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BooksDecember 2, 2016

A final, binding ruling on the correct spelling of the word “eh”


Ashleigh Young resolves the burning issue facing all New Zealanders: the correct way to spell our beloved national particle. Hint: it’s not “aye”.

On Tuesday this week, I decided to do a tweet about eh. I decided it because at Victoria University Press, where I work, a situation had arisen where an author wanted to spell it wrong. Authors often want to spell things wrong because that’s how they’ve always done it. My tweet was a polite reminder that, technically, eh is spelled eh and not aye, ay, or A. Suddenly the tweet went kind of berserk. People were replying “Word!” and “Correct!” with strange urgency, and someone even said “This is a bigger contribution to literature than Bob Dylan ever made”, but there were also some plaintive tweets: “What’s wrong with aye?” and “For me it’ll always be ay” and a hand-wringing “No, no, no!”

The cries from the aye/ay camp got me thinking, and remembering, and mostly they got me conflicted. The sense was that those spellings just feel right. Read phonetically, aye suggests the way that New Zealanders chew on – really hoe into – that “y” sound. And it’s true that many of us grew up with it. I remember reading ay in early stories by Patricia Grace. Witi Ihimaera, too: “How about getting rid of some of this junk, ay?” And, as I’ve only just discovered, in the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English, editor Harry Orsman lists eh, aye, and ay together as three variations. That was a genuine shock to me. He also mentions the Māori word , which, as Māori-language scholar Jeanette King explained to Kim Hill, is a possible origin of the word, being used at the end of a sentence to indicate a question or to invite a response. Roughly it means “is that so?” Or “won’t you?” or “isn’t it?”

In contrast, eh looks abrupt. It looks like it rhymes with “meh”. There’s somehow no warmth in it. It looks like the sound you make when someone socks you in the stomach.

I say this next thing as someone who has struggled, personally, with the eh spelling, through years of spelling it aye and even now finding it slipping into my emails and text messages, while, professionally, holding onto eh with a death grip. I wish aye/ay were correct spellings – I really do. Those vowels come out of my childhood. But listen: the eh spelling is technically the rightest spelling, even though it’s pronounced differently from how it looks on the page (like a vast number of English words). I’m surprised that the New Zealand government hasn’t made any sort of official announcement to end the conflict. Maybe they could use that great painting Boy Am I Scared Eh! by Ngāi Tahu artist Peter Robinson to point the way forward. (The painting does double-duty, by also articulating the spirit of these times.)

The reason those alternative spellings don’t really work is because they have different meanings. Aye, pronounced I, is an expression of assent or compliance, used in parliaments, and by pirates. (It’s a similar sound as āe, yes in Māori.) And ay is a middle English term meaning “forever” or “always”. And A is … just a letter. Even though it hurts, I believe it’s time to embrace eh, in our printed world, at least – maybe while still holding little aye, like a long-dead pet, in our hearts. As my boss Fergus Barrowman, a long-service campaigner for eh, says, “We’re grown-ups now.” And the thing is, English has a long history of making language less fun. I still remember finding out as a teenager that it should be “eke out”, not the more interesting “eek out”, and just how boring that was. This is what we have to work with. Coming together in our spelling will make eh feel righter, sooner.

A note here on the expression “Fucken A”. From looking at a range of examples of its use, in books and in music, it’s clear that the A is not eh, and that overall “Fucken A” is a different expression altogether – it’s a standalone exclamation and it isn’t unique to New Zealand. But what does that A stand for? Some say that it’s “awesome”, some that it’s just “all right”. I also note that Fuckin A (spelled wrongly, without the “e”, which is definitely the correct spelling), is the second album by an American band called The Thermals.

Back to eh: it is clear that we will have to tolerate these ongoing conflicts, and accept that change does not happen overnight. A word or a spelling cannot be simply buried at the bottom of a cold garden, or bundled into a carriage and followed to the cemetery by scholars in mourning dress. On Wednesday I saw in the news that a nice Kaikoura couple has put out a whole bunch of T-shirts with “It’s not hard to be kind, aye!” printed on them, a message of support for others following the earthquakes. But, confusingly, some of the shirts are spelled with eh. My eh tweet must have reached them halfway through production.

When I was little my granddad made my brother and me write the word um on a piece of paper, and then together we dug a hole and buried the piece of paper at the bottom of the garden, in a sad little ceremony, so that none of us would ever utter that noise again. Somehow it backfired, and roughly twenty-five years later, I’m saying um more than ever, along with all its cousins, like er, ah, yeah, and hrmm; basically anything with a sound that’s sufficiently uncertain. The scene with my granddad and the um reminds me of a story about a French author, Michel Dansel, who in 2004 held an actual funeral – with a horse-drawn cart and pallbearers and everything – for the verb. (It was a publicity stunt for his horrible novel The Train to Nowhere, which has no verbs in it.) “The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers,” Dansel explained. “You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish.” What the hell, Dansel? Those two sentences you just said are full of verbs!

Generally it’s hopeless to try to excise from language the words that someone has decided are bad – words like um especially, because they help us along as we’re making meaning, and they convey subtleties of mood and tone. One of my favourite writers (and speakers) of um is fiction writer Pip Adam. Just look at this passage from her short story If You Work Late Enough, Eventually It’s Early, where pattern-cutter Sharona is on the phone to hairdressers Duey and Carla in preparation for a fashion shoot the next day:

“Are you coming?” Duey and Carla were cutting the models’ hair at the salon Duey worked at.

“I’m um. I’m . . .”

There were two boys in the shoot, they needed haircuts.

“Have the clothes not arrived?” Duey was laughing now. Sharona could hear Carla too. “Carla wants to know, ‘Have they not arrived yet?’”

“Um,” Sharona was laughing now.

“Carla wants to know, ‘Have you eaten?’” she said.


“Carla wants to know, ‘Is Danny there?’ One of the models hasn’t shown up. Carla says, ‘Danny’s phone is off.’”

“Um. Yeah.” Sharona looked around the workroom. “Yeah. Nah.”

I love the weight of those ums. They feel so true. In modern grammar terms, those in-between noises, words and phrases are known as discourse particles, and sometimes, more dismissively, as “filler”. Words like “well”, “a bit”, “kinda”, “or something”, “and stuff”, “you know” and “um” – they don’t mean much on their own, but they can dramatically colour the words around them. New Zealand English, especially, works those little particles hard. They’re like those little cleaner fishes that attach themselves to the bigger fishes; they do the real work all day long while the big fishes go sailing along, fat with importance. But growing up, we’re often told – by teachers, parents, grandparents – to kill them off, to speak clearly.

Eh is the hardest-working particle – or tag particle, because it tends to attach itself to the end of sentences – in New Zealand English. Maybe one reason many of us are fond of it is that you hardly ever hear it in formal English. It’s the people’s particle – although it’s undeniably used more often by Māori than by Pākehā, and several studies suggest that young Pākehā women are also eh-ers. And it has undeniable power. It can shape the whole meaning of a sentence through tone, volume, facial expression. It can bring people together and cast them apart. It can mean “Agree with this!” or “Say that again?” or “What are you talking about?” or “Are you following?” At the start of a sentence (“Eh, mate”) it can mean “Isn’t that right?” or, with a bit of side-eye thrown in, “You would know all about that.” And to my ear a soft, flat eh can be kind of imploring, even pleading: “Just accept that I’m right.” So often, it’s a simple expression of friendliness.

But, like um, the Kiwi eh carries a lot of baggage. Finding out more about it has led me to read such amazing sentences as “This paper investigates the use of the semantically bleached and syntactically optional discourse particle eh in New Zealand English.” Eh, of course, tends to be seen as an indication of lower social status. It’s similar in Canada, where eh has a slightly different pronunciation from ours. A dubiously titled 1994 paper, “Sounds pretty ethnic, eh?” by academic Miriam Meyerhoff, argues that Pākehā have especially negative attitudes towards eh: “A striking example of the negative overtones eh has for some Pakehas [sic] was offered by a woman in her 40s who remembered that, when she was growing up, the use of eh was considered exceedingly vulgar, almost as shocking as a swear word”.

I find this incredibly sad, and a reminder of how prejudice attaches itself so readily to language, because language reveals difference and has the power to make us deeply uncomfortable. And even though eh has now been embraced as a classic Kiwi expression that must be demystified in tourism brochures, there’s no denying that there still exists a fair amount of snobbery around it, and the feeling that it’s only right for certain times and places, like togs.

Maybe the first small step towards casting off such snobbery is to come to a consensus about the spelling of eh. A note to writers of fiction: you can support these efforts by making your characters say eh regularly, and maybe even introducing a scene where they discuss the correct spelling amongst themselves. A reminder to the rest of us: eh is a marker of social solidarity! Let our spelling of eh, too, be a strong anchor in these uncertain times.

Can You Tolerate This? (Victoria University Press, $35) by Ashleigh Young is available at Unity Books.

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