Kōrero: Rural language

Whārangi 1. The evolution of rural language

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From the early days of European settlement, rural-dwelling New Zealanders developed a distinctive vocabulary. They created new terms, borrowed words from the Māori language, and gave new uses to existing English words.

There was an early belief that New Zealanders had simply adopted Australia’s rural vocabulary – but in fact many shared terms were first recorded in New Zealand, and were exported to Australia and elsewhere. Many terms remain specific to New Zealand.

New times, new words

Vocabulary evolves to reflect changes in farming, and a farmer of 1900 would puzzle to understand the following from the Dominion Post in the early 2000s: ‘As well as being a finishing farm for 40,000 lambs, it has room for 900 finishing deer, a pine plantation and a 720-cow milking platform.’ 1 Finishing means fattening animals for slaughter, while the milking platform is the grazing space for cows, although it can also mean the milking area in a cowshed.

The shock of the new

Coming from a gentle landscape of glades, copses, dells and dingles, early settlers from Britain had to generate words to describe New Zealand’s more rugged topography. The country’s ecology also presented naming challenges: the native vegetation was quite different to that of Britain, and the pests, pitfalls and diseases were unfamiliar.

The land’s agricultural potential was unknown and untested, and settlers had to develop appropriate farming methods and equipment. While the language of other occupations, such as commerce, did not need to be changed, farming in New Zealand required new or adapted words.

The historic importance of farming to New Zealand’s economy, and New Zealanders’ fondness for the countryside, mean that many rural expressions are also used by city dwellers.

Influences on language

The development of a distinctive vocabulary was influenced by:

  • geographic factors such as isolation, topography, climate and soils
  • problems such as pests and diseases
  • economics, sales and marketing
  • the dominance of sheep farming
  • new methods and materials, and new animal and plant breeds.

The Māori language was also a strong influence.


New styles in speaking and vocabulary were noticeable. Early writers referred to the colonial adjective, colonial dialect, colonial language, colonial phrase, colonial phraseology, colonial tongue, and station language. In 1896 William Hodgson, a farmer turned school inspector, wrote disapprovingly of the new terms used for the rugged landscape:

Vale, brook, and grove, to poet dear,
Here changing name and dress,
As gully, creek and scrub appear,
In conscious ugliness. 2

The new speech was not always polite, suggests C. R. Thatcher’s humorous 1862 poem:

If nice expressions you would learn
Colonial and new
Some bullock driver who is bogged
Is just the man for you. 3

Change and continuity

Language is constantly evolving – some phrases become obsolete, and new ones are coined, sometimes by joining or compounding words. In the early 2000s, the rural vocabulary had preserved a number of expressions for rural icons, including:

  • No. 8 wire – number eight gauge fencing wire, often used inventively and practically for purposes other than fencing
  • bobby calves – unweaned male calves, so called because in the 1930s, they were sold for one shilling (a ‘bob’)
  • the bobby truck – a truck used to collect bobby calves and take them to be slaughtered
  • gumboots – rubber boots worn by farmers (and now anyone working outdoors)
  • the huntaway – a noisy sheepdog trained to bark on command and drive sheep from behind.

Although the rural population is small, New Zealand’s rural vocabulary remains lively, distinctive and diverse.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Dominion Post, 30 August 2002, p. C2. › Back
  2. William Hodgson, Poems of William Hodgson. Nelson: A. G. Betts, 1896, p. 8. › Back
  3. Quoted in Sidney J. Baker, New Zealand slang: a dictionary of colloquialisms. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1941, p. 47. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Dianne Bardsley, 'Rural language - The evolution of rural language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-language/page-1 (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Dianne Bardsley, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008