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Story: English language in New Zealand

JAFAs taking a tiki tour to the bach, wearing jandals and sitting under a pōhutukawa eating lollies and feeling a box of birds – New Zealand English has developed its own distinctive usages, reflecting every facet of life and operating at all levels of formality.

Story by Dianne Bardsley
Main image: Public toilets, Ōtorohanga

Story Summary

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New Zealand English

English, te reo Māori (the Māori language) and New Zealand Sign Language are New Zealand’s official languages. New Zealand English is influenced by New Zealand culture, people, institutions, geography, plants and animals.

Changing language

Some words are made informal by shortening them and adding ‘ie’ or ‘o’ – for instance smoko (morning tea) and scarfie (student, after the scarves students wear). Words have acquired new meanings – for instance, a creek was a coastal inlet in the UK, but in New Zealand means a stream.

Words can be compounded to make a new term, such as cattle-stop or woolshed. Some terms, such as haka and jet-boat, are known around the world, but others are only used in New Zealand. A holiday home is called a bach in the North Island but a crib in the South Island.

Studying New Zealand English

Despite New Zealand’s distance and differences from Britain, New Zealanders were expected to develop a similar type of English. New Zealand English was not systematically studied until the late 20th century.

Beginnings of New Zealand English

British explorer James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks gave English names to things in New Zealand, such as tea-tree, native flax and Māori cabbage. Whalers developed a slang that mixed Māori and English words and slang. Words were introduced from rural life, gold mining and kauri gum digging.

Nicknames for New Zealand have included Kiwiland, Maoriland, Aotearoa and Britain of the South Seas.

Words from Māori

New Zealand English includes Māori terms, such as mana, taonga (treasure) and kaumātua flat (accommodation for Māori pensioners). Māori words entered New Zealand English in the early years of European settlement. This happened less after the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, but began again in the 1970s with the Māori renaissance.

New words

New words enter New Zealand English from different sources, including:

  • politics – such as New Zealand First (a political party) and Rogernomics (the economic policies of the fourth Labour government, after Finance Minister Roger Douglas)
  • sport – such as black-water rafting and zorbing
  • conservation – such as kiwi crèche (a nursery for young kiwi) and mainland island (mainland wildlife sanctuary)
  • farming – such as calfetaria or lambitaria (artificial feeding system for calves or lambs)
  • the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes – such as liquefaction (the silty deposit from underground), CERA (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) and munted (broken).
How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'English language in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/english-language-in-new-zealand (accessed 19 October 2017)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 5 Sep 2013