The New Zealand voice

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  • Published 20140204
  • ISBN: 9781922182241
  • Extent: 300 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

EVERY so often we can hear recordings of famous New Zealanders of the past: Hillary at the conquest of Everest, former prime ministers Holland or Holyoake. Sometimes we hear professional broadcasters of the same era, or even earlier. Their voices always come as a shock. If we didn’t know who we were listening to, we might not recognise them as being New Zealanders. Unless we were there at the period, their voices carry nothing we can relate to, nothing to remind us of home if we come across them while in London or New York. They belong not only to some other time, but to a place we do not recognise.

There’s a real sense in which that is true. At some point during the twentieth century, not with a sudden jump, but by small steps, the allegiance of the New Zealand voice has shifted from London to our own shores.

In the early 1960s it was still common to hear New Zealanders talk of England as ‘Home’ (the capital H surely justified), even if they had never set foot outside Australasia. To use the word ‘Home’ in that way today would be to call attention to a rather outdated attitude. Political commentators see the split as occurring at the time that Britain joined what was then the Common Market and what is now the European Union, and reduced trade links with New Zealand. Linguistically, the change was already under way by that time.

By the time Britain joined the Common Market, huge changes had already affected the English voice and the social structure it reflected. Two wars and an incredible loss of life, changes in industry and business, had shifted opinions about old money and new money and made the country far more egalitarian than it had previously been.

In the early 1960s the Beatles even managed to make a Liverpool accent fashionable. The young had economic power, and were changing the face of the country in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. With all these other changes, the voice of England changed. The BBC of white ties was yielding to a BBC that condoned regional accents; the debutante quack was going the way of the debutante; the pukka sahibs of the late ’30s had become the boring old codgers; and an Eton and Oxford accent was as likely to be viewed with suspicion as with reverence in much of the country.

But New Zealand was not up with the play. To the extent that New Zealanders had a picture of the ideal English accent (and even by the 1970s most of them has a very poor image of what the upper-class Englishman or Englishwoman sounded like), it was of an accent that was at least a generation out-of-date in the Northern Hemisphere. A good English accent sounded ‘naice’, but New Zealanders did not recognise and could not imitate the new version of it. Instead they had to invent their own ‘naice’ voice, one which allowed them to say ‘market garden’ or ‘Arthur’s Pass’ with the tongue forward in the mouth, unlike the old swallowed vowels of upper-class southern England, and allowed them to open their mouths more to say ‘oh!’ than ever used to be the case.


THIS MUST HAVE been something of a shock. If you listen to British war-movies set in the early 1940s, the upper-class men and women had vowels in words like ‘trap’ and ‘dress’ that were very similar to those of New Zealanders of the same period. Since the 1960s there has been change on both sides: English people have opened their mouths more in saying these vowels, and now sound much more northern than they did all those years ago, New Zealanders continued with the same development, and the sound of the vowel in ‘dress’ has become much more like the sound of the vowel in ‘fleece’ than it was at the end of the war.

Other things have changed, too. The famous vowel in ‘fish and chips’ for which we are so mocked by the Australians, did not become a central part of the New Zealand pronunciation until the 1960s. The difference between ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ began to vanish at about the same period, but its disappearance did not become very obvious until rather later. The intonation pattern that makes New Zealanders sound as if they are forever asking questions, even when making statements, was first described in New Zealand in 1965. And ‘worry’ being pronounced to rhyme with ‘sorry’, and the John Key ‘shtrong’ for ‘strong’ are much more recent than any of those.

Things changed in England, too. Pronunciations like ‘orf’ for ‘off’ and ‘clorth’ for ‘cloth’ vanished rather more quickly than in Australia and New Zealand, where they are occasionally still heard, though mainly from the elderly. The so-called ‘Estuary English’ of the late 1980s, with its increase in glottal stops and its socially indeterminate vowels, arose and conquered. The sounds of ‘th’ started to vanish among the youth in major cities, replaced by ‘f’ and ‘v’ in ‘fink’ for ‘think’ and ‘bruvver’ for ‘brother’. The result was that the two varieties of English started to move further apart. When I played a clip from a New Zealand news broadcast to a class of British undergraduates recently, they had real difficulty in understanding it at all.


SO FAR I have assumed that there is just one British English and just one New Zealand English. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As the changes described above have been taking place, we have also been coming to terms with a range of New Zealand Englishes, including those that reflect the new social class structure in New Zealand (not, this time, in England), and new racial identities. We recognise a number of Maori Englishes as well as Pakeha Englishes, identifiable by their vowel sounds, a handful of consonant sounds, their rhythms and the quality of the voice in which they are presented.

The main differences between Maori comedian Billy T. James and the Southern Man of the Speights beer advertisements are less the vowel and consonant sounds than the rhythms and voice quality. Linguists have been slow in identifying these new varieties because it is so hard to find groups of speakers who are homogeneous enough linguistically to provide a solid model.

We do know that the rhythms of read news on Maori radio stations are different from those on stations with Pakeha announcers and listeners. We also know that the intonation heard in rural Taranaki is demonstrably different from the intonation heard in central Wellington, but whether that is the rural-urban divide or a specific Taranaki dialect in the making is harder to determine.

In Auckland, the presence of large numbers of Pasifika people is leading to an identifiable variety of English, which is not found elsewhere in the country. One such feature is the rather more whistley quality of the ‘s’ sound heard from Pasifika speakers. Some people claim that Aucklanders are sounding more and more like Sydneysiders. Since the Pasifika voice is currently one of the strongest influences on the development of current Auckland that would be surprising. But since people have been making the same claim about Auckland since the late nineteenth century, perhaps we need not take these claims too seriously.

What we can say is that, as all these developments are added into the mixture, the New Zealand voice is becoming less like the English voice from which it derived, and that what sounds familiar and homely to us (or to the English) is changing fast. Broadcast snippets from the not-so-distant past allow us to appreciate how far we have come in a remarkably short period of time. And all of this has happened in a period when we have radio, TV and movies to keep us in touch with the Englishes spoken elsewhere in the world. It is hardly surprising that when the Latin-speaking empire broke up, the languages that developed from Latin soon become mutually incomprehensible. The same will not happen to English in our lifetimes, but there are signs that despite modern communications, it could go the same way.

What will the New Zealand variety sound like then? There are too many variables to tell. We could not have predicted the emergence of ‘shtrong’ for ‘strong’ ten years ago. But given that upper-class varieties of languages throughout the western world pick up changes from the lower-class variants in example after example, perhaps we can look forward to a period where Lynn of Tawa, who lampoons lower-class accents, will sound genteel.


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About the author

Laurie Bauer

Laurie Bauer FRSNZ first studied phonetics as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. He came to New Zealand in 1979, and has worked...

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