900 to the present time. McBurney noted, for instance, the pronunciation of final i or y as ee in such words as hasty, safely, quickly, which is now so distinctive a feature of the speech, also the rather curious sound given to the long a in words like farm, barn, and star, now characteristic of the speech of both Australia and New Zealand. He would represent the sound with the phonetic symbol æ which represents the short a in pat or back but of course doubled to signify the length of the sound. He heard the newspaper boys in Auckland calling “stæ” and observes that “it had a strange sound”.

Both these sounds seem to have been spontaneously generated in Australasia though probably the final i and ee may have appeared in some forms of London speech. The predominance of the London type of speech is explicable on the ground that in the capital there was a greater degree of congestion of the population than elsewhere and concentration of the efforts to encourage emigration.


Arnold Wall, C.B.E., B.A.(CAMB.), M.A.(LOND.), D.LITT(N.Z.), F.R.S.TAS. (1869–1966), Professor Emeritus, University of Canterbury, and Author.Harold William Orsman, M.A.(N.Z.), Lecturer in English, Victoria University of Wellington.