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.
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:
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
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:
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:
Twenty years later complaints appeared about:
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.
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.
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.
The New Zealand accent was first noticed in children and blamed on laziness or the influence of the home and the street. However, Professor Arnold Wall and others claimed that it had developed from the Cockney dialect of London. Later it was suggested that it was transported to New Zealand from Australia.
The recordings of the Mobile Unit archive of 19th-century-born New Zealanders correlate with the documentary evidence which shows that the largest group of immigrants came from the south-east of England. Of the 95 speakers analysed, only one had northern-England speech patterns.
Later explanations are more complex and depend on information about immigration and early New Zealand settlement patterns. Most of the migrants came from Britain – mostly from England. London and the south-east was the largest contributing area, and linguistically they won out. These settlement patterns explain why New Zealand English, like Australian and South African English, is closest to the south-eastern variety of English.
It is recognised that children and adolescents are agents of change in new dialect formation. From 1877 free compulsory education ensured that children came together for their schooling, and peer-group pressure would have contributed to the rapid spread of the New Zealand accent.
The New Zealand accent appeared first in towns with mixed populations of immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia. These included the militia towns of the North Island and the gold-mining towns of the South Island.
In more homogeneous towns such as those in Otago and Southland, settled mainly by people from Scotland, the New Zealand accent took longer to appear.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
Sometimes pronunciation changes lead to spelling mistakes. In 2004 the text of 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 ‘a wreath laying …’ but pronunciation of ‘th’ as ‘f’ led to the spelling error.
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 speakers, 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.
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
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’.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 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.
Gordon, Elizabeth. Finding our own voice: New Zealand English in the making. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2008.
Gordon, Elizabeth, and others. New Zealand English: its origins and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Gordon, Elizabeth, and Tony Deverson. New Zealand English and English in New Zealand. Auckland: New House Publishers, 1998.
Hay, Jennifer, Margaret Maclagan and Elizabeth Gordon. New Zealand English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Kortman, Bernd, and E. W. Schneider, eds. A handbook of varieties of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004.