New Zealand English by Jennifer Hay, Margaret Maclagan, and Elizabeth Gordon


Over the holiday period I thought I’d dip into some books on New Zealand English (NZE). After Q & Eh: Questions and Answers on Language with a Kiwi Twist, I have found Hay, Maclagan and Gordon’s more formal introduction to be quite accessible to the non-specialist.

After introducing the reader to the geographical and historical context of NZE in the first chapter, the second chapter focusses on the distinctive phonetic and phonological features of NZE. (I still haven’t quite grasped the distinction between phonetics and phonology, but see the discussion here).

The authors begin with consonants in NZE. First, NZE is mostly non-rhotic, with some exceptions. That is, R is only usually pronounced before vowels. We do not pronounce it in hear but we do in hearing. Yet, we will pronounce it when the following word begins with a vowel: “I hear a mouse.” This is called a linking R. Interesting, NZers overcompensate here so that what has been called the intrusive R is also very common. Rs that would not be there in rhotic varieties of English, such as General American or Scottish Standard English, appear between words ending and beginning with vowels in NZE. “Rebecca and Megan” is often pronounced “Rebecca(R)and Megan.”

The consonant T also finds interesting expression in NZE. Where it is the final sound in a word it is often expressed with a glottal stop, i.e., the stopping sound you hear between the two syllables in “Uh-oh.” Its most famous English expression is possibly in the Cockney pronunciation of butter as “buh-uh.” In NZE though, you can often hear it at the end of words like “but.” This is not always the case though. Some may still pronounce the T, yet even those who otherwise provide a glottal stop may make something like a D sound (not exactly though) if the next word begins with a vowel: “Bu(d) I like it.” You can also hear this where the T is in the middle of a word: butter might sound like bu(dd)er, etc.

A final consonantal distinctive is the pronunciation of L in NZE. Many New Zealanders will replace it with a vowel sound, something like a W, when the L sound is on the end of a world: cool becomes coo(w). As with the T sound, this also happens sometimes in the middle of words. A famous example in NZE is milk:

The authors then move on to the distinctive vowel sounds of NZE. I will highlight some of the more well-known ones. The authors follow the system of lexical sets, typical in linguistics, that John C. Wells established in 1982. Because vowel sounds frequently change across different generations and geographical areas in the English language, Wells found it more helpful to tie sounds to particular words. Thus we talk about the START vowel, pronounced differently in both General American and the Received Pronunciation (“Queen’s English”). This vowel appears in other words such as park and market. While speakers of NZE for the most part pronounce the START vowel in a similar way to speakers of Australian English, NZE is distinctive in that it also uses it in words like dance and castle where Australians will use the TRAP vowel.

Most famous is the KIT vowel in NZE. The difference between Aus. E and NZE here is much more marked, both having seemed to have diverged in different directions from the Received Pronunciation. In NZE, words like fishbig, and systematic are pronounced with a vowel close to or even identical with the schwa, the most central position in the mouth that a vowel can take up. The schwa appears in NZE and the Received Pronunciation in words like again and sofa. Interesting the NZE DRESS vowel is closer to the KIT vowel of the Received Pronunciation and General American. NZE’s NURSE vowel is also distinctive. I will comment on it when I address dialectical variety in NZE.

Finally, the authors address NZE diphthongs. These are vowel sounds where the tongue moves from one place to another in the mouth throughout the duration of pronouncing the vowel, as opposed to monophthongs like START, KIT, and DRESS vowels. Diphthongs include vowels like FACE, MOUTH, and PRICE. Without any linguistic training, I found this section more difficult to follow.

However, I read with particular interest about the NEAR-SQUARE merger in NZE. Whereas these two vowels are pronounced differently in most other varieties of English, many NZE speakers do not differentiate between them in speaking and, without practice, would also find it difficult to differentiate between them when hearing them. The TOUR diphthong has become a monophthong for many speakers of NZE. For others, this vowel is no longer a diphthong either but instead has become two syllables.