Most Kiwis get used to being teased about the way we say "fish and chips" or the number "six". This is a fascinating article on the development and future of the New Zealand accent.
Source: NZ Listener February 28-March 6 2009 Vol 217 No 3590
Mincing words by Jane Clifton
John Key is just one Kiwi who cops flak for his diction. Linguists say changes to our accent are the result of complex influences. But some people blame lazy “duction” for making us sound ignorant – even incomprehensible.
I’m losing my Ls. And I’m not the only one. After all those years of joking about sending emergency airdrops of vowels to the Balkans, we will soon be a bit in-consonant on this side of the world.
Our Ls just fall off the end. They’re fastened on well enough at the beginning of a word, so we can say lion and literature and liquor okay. But they just can’t seem to hang on if they’re on the back of a word like brittle (brittoow) or rival (rivoow) or punctual (puncshoow). Even in the middle, a poor L can get trampled. I’ve probably said “choowdren” and “mook” all my life. No wonder they phased out free moowk in skoows.
We’re also losing our faith in Ts and Rs. For some reason, the TR sound is not enough for us. So we’re sticking SH onto a growing number of TR words. Aush-tralia. Sh-trong. Sh-tructural. Or CH: chrue (true), chriffic (terrific), chruck (truck).
Conversely, we like to economise on vowels. It’s been many decades since air and ear were pronounced differently in this country. And there is no cat, hat or mat “A” sound. It’s ket, het and met.
Is this the end of the world? Hardly. Actually, it makes us unique. Our linguistic scholars celebrate the special features of the New Zealand accent, which are multiplying every decade. The constant SHTR-ing of our new Prime Minister positively made their year.
Why, then, are so many of us uneasy about the way we speak? Letter writers to newspapers regularly upbraid John Key for his diction. Australians complained about Kiwi teachers’ accents when their children came home under the impression that the famous Christmas carol was called Dick the Horse. Wherever you go, people have strong opinions about what they regard as sloppy speech, particularly in the broadcast media, and by public figures.
I used to worry that I was a bit of a closet Anglophile snob to fret about our accent (icceent). But since I appeared last year on TV1’s Sunday to express my dinosaur anxieties, people from all over the place have moaned to me about the way we speak. And the way they themselves speak.
I was invited onto the programme because the reporter and researchers could not find any academic on either side of the Tasman to give an opinion on the direction of the New Zealand accent, so they had to make do with a gobby columnist. But I struck a chord, at least among the linguistically uneducated.
People have typically said to me that we are lazy speakers, or that we sound ignorant or infantile, or that some of us are utterly unintelligible.
All these are, of course, value judgments. And the problem with getting to the bottom of the rights and wrongs of the New Zealand accent is, how do you test value judgments? The overriding purpose of spoken language is communication. If we’re understanding one another, what’s the problem?
And even if we’re not … Goodness, the UK has numerous regional dialects, many of them tricky for fellow English speakers to understand: Brummie, Cornish, Glaswegian, Northern Irish, Cockney can all defeat comprehension, to the point where some English movies have to be subtitled for release in the US. And there, too, where they’ve had a couple more hundred years than us to develop baffling regional styles, an English speaker can struggle, especially in the South.
A lot of our unease probably comes down to aesthetics. We can enjoy a quirky Cockney or Brummie speaker, even an ocker Aussie accent. It’s a dag. But our own fails to charm – or at least to charm some of us wot speak it. It’s totally a matter of taste.
But there’s obviously more going on from brain to mouth than whether our words sound “nice” or whether we’re easy on the ear. It’s hard to sustain the argument that we’re lazy speakers when we go to so much extra trouble to mispronounce words: show-wen (shown), anythink, says (not sez), mo-wah (more).
