Story: Speech and accent

Page 1. Early New Zealand speech

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At the end of the 19th century people became aware of a distinctive New Zealand accent, which they called a ‘colonial twang’. Soon complaints about it were coming from all parts of New Zealand.


Phonemes are a small unit of sound in speech, and are represented by linguists between two slashes, for example /r/. Keywords in capital letters are used to refer to vowel phonemes. START, for example, represents the phoneme /a/, which appears in words such as cart, grass, dance and bath.

Samuel McBurney

The first person to record and describe pronunciation in New Zealand was Samuel McBurney, a Scottish singing teacher, who travelled around New Zealand, Australia and North America in 1887, making notes of pronunciations he heard.

McBurney found pronunciation in New Zealand was highly variable, with four versions of the vowel in ‘hand’ and three of the vowel in ‘dance’. He noted features that are no longer characteristic of general New Zealand English:

  • /r/ used at the end of words – for instance, singer pronounced ‘sing-er’ rather than ‘sing-a’
  • both /w/ and /hw/ were used in ‘which’ – ‘wich’ and ‘hwhich’.

In an article in the Press McBurney wrote that since coming to New Zealand he was definitely able to say ‘there is another type [of accent] here’. He then added, ‘this is difficult to define.’1

School inspectors

A regular source of comment and complaint about early New Zealand English pronunciation can be found in the annual reports of New Zealand school inspectors. Between 1880 and 1900 their main concerns were:

  • h-dropping – ‘orse’ for ‘horse’
  • the use of word-final /n/ – ‘runnin' instead of ‘running’.

’appy ’ummin’ birds

Westland school inspector John Smith commented in an 1880 report, ‘It is a common experience to find children repeating such lines as “O ’appy, ’appy ’ummin’-bird,” varied by “O wappy yappy yummin’-bird” and such defects are naturally more marked in the few cases where the teachers themselves have acquired a habit of incorrect pronunciation.’2

After 1900 inspectors began to complain about a ‘colonial twang’. They were concerned that teachers also used this pronunciation, and the government was called on to support corrective measures. Speech training lessons were introduced into New Zealand primary schools but they had little or no effect.

The pronunciation of diphthongs (a speech sound that begins with one vowel and glides to another) caused most concern to the inspectors. The majority of the complaints (starting in the 1890s) were about:

  • /au/ (as in MOUTH) – ‘house’ sounded like ‘heouse’
  • /ai/ (as in PRICE) – ‘fine’ sounded like ‘foine’.

Twenty years later complaints appeared about:

  • /ei/ (as in FACE) – ‘tail’ sounded like ‘tile’
  • /ou/ (as in GOAT) – ‘home’ had become ‘hah-ome’.

There were also early references to the unstressed vowel, with complaints after 1900 about pronunciations such as ‘systum’ for ‘system’ and ‘placuz’ for ‘places’. All of these are still features of some varieties of New Zealand English.

Rotten pronunciation

Charles Baeyertz, editor of the journal Triad, was highly critical of New Zealand pronunciation when it deviated from cultivated British speech. He wrote that ‘a bad local accent is not bad because it is local, but merely because it is vile on general principles. It is hateful as a bad egg is hateful – because it offends a decent and wholesome sense.’3 He was equally scathing about affected ‘posh’ pronunciation.

Spoken evidence

Researchers have analysed recordings collected between 1946 and 1948 by the Mobile Disc Recording Unit of the New Zealand National Broadcasting Service. The Mobile Unit travelled through parts of the North Island and Otago collecting early pioneer reminiscences. The archive contains recordings of the speech of over 300 people born in New Zealand between the 1850s and the 1890s.

Most speakers born in the 1850s and 1860s had accents similar to their immigrant parents. By the 1870s and 1880s someone born in a North Island town with Scottish parents could sound similar to someone from a South Island town with Irish parents. This demonstrates the remarkable speed with which the New Zealand accent developed.

  1. The Press, 5 October 1887, p. 5. Back
  2. Quoted in Elizabeth Gordon, Finding our own voice: New Zealand English in the making. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2008, p. 15. Back
  3. Quoted in Finding our own voice, p. 14. Back
How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Gordon, 'Speech and accent - Early New Zealand speech', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Elizabeth Gordon, published 5 Sep 2013