Story: Speech and accent

Page 5. Variation within New Zealand English

All images & media in this story

Social class

There is noticeable social-class variation in New Zealand English (NZE). Those low on the social ladder have stigmatised speech; there are also complaints about the speech of those high on the social scale, whose speech is sometimes seen as ‘plummy’ and artificial.

Genteel speech

In 1947 poet A. R. D. Fairburn wrote about pronunciation he called ‘colonial-genteel’. In this speech, ‘the round “o” diphthong in “home” is pinched and drawled to make the word “haome” … “Culture becomes “cahlture” and “love”, “lahve”. “First” is turned into “fust” or even “fast” and “persons” becomes “pahsons” ‘.1

In the 19th century higher-class New Zealand speakers used a version of British Received Pronunciation (RP). People of more humble origins born at the same time sound much more like New Zealanders.

The diphthongs (MOUTH, FACE, GOAT, PRICE) which were the focus of so much early criticism, are still social-class markers in NZE. More recent changes such as in TRAP, DRESS and KIT, the NEAR/SQUARE merger, and vocalised /l/ are below the level of consciousness, and do not receive such adverse comment.

Southland English

The only regional dialect of NZE is found in Southland and parts of Otago where many of the original settlers came from Scotland.

In NZE today /r/ is not pronounced after the vowels in ‘care’, pour’, ‘cart’ and ‘horse’, for example. In the 19th century /r/ was used much more widely throughout New Zealand in words like these. This changed over time, except in Southland.

Older Southland speakers use /r/ variably after vowels, but today younger speakers use /r/ only with the NURSE vowel and occasionally with the second vowel in ‘letter’. Younger Southland speakers pronounce /r/ in ‘third term’ but not in ‘farm cart’.

Some older Southland speakers preserve the distinction between ‘which’ and ‘witch’ and use the TRAP vowel rather than the START vowel in ‘dance’, ‘chance’ and ‘castle’.

Identity badge

For many Māori who cannot speak the Māori language, using Māori English is a way of identifying with their culture. Research on Māori university students who spoke Māori English found they did so because it established their identity, and provided support and a sense of welcome for other Māori students.

Māori English

A variety of NZE which is increasingly heard is Māori English. This is not used by all ethnic Māori, and it is used by some Pākehā, especially those who work and live closely with Māori.

There is a question about whether Māori English is a style that speakers can move into or out of. Recent reports suggest that for some current speakers it is the only variety of English they use.

Features of Māori English

The sound system of Māori English is basically that of Pākehā New Zealand English. In general, differences are not categorical but rather relate to frequency.

  • The High Rising Terminal intonation pattern is used in Pākehā English but appears more frequently in Māori English.
  • The use of ‘eh’ at the end of a sentence is more common in Māori English than Pākehā English.
  • GOOSE has a very front pronunciation (like the French ‘tu’).

The most noticeable feature of Māori English is its rhythm. It has syllable-based timing where the syllables are of relatively equal length. Pākehā English is stress-timed, with syllables of different length.

Pākehā English speakers use reduced vowels in function words like ‘of’,’ to’ and ‘for’. In Māori English, these little words have full vowels, which helps to produce a distinctly different rhythm. A similar difference in rhythm is found in Pacific Island New Zealand English.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Jennifer Hay, Margaret Maclagan and Elizabeth Gordon, New Zealand English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p. 104. Back
How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Gordon, 'Speech and accent - Variation within New Zealand English', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/speech-and-accent/page-5 (accessed 18 November 2018)

Story by Elizabeth Gordon, published 5 Sep 2013