If anything, we may be trying too hard – not just in our pronunciation, but also in the way we’re using our words. Overseas visitors can’t get over our habit of saying, “Yes, no-no-no, yes, no, yes!” (and variations) as an affirmation, and “Good-good!” when asked how we are. “Is” in New Zealand always travels in pairs, “The thing is, is … ”; “The problem is, is … ”
My unease about the way we’re speaking is twofold. First, are we understanding each other as clearly as we could be? Linguistic studies have been done to tell us the degree to which we judge one another by the way we speak. (And we do.) But it would be useful to see studies on whether our morphing vowels and consonants are causing confusion. People often misunderstand what I’m saying because of my vowel degeneration, and vice versa, especially on the phone. Linguists tell us our front vowels are continuing to change, so the room for confusion can surely only grow.
Second, I’d love to know why we’re speaking the way we are. Why are we truncating some areas of distinction – vowels, for instance, and terminal L sounds? And why are we elaborating others – our habit of stressing extra syllables, and even inserting them?
Linguists can tell us much about the influences on our speech, especially those of the Maori and Polynesian. But I suspect there’s a psychological thread to our morphing pronunciation, and that’s what makes me so curious.
This first occurred to me when I started noticing how we sound when we talk to small children and animals. Unless we’re really self-conscious or self-possessed, we adopt a more childlike mode of speech. Obviously, we want to sound unthreatening, and so we talk to them the way we think they would talk, if they could talk, as though they’re vulnerable and less intelligent than we are. Which, brutally (well, hopefully), is true.
When I’m talking to babies and pets, the net effect – aside from my voice rising an octave or two – is that my New Zealand accent broadens. “Would you loik some mo-wah bus-kut?/Who’s a noice widdow pussyket?/Come on liddow bee-yar [bear], leet’s geet you in the car-car!”
Yes, I’m talking nonsense. But I could equally be on the phone interviewing Helen Clark about her new job prospects: “Uht sounds loik you’ve got to geet a widdow mo-wah suppor-wat fo-wah your-wah Yoo Een campaign.”
I’m sure Helen would understand me if I addressed her in the same way I address my dogs or my friend’s new baby. But why is the New Zealand accent so similar – identical, I would argue – to this infantilised way of speech?
The psychology bears study. My pop theory is that it’s to do with being a small, economically vulnerable nation. Perhaps we subconsciously aim to sound as unthreatening as possible so bigger countries won’t aggress us. “Plays don’ hut may!” (please don’t hit me) – we want to sound endearing and childlike, as a sort of passive-defensive stance.
Brainier people than me – those who have been to university – will probably say this is tosh. But until there’s a study involving sociologists and psychologists as well as linguistics experts, I’ll be left wondering.
Even if we are deliberately infantilising our speech, does it matter? Might it be handy if people overseas find us cute and endearing?
I hate to bring money into this, but there is a global image that goes with an accent – a stereotype, sure, but one handy for marketing. A Cockney is sly, spry and merry; an Irish speaker is convivial, poetic and a free spirit; an Australian is sunny, confident and direct. These are all good branding marks. Is endearing and childlike as good, as remunerative an image for us?
Do other English speakers even see the way we speak as childlike?
Who knows. But it sure is complicated.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in New Zild are the writings of Elizabeth Gordon, adjunct professor of linguistics at Canterbury University – our go-to person on the way we speak.
Like other linguists, she rejoices in the changes and surprises of our accent’s development, but strives to be non-judgmental. In a recent book, she made this concession: “I must say clearly and loudly that I strongly support the teaching of standard English in schools. As a university teacher, I have made more than my fair share of corrections in student essays. A child who is not even given the opportunity to learn standard English would be shamefully disadvantaged.”
But, she adds rather more controversially, “This still doesn’t mean that standard English is intrinsically or aesthetically better than any other variety of English.”
Love it or hate it, there are many myths about the way we speak, and Gordon and other linguists tell us one of the biggest, fattest lies is that we’re lazy.
It’s the old keeping-the-mouth-closed-to-shut-out-the-flies theory. We don’t.
Actually, the evidence points firmly in the other direction. We go to much more trouble to pronounce English our way. It takes more effort to say “anythink” than “anything”. (And linguists reckon “anythink” and “somethink” will soon become orthodox, dictionary-recognised versions of the -thing words, owing to the sheer force of common usage.)
And there are those doubled-up vowel sounds. The most obvious are the shown/known/blown family, which many of us render as blow-wen, show-wen and know-wen.
