New Zealand English does not differ significantly between cities, towns and rural districts – but words and phrases do vary on a regional basis. Linguistic innovations often happen in cities and later spread to smaller places. Urban subcultures all have their own jargon.
A 2003 study of urban and rural school children found that while linguistic differences between the two groups were not significant, certain words and phrases were unique to urban areas. Urban children used terms from TV and American slang more readily – ‘da bomb’ (the best, cool) had the strongest urban association of any term in the study.
City dwellers are often thought to speak faster than their rural counterparts. South Auckland is associated with Māori and Pacific Island ‘homey’ or hip-hop culture, which fuses local accents and phrases with American slang. Polynesian words like lavalava (wrap-around skirt) and taro (root vegetable) are also common in everyday speech there. Christchurch is sometimes disparaged on the basis that some residents speak with a ‘plummy’ English-sounding accent.
In January 2008 Auckland businessman Bruce Emery fatally stabbed 15-year-old Pihema Cameron after catching him and a friend tagging his garage door. In a controversial decision, Emery was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. Critics of graffiti have argued that tagging starts young people on the road to more serious crimes – but Cameron’s death has been the most serious criminal event associated with tagging in New Zealand to date.
Graffiti is a form of grass-roots visual expression which is found throughout urban centres, sometimes expressing political slogans. Modern forms of graffiti linked to hip-hop culture emerged in New York and spread to New Zealand in the 1980s. Tags (a stylised version of the writer’s name or pseudonym) and pieces (large murals) were the most common forms of graffiti in New Zealand cities in the early 2000s.
Graffiti is a controversial and contested urban issue. Tagging garners the most criticism. Practitioners see it as a way of gaining status among their peers and challenging mainstream society. Opponents see it as vandalism and symptomatic of social breakdown. Graffiti pieces have become more acceptable, especially when they are painted with the permission of property owners or in public spaces set aside for this purpose.
Most local councils have graffiti eradication or management policies. In 2008 tagging and graffiti became a specific offence against property, and the sale of spray-paint cans to under-18-year-olds was prohibited.
In 2006 the Auckland City Council proposed banning billboards from the central city and major shopping centres like Newmarket so people could better appreciate the buildings, heritage and landscapes. After intense lobbying by the advertising industry the council adopted a more moderate by-law and allowed existing billboards to remain in these areas.
Billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising are a predominantly urban form of communication. Like graffiti, large-scale advertising is a dominant – and contested –feature of urban landscapes. Some argue that advertising contributes to the city’s vitality and liveliness, while others see it as visual pollution. Unlike graffiti, outdoor advertising does not emerge from urban subcultures, but from corporate firms and their clients.
City dwellers often abide by commonsense behavioural codes which help make cities run smoothly. Examples include able-bodied people giving up seats on public transport for the elderly and infirm, pregnant women and small children, and keeping to the left on escalators and busy inner-city footpaths. Visitors, new residents and others can transgress codes and receive some criticism for their blunders.
Not all urban practices facilitate good community relations or make cities run smoothly. Strangers often avoid eye contact when in close quarters such as lifts. Pedestrian jay-walking (crossing roads at uncontrolled points) is common in cities. In the early 2000s the great majority (more than 90%) of pedestrian accidents in New Zealand occurred on urban roads, and 60% of people hospitalised because of their injuries lived in the Auckland, Wellington or Canterbury regions (which have the largest urban populations). Unlike in the United States, jay-walking is not illegal in New Zealand, though if a pedestrian is within 20 metres of a crossing it must be used.