New Zealand English

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New Zealand English is the dialect of English spoken in New Zealand.

In 1998 Oxford University Press produced a Dictionary of New Zealand English that it claimed was based on over 40 years of research. This research started with Harry Orsman's 1951 Thesis and continued with his publishing this dictionary as the editor. To assist with and maintain this work, the New Zealand Dictionary Centre was founded in 1997.

In most respects, New Zealand English is very similar to Australian English, especially when it comes to choices between words from British English or American English. Many local words, largely borrowed from the indigenous Māori population, have arisen to describe the local flora, fauna, and the natural environment, and some other Māori words have made their way into the language.


Local vocabulary

Most of the names for native flora and fauna come directly from the Māori language names. Examples of native birds are of course the kiwi, as well as the kea, kakapo, tui and pukeko, the extinct giant moa, and the kotuku or white heron. There are also fish such as hoki, kahawai and terakihi, and shellfish like the toheroa and paua.

Most of the native trees also have Māori names, such as the kauri, rimu (red pine), totara, kōwhai, matagouri and pohutakawa. Other vegetation with Māori names includes the kumara, the native sweet potato.

The work kiwi has acquired other meanings, most commonly as an informal term for New Zealander, or as an adjective instead of New Zealand. The usage of kiwi by Americans to refer to actinidia chinensis, the kiwifruit or Chinese gooseberry, is not part of New Zealand English and will irritate most New Zealanders.

Many Māori words or phrases that describe Māori culture have become part of New Zealand English. Some of these are:

  • haka: a chant and dance of challenge, popularised by the All Blacks rugby team
  • hangi: a method of cooking food in a pit; or the occasion at which food is cooked this way
  • iwi: tribe, or peoples
  • mana: a combination of authority, integrity, power and prestige
  • marae: ceremonial meeting area in front of the meeting house; or, the entire complex surrounding this, including eating and sleeping areas
  • pakeha: people of non-Maori origin, especially European
  • whanau: extended family

Other Māori words may be recognised by most New Zealanders, but generally not used in everyday speech:

  • haere mai: welcome
  • ka pai: good; well done
  • kai: food
  • kia ora: hello
  • tangi: to mourn; or, a funeral at a marae
  • tapu: sacred, taboo; to be avoided because of this

Leaving aside slang terms, there are a few non-Māori words that are unique to New Zealand English, or shared with Australia.

  • bach: A small holiday home, often with only one or two rooms and of simple construction. Pronounced "batch".
  • crib: Another word for bach, more commonly used in the south of the South Island.
  • mate: Buddy or pal, the same as Australian English.

Differences from Australian English

Although Americans can find it hard to distinguish the New Zealand dialect from the Australian, there are differences in the pronunciation of vowel sounds, which are considerably more clipped in New Zealand English. The main distinguishing sounds are the short 'i' and 'e', as well as words like "chance":

Short i:

The short 'i' in New Zealand English is pronounced as a schwa (IPA [ə]). In Australian English, the short 'u' is the vowel closest to a schwa, so an Australian hears "fush and chups" when a New Zealander is saying "fish and chips". Conversely, the closest sound in New Zealand English to the Australian short 'i' (IPA [ɪ]) is 'ee' (IPA [i]), so New Zealanders hear Australians talking about the "Seedney Harbour Breedge".
Recent linguistic research has suggested that this trait is sourced from dialects of English spoken by lower-class English people in the late 19th century, though why it persisted in New Zealand whilst disappearing from Australia is a mystery.

Short e:

The short 'e' in New Zealand English has moved to fill in the space left by 'i', and sounds like a short 'i' itself to other English speakers. For example, you may hear New Zealanders talk about having "iggs for brickfast".

Chance, dance, etc.:

The New Zealand pronunciation of these words uses the same vowel sound as the Italian word "pasta", i.e. [dαnts]. The Australian pronunciation rhymes with "ants", i.e. [dænts].

Other differences relate to words used to refer to common items, often based on major brands:

NZ Australia Explanation
jandalsthongs backless sandles
chilly bin esky insulated container for keeping drinks and food cool
Swanndri (swanni) Driza-Bone The quintessential back-country farmer's jacket of each country, a woollen shirt and oilskin jacket respectively.

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