This is the second post in a series on Hay, Maclagan, and Gordon’s New Zealand English.
After addressing consonants and vowels, i.e., segmental features, features pertaining to a single segment in a word, the authors move on to suprasegmental features. These still concern how New Zealand English (NZE) sounds. They belong to phonetics and phonology, rather than the study of vocabulary or grammar. But these features “usually span more than one segment” (27).
First, the authors address NZE intonation. One distinctive feature of NZE intonation is the High Rising Terminal (HRT). Many speakers of NZE will raise their intonation where speakers of other Englishes would only do so when asking a question. Initially, researchers interpreted the use of HRTs in NZE as signs of uncertainty. However, recent research has shown that they are best interpreted in terms of politeness: “HRTs … do function as questions, but not questions asking for information. Rather they function as