Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 4 September 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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New Zealanders were amused to read that Mr David Blunkett required them to show fluency in English if they apply for British citizenship. New Zealand has produced some fine philologists, such as the late Norman Davis and Robert Burchfield, to teach us about our language. It has its own proper dialect that most of us neglect, or lump with Australian English. Oxford University Press has published a dictionary of New Zealand English and one of its slang, but popularly we still tend to conflate the two. Here are some examples I have found in newspapers or on the Internet: bach ‘small holiday home’; bludge ‘to sponge’; chook ‘chicken’; dairy ‘corner shop’; hoon ‘rough person’; judder bar ‘speed hump’; pottle ‘small container’; skiting ‘bragging’; smoko ‘a break’; sook ‘moody person’.

Some NZ terms are the same as Australian and some are not. I think Br. English flip-flops are in Australian thongs and in NZ jandals. Otherwise the accent scarcely hampers comprehension as some English English delivery does. The broadest New Zealand does have a splendid effect on the vowels in the phrase ‘go out my gate’. British people also note the similarity between ear and air; the shortness of the vowels in pit, pet and pat; and the length of the vowel (the sound in fleece rather than kit) at the end of words such as happy.

There is a musical-chairs of vowels, though they sort themselves out into much the same phonemes as in British English — I mean that you only need apply an accent modulator to written vowels to produce the correct sound.

New Zealanders can even sound funny to Australians. For example, that short ‘i’ (in pit) is realised in New Zealand as a ‘shwa’ or indeterminate vowel. So NZ fish and chips can sound to an Australian like fush and chups. Conversely Australian Sid can sound to New Zealanders like seed.

It is as important to note when New Zealand English stands loyally with British English against US English vocabulary. So (with US usage in brackets) New Zealanders, like us, say: aubergine (eggplant); biscuit (cookie); caravan (trailer); chips (French fries); draughts (checkers); flat (apartment); fortnight (two weeks); gumboots (‘large rubber overshoes’; English wellingtons); holiday (vacation); lift (elevator); mobile (cell phone); nappy (diaper); petrol (gas); pissed-off (pissed); randy (horny); ring (call); rubber (eraser); rubbish (trash); tea (‘evening meal’); torch (flashlight); wardrobe (clothes closet); zed (zee). I hope that’ll satisfy Mr Blunkett.