Phonologically New Zealand English (NZE) has the same 20-vowel phoneme system as British Received Pronunciation (RP), but the New Zealand phonemes are realised differently from RP. However, many New Zealand speakers in the 2000s have only 19 vowel phonemes because they do not make a distinction between the phonemes in NEAR and SQUARE.
In 1934 an English visitor to New Zealand, A. N. Fitzgerald, complained that New Zealanders saying phrases like ‘Arthur has parked the car’ sounded like sheep baa-ing.
Vowels in the New Zealand accent
In NZE the START vowel in words like ‘park’, ‘calm’ and ‘farm’ is central or even front of central in terms of tongue position. It is one of the most noticeable features of New Zealand and Australian English for people in the northern hemisphere. Unlike today, almost half of a sample of people born in the later 19th century and interviewed in the 1940s used the short vowel of TRAP in words like ‘dance’ and ‘chance’. This is a feature of Australian English in the early 2000s.
The pronunciation of the KIT vowel clearly distinguishes New Zealanders from Australians. It is commonly claimed that New Zealanders say ‘fush and chups’ where Australians say ‘feesh and cheeps’. Recorded spoken evidence suggests that the NZE pronunciation of KIT as nearer to ‘cut’ first appeared between 1910 and 1930. The first written comments about it appeared in the 1960s.
GOOSE and FLEECE vowels
In NZE the GOOSE vowel is very central. It is sometimes realised as a diphthong (a speech sound which begins in the position of one vowel and glides to another) so that ‘boot’ sounds like ‘boat’. The FLEECE vowel can also appear as a diphthong so that ‘feet’ sounds like ‘fuh-eet’ (this is more pronounced in Australian English).
End of the cultural cringe?
In a British survey of 5,000 people published in 2009, participants thought the New Zealand accent was the most attractive and prestigious non-British form of English. Out of 34 accents of English (including regional British forms), New Zealand was the sixth-most socially attractive accent and the seventh-most prestigious. It trumped the accent of its close cousin, Australia, which was 13th-most socially attractive and 11th-most prestigious.
TRAP and DRESS vowels
The TRAP vowel is raised (pronounced with a high tongue position) in NZE, and outside New Zealand is often mistaken for the DRESS vowel. A New Zealander overseas, Pat, asked people to address him as Patrick instead because he disliked being asked why he was called ‘pet’. The DRESS vowel is also raised in NZE and can be confused with KIT – which is why New Zealanders overseas are given pins when they ask for pens.
A recent change is the further raising of the DRESS vowel into the area of the FLEECE vowel, so that ‘best’ can sound like ‘beast’, and ‘bed’ like ‘bead’.
In NZE this is pronounced with rounded lips, and is relatively front and high so it overlaps with the GOOSE vowel. This can cause confusion, where outsiders might hear the NZE word ‘terms’ as ‘tombs’.
High Rising Terminal Contour
The most widely reported intonational feature of NZE is the High Rising Terminal Contour (HRT), a rise in pitch used on declarative sentences. Outsiders mistakenly interpret this as a questioning intonation pattern. The HRT is a politeness feature used by a speaker wishing to involve the hearer in a conversation. It is not unique to New Zealand.