More subtly is what we do to the “now” and “hour” sound. Fleour (flour), teown (town) or, the example in Gordon’s book: “Heyow neyow breyon ke-ow.”
Again, these habits are not new. Gordon documents Otago school inspectors complaining in 1919 about “hae-ow” (how) and “haome” (home). A Nelson College principal in 1912 worried about “toime” (time) and “Dys By” for Days Bay.
These are different vowel sounds from those of standard English – but they’re no easier to form in the mouth.
Also giving the lie to the laziness criticism is our habit of over-pronouncing words – sounding out vowels that are normally unstressed. We have By-ron Kelliher and Guy-yon Espiner’s Christian names rhymed with “nylon,” both syllables stressed. It’s easier to pronounce them “correctly,” as BYrin and GUYin, but we go to extra trouble. Similarly, it’s Dennis Water-Man rather than Watermin, Gis-bourne for Gisbin (although there’s a historic argument about the latter).
It’s a miracle we don’t say Blen-Hyme and Auck-Land.
Then there’s the definite article. English has long granted us a thing called the schwa – permission to snip off the sound of something, if the syllable next to it makes it cumbersome to pronounce. So, we can say thee orange, rather than thuh orange, thee aircraft rather than thuh aircraft. But we’d rather do it the hard way. Increasingly, Kiwis go to the trouble of saying thuh before these vowels. This could have to do with the absence of schwa in Polynesian languages. And it could be plain ignorance. It certainly sounds ignorant to some ears. But it certainly doesn’t seem to indicate laziness.
So, although “anyfink” and By-ron may drive some of us nuts, Gordon’s view is that they have survived for so many generations, “you might say that they are very persistent little lower-class treasures”.
People have hazarded that there is a big “lower-class” Cockney influence on our speech, but Gordon says there was not a particularly large Cockney settlement here in colonial times, and in any case, Cockney was widely disliked, and hardly the direction a new society would deliberately choose.
One inarguable facet of New Zealand English – or, rather, a facet it seems increasingly to lack – is as a marker of socio-economic standing. The new PM says “anythink” and “Aush-tralia”, the previous PM said “to die” rather than “today”, and our top company executives – Theresa Gattung, Rob Fyfe – speak with broad, flat New Zild vowels, as do some powerful mayors – Kerry Prendergast, Tim Shadbolt – and no one has ever held it against them.
This is a nice thing about New Zealand. We will never be like the England lamented in the old My Fair Lady song – the minute an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman despises him. The woman running the corner dairy might sound exactly the same as the one running Telecom.
Still, there is some prejudice. A linguistic experiment found that people did judge broader-accented speakers in a rather disapproving way – guessing that a young woman speaker was a prostitute or solo mother, for instance.
However, it’s equally possible that in today’s New Zealand, the prejudice is more likely to go the other way …
PUTTING ON THE DOG
It may be an equivalent sin to speaking uni-vowel New Zild, to cleave to the haute vowel sounds of upper-class England – particularly if it doesn’t sound as though one has come by one’s plummy accent honestly. And even if one has. “Ngatarawa Old Girls” has become a byword for an unnecessarily genteel accent – a nod to that school’s tradition of turning out gels who speak cut-crystal Received Pronunciation (RP: think 1950s BBC). Ngatarawa old girl Judy Bailey may be one of an endangered species. Speaking sparkling RP may not be a handicap in life, but it is apt to be mocked. TV promotions by NZ House & Garden editor Michal McKay have attracted bemused comment, for the extrusion even of the sound of her own name: May-kul McKaiiiiy.
Just as people pick up – or unconsciously affect – broadened vowels, so they acquire rounded ones. Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, a compulsive but unconscious mimic, regularly affected different accents, to much hilarity. The frequent, well-meaning suggestions that John Key take elocution lessons are unlikely to be taken up, as it would seem like putting on the dog.
Again, this is not new. As Gordon recounts, the writer ARD Fairburn scorned a variety of “colonial genteel”, meaning a faux plumminess that tried hard but did not fool. A literary editor last century spoke of “ay fever”. “The ‘ay’ is a deliberate affectation that marks the incurable snob.” He singled out the self-consciously “awf’lly English” Cantabrians, and “lady principals of secondary schools” who were “oddly conscious of their natural superiority and so keep ‘ay’-ing for all they’re worth.”
