New Zealanders sometimes like to claim that they are a classless society but anyone studying New Zealand English would know this isn’t true, writes NZ language expert Elizabeth Gordon
In the early 1900s people were commenting on the newly developing New Zealand accent. They called it a “colonial twang” and they hated it. They said that the way young New Zealanders spoke was an impure disease, vile, muddy, a blot on our national life, evil sounding, corrupt, slovenly, unspeakably bad, mangled, twisted and debauched.
The general view was that the accent was the result of laziness which could be “cured” by regular lip and tongue exercises. In 1925 the NZ Department of Education produced a speech training bulletin to help with this. Schools were issued with a phonographic recording of King George V and Queen Mary delivering messages to the children of the Empire. New Zealand children were told that this was how they should speak.
In 1938 Professor Arnold Wall wrote a book entitled New Zealand English: How it should be spoken. In the introduction Wall stated that his book was designed for use by residents in New Zealand who wished to speak “good” English as practised by “the best speakers in the old land”. He went on to say that it wasn’t designed for “those who wanted to develop a new variety of English for this country”.
And that was the key to it. New Zealand children should be using the pronunciation of King George V and Queen Mary. New Zealand Broadcasters were trained in British Received pronunciation (RP). At my private girls’ school in the 1950s we had a weekly visit from an elocution teacher who made us produce vowels that no one would ever use outside the classroom. “Round by the cow house Mr Brown fell down.”
In the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives we have wonderful recordings of old New Zealanders, some born as early as the 1850s. This means that we can listen to the voices of those early speakers. We also have many written comments about the New Zealand accent. From this material we know that the early New Zealand accent was especially marked by the pronunciation of some diphthongs. Critics said that “house” was being pronounced “heouse” and “fine” was “foine”. Because these diphthongs were so stigmatised some socially conscious people would hypercorrect them. Charles Baeyertz, editor of the literary magazine The Triad, referred to this as “ay-fever”. He associated it with people in Christchurch, especially Papanui. He had heard a woman pronouncing the phone number “nine nine five” as “nayne nayne fayve”. Baeyertz said “this was worse or viler than what we are beginning to execrate as the Australian accent”.
Today we have other New Zealand vowel changes like the diphthong merger where people don’t differentiate between ear and air or cheer and chair. You can sit on a cheer and give a loud cheer and travel on Ear New Zealand.
We have our own New Zealand vowel shift which delights those who study language change. Technically what is happening is that the front vowels are rising. The vowel in pat has moved into the region of pet, and the vowel in pet has moved to pit or even peet. We know that these changes began in the 19th century. A more recent change is the move of pit to putt producing the famous “fush and chups” vowel. This was first complained about in the New Zealand Listener in the 1960s by letter writers annoyed at the way Alison Holst pronounced the word “fish”. Until recently most New Zealanders have been blissfully unaware of the state of their front vowels or merging diphthongs. These changes have been below the level of consciousness. It has always been outsiders who have commented on and laughed at the way we say things.
Over the past decades there has been a major change in attitudes towards the New Zealand accent. In 2018 no one would tell New Zealanders to speak like posh people from Britain. New Zealand voices are heard everywhere – even on the Concert Programme.
New Zealand English also contains some distinctive varieties within it. More and more we are hearing Māori NZ English and Pacific Island NZ English, varieties marked by some vowel differences and most noticeably by differences in rhythm and stress.
Regional variation has been around for a long time in Southland. This is marked by what linguists describe as the postvocalic “r” and the general public call the “rolling r” though it doesn’t actually roll. There is a considerable variation in the use of postvocalic /r/ in Southland with a few older speakers in rural areas using it in all possible contexts – in words like card, port, letter etc. But today you hear it mainly in words with the NURSE vowel – in purple shirt or fern bird, but not in horse and cart.
New Zealanders sometimes like to claim that they are a classless society but anyone studying New Zealand English would know this isn’t true. When I was seven I was moved from Sydenham primary school in a poor area of Christchurch to St Margaret’s College, a private girls’ school. At my new school I was immediately made aware that my manner of speaking was undesirable and I quickly made adjustments which received the scorn of my older brothers and the concern of my mother who ordered me to “take the plum out of my mouth”.
In our study of old recordings the first indications of the New Zealand accent appear in the speech of people, especially women, living in poorer circumstances – people like farm workers, shop assistants, housewives. The upper class people sound much more like people from England. There is a recording of Miss Brenda Bell of Palmerston in Otago, who talks about her titled family members. She could be mistaken for a speaker of old fashioned RP. even though she is a third generation New Zealander.
The Australian linguist AG Mitchell divided Australian speakers into three categories – cultivated, general and broad, and these categories have been used for New Zealand speakers also. Using RP as a reference point, “cultivated” speech is nearest to RP and “broad” speech most different from RP.
The “broad” New Zealand accent still attracts a negative stereotype or is seen as a joke. Whenever I played recordings of a speaker with a “broad”accent to my university class the students would laugh. (They also laughed at the “cultivated” speaker.) People laugh at Ginette McDonald’s character Lynn of Tawa who caricatures the “broad” NZ accent. People make fun of Simon Bridges’ pronunciation of English which has features of “broad” NZ English. People who wouldn’t dream of making jokes about a person’s gender or ethnicity are very happy to make adverse comments or jokes about speakers using a lower class variety of language. It doesn’t matter that this is no more a matter of personal choice than the colour of the speakers’ skin.
These issues have come up recently because of reactions to Simon Bridges’ pronunciation of New Zealand English and I am glad to see him being defended.
For an outsider’s perspective I invited the British sociolinguist Professor Peter Trudgill to listen to a recording of Simon Bridges.
He wrote this:
This is a fantastic New Zealand accent which I’m very excited to have heard, with many of the features which serve most strongly to distinguish the Kiwi from the Aussie. English-speaking people from the Northern Hemisphere generally have great trouble in telling Australians and New Zealanders from one another, but with Simon Bridges this is not the case. His is a very un-Australian accent with most of the innovating, modern NZ features which will over the coming decades take the two accents further apart.
The Kiwi accent is going to become more and more distinctive as the decades go by: all the accents of English around the world are gradually diverging from one another. Simon Bridges has an accent which is in many respects in the vanguard of this development in NZ. This is the accent of the New Zealand of the future, and people who don’t like it had better get used to it.
Today we can listen to recordings of people who were young men and women when the complaints about the early New Zealand accent were being made and we wonder what the fuss was about. They just sound like old New Zealanders. In 50 years time people will listen to recordings of Simon Bridges and wonder why on earth people were commenting on his pronunciation.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.