Story: Speech and accent

After New Zealanders developed their own accent in the late 19th century, people complained about a ‘colonial twang’. In the 2000s New Zealand English varieties included Māori English, which was mostly, but not exclusively, spoken by Māori; and Southland English, which features what people call a rolling ‘R’.

Story by Elizabeth Gordon
Main image: 'Fush and chups' cartoon, 2009

Story Summary

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Early New Zealand speech

In the late 19th century people noticed a distinct New Zealand accent in English speech, which they complained was a ‘colonial twang’. School inspectors often complained about children’s pronunciation – especially of diphthongs (a speech sound that begins with one vowel and glides to another, such as in ‘mouth’). Speech training was introduced to primary schools but had little effect.

Researchers listening to 1940s recordings found that people born in the 1850s and 1860s had similar accents to their immigrant parents – but those born in the 1870s and 1880s had more of an early New Zealand accent.

Explanations

In the past people complained that the New Zealand accent was due to laziness or bad influences. Today it is thought to be based on the accent of south-east England, where most migrants came from. The accent spread quickly among children in schools.

Vowels

In New Zealand English:

  • the vowel in words like ‘farm’ and ‘park’ is long and pronounced ‘ah’
  • ‘kit’ is pronounced rather like ‘cut’
  • the vowel in ‘trap’ is pronounced high in the mouth, and outside New Zealand can be mistaken for the vowel in ‘dress’
  • the vowel in ‘bed’ also has a raised pronunciation, and can be mistaken for ‘bead’.

There is also a High Rising Terminal Intonation – a rising tone at the end of a sentence.

Changes today

There have been a number of recent changes in New Zealand English.

  • An ‘l’ after a vowel can become a vowel sound – so ‘feel’ is pronounced ‘fee-u’.
  • In the past New Zealanders pronounced ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ differently. Today many people make no distinction between these words.
  • ‘Grown’ and ‘known’ may be pronounced ‘growen’ and ‘knowen’.

Variation

  • New Zealand English varies between social classes.
  • The only regional dialect is in Southland and parts of Otago, where an ‘R’ sound is more commonly pronounced after vowels. This accent was maintained by the area’s Scottish settlers.
  • Māori English is heard increasingly often. It is not spoken by all Māori, and some Pākehā also use it. It has a different rhythm from Pākehā NZE, and ‘eh’ is more often used at the end of a sentence.
How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Gordon, 'Speech and accent', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/speech-and-accent (accessed 25 September 2018)

Story by Elizabeth Gordon, published 5 Sep 2013