He noted a “distressful Papanui affectation” when a woman told him her phone number was “nayne-nayne-fayve”.
Is this any less silly, or any easier on the ear, than noin-noin-foive? We’ll probably never get to the bottom of …
Gordon says the sociolinguistic premise is that judgments are made about the various ways in which we speak, not because of any internal communication features of the language itself, but for social reasons. People apply stereotypical criteria to their views of what sounds ugly and what sounds beautiful.
I plead guilty. I heard actor David McPhail speak about Shakespeare on the radio late last year, and I thought it was like melting brown sugar. I heard political activist Laila Harré, with her super-slow power drawl and pancake vowels, and had to steel myself to sit through her commentary, even though it was excellent.
That’s the trouble with this branch of academia. Linguists may shy from value judgments, but the public doesn’t. We think a rose is pretty, a strawberry tastes nice, dog pooh is gross and concrete ugly. There are many other important things to consider about each of these items, but, dammit, that’s what we think.
It’s a little like the graffiti debate. Polls suggest most people think graffiti ugly and a social affront, but a small number of academics champion it, along with the people for whom it is a vital means of expression. And it is a valuable means of expression for them – for causing a social affront is a perfectly valid (if not legal) part of that expression. But you can argue till you’re blue in the face that graffiti is art, and every bit as valuable as a Rita Angus or a Grahame Sydney, but most punters just won’t buy it.
It’s laudable that academics flee from value judgments as from bubonic plague. But, as linguists acknowledge in their writings, many people do, always have and always will bemoan the gulf between the mellifluous and the hard-on-the-ear.
My argument is that attainment and preservation of good New Zealand English is not a snobby pursuit that harks back to the Empire (Empah!) and BBC English. We don’t sound like that, and we don’t want to sound like that. We are not British. But we do speak English, and our spoken style, New Zealand English, should be a matter of pride, quite as much as is the Maori language.
The Maori renaissance is something of which only a churl or racist could fail to be proud. We have saved a dying tongue. It is now part of the fabric of our lives and we treasure it. Maori is not pickled in aspic, but certain rules surrounding vowels and stress are adhered to. Yes, there is a difference between formal, ancient usage and modern general usage, but you couldn’t describe it as a dumbing down. We are taught to speak Maori with a proper Maori accent, even though this is difficult to get Pakeha tongues around, and we might be a bit self-conscious about the slightly rolled Rs and the orotund vowels.
We did it the hard way. It wasn’t accepted, in the early days of the public campaign, to pronounce Maori properly, when Pakeha complained that “tow-poh” and “why-rowah” were easier to say than Taupo and Wairoa. This approach has worked. Two or three decades on, it jars when you occasionally hear “Tow He-nah-ree” for Tau Henare, as well it should. We have all learnt to respect and enjoy the sound of Maori pronounced correctly. Who would quarrel with the value judgment that Maori properly pronounced sounds more beautiful than the lazy, anglicised old versions? Maybe a linguist, but hardly anybody else.
And so it is with NZE. There is a confident, clear, self-assertive brand of NZE that, though spoken in a great variety of tones, and often with morphed vowel sounds and eccentricities, is something to be proud of. It’s clear, it’s direct, and it doesn’t sound wheedly or juvenile.
Given my professional preoccupation, it’s easiest for me to give examples from my neck of the woods: NZE as spoken by Kathryn Ryan and Sean Plunket on RNZ National; Helen Clark (notwithstanding “to die”) could hardly sound more authoritative, yet she’s extremely broad; Bill English, for all his Southlandic bray, is a clear and compelling speaker; Jim Anderton (good quality, though he’s a bit too heavy on the quantity); and, dare I say it, even Winston Peters’ abrupt, clipped, machine-gun rants are – save for when he is particularly choleric – great examples of NZE.
Just don’t get me started on grammar and apostrophes …
All content ©2003-2009 APN Holdings NZ Ltd. All rights reserved.