Story: Speech and accent

Page 4. Sound changes in speech

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A widespread New Zealand English (NZE) sound change involves /l/ after vowels, whereby tongue-tip contact is lost and /l/ is vocalised (becomes a vowel like that in FOOT). ‘Feel’ becomes ‘fee-u’, railway becomes ‘rai-u-way’. This change is occurring in other varieties of English but it seems to be more advanced in NZE.

Watery memorial

Sometimes pronunciation changes lead to spelling mistakes. In 2004, a notice for Anzac Day was printed in the Press newspaper. It went: ‘a reef laying and remembrance ceremony will be held.’1 It should have said ‘wreath laying …’, but pronunciation of ‘th’ as ‘f’ led to the error.

Vowels preceding l

Changes in the vowels preceding /l/ were noted by Arnold Wall in 1939. He complained that ‘result’ had become ‘resolt’ and ‘children’ sounded like ‘chuldren.’ For many NZE speakers there is little or no difference between ‘doll’, ‘dole’ and ‘dull’. Complaints appear regularly about ‘wallington’ for ‘Wellington’, or ‘the elps’ for the alps’. People named Ellen’ and ‘Alan’ can have their names confused.


In the past New Zealand speakers usually made a clear distinction between the diphthongs in NEAR and SQUARE. In the 2000s for many New Zealand speakers, especially younger people, these word pairs have the same vowel. Many New Zealanders now pronounce both ‘ear’ and ‘air’ as ‘ear’; ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ as beer’; and ‘sheer’ and ‘share’ as ‘sheer’. Air New Zealand is ‘Ear New Zealand’ and people sit on ‘cheers’.


A change first noted in print in the 1930s is the disyllabic (two-syllable) pronunciation of past participles like ‘grown’ and ‘known’, as ‘growen’ and ‘knowen.’ This is probably a change by analogy with words like ‘eaten’ or ‘fallen’. Research has shown that the ‘growen’ pronunciation is used by 50% of New Zealand speakers of all social classes and age groups.

Wailing whales

Though the ‘hw’ pronunciation was seldom heard by the late 20th century, a 1993 letter writer noticed its absence: ‘Recently I caught the tail-end of a radio broadcast in which the announcer frequently referred to Wales, with comments such as “crisis” and “serious consequences”. Having an ancestral connection with that part of the UK, I confess that I was in a state of some anxiety …. Imagine my feelings when I learnt from One Network News that the subject under discussion was not Wales but whales!’2

Other sound changes

Many of the first settlers who came to New Zealand spoke with Irish or Scottish accents and made a distinction between ‘whales’ and ‘Wales’, or ‘which’ and ‘witch’. Today the /hw/ pronunciation is rarely heard.

A change in worldwide English is TH-fronting, whereby the voiceless 'th' in ‘thing’ is realised as 'fing', and the voiced 'th' in ‘mother’ is realised as 'muvver'. TH-fronting is one of the faster-growing sound changes in NZE in the early 2000s.

Another worldwide change is the pronunciation of /tr/ and /dr/ clusters so that ‘tree’ sounds like ‘chree’ and ‘dream’ sounds like ‘jream’. This change is known as affrication, and also occurs with /str/ clusters, so ‘street’ sounds like ‘shtreet’.

Traditionally the word ‘the’ has a full vowel before a word starting with a vowel – ‘thee apple’ – and a reduced vowel in front of a consonant – ‘thuh pear’. Increasingly, younger New Zealanders are also using the reduced vowel before vowels – ‘thuh apple,’ ‘thuh egg’.

  1. Quoted in New Zealand English, p. 38. Back
  2. Quoted in Jennifer Hay, Margaret Maclagan and Elizabeth Gordon, New Zealand English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p. 33. Back
How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Gordon, 'Speech and accent - Sound changes in speech', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Elizabeth Gordon, published 5 Sep 2013