Despite New Zealand’s geographical distance from Europe, and the considerable differences between Britain and a small South Pacific island nation with a rugged landscape, volcanic peaks and indigenous population, New Zealand and its citizens were expected to develop a variety of English not dissimilar to that of its northern ‘motherland’. In fact, little notice was taken of New Zealand English, and systematic research and scholarship into this language variety developed only late in the 20th century.
Studying the language
In the early 1890s James Murray, editor of the New English dictionary, precursor to the Oxford English dictionary, solicited words and usages peculiar to Australia and New Zealand.
Edward Ellis Morris of the University of Melbourne took up the challenge and sought New Zealand terms and evidence of their usage in written citations. Advertising widely in New Zealand newspapers for assistance, he gathered sufficient terms to publish an independent dictionary. In 1898 his comprehensive publication Austral English: a dictionary of Australasian words, phrases and usages went almost unheralded in New Zealand, while it was greeted with considerable criticism in Australia.
It was not until 1943 that the distinctiveness of New Zealand English was described, when Jack Bennett, a New Zealander at Oxford University in England, wrote about ‘English as it is spoken in New Zealand’ in the journal American Speech.
In 1943 New Zealander Jack Bennett criticised the way Pākehā pronounced and wrote Māori words. He mentioned careless and corrupt pronunciation and mutilated spelling. However, he noted that ‘in recent years, as a result of instruction in schools and on the radio, there has been a noticeable improvement … [and] school-children have been encouraged to use Maori words for indigenous trees and plants.’1
Bennett claimed that New Zealand English of the time was rich in slang, and strongly influenced by terms from rural life. He argued that local usages of bach, morning tea, shower (a food cover), smoke-oh (or smoko, a tea break for workers), lollies, blackballs (sweets) and service cars (vehicles for hire) were distinctive to New Zealand in the 1940s. To Bennett, there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that New Zealand and Australia had individual forms of English.
Victoria University of Wellington became an important centre of New Zealand English scholarship under Professor Ian Gordon, who taught there from 1937 to 1974. His student and fellow lecturer Harry Orsman edited the first dictionary dedicated to New Zealand English, which was published in 1997 after more than 40 years of research. The New Zealand Dictionary Centre was established at Victoria University in 1997 to maintain a database of New Zealand English words, to conduct research and to produce dictionaries and other educational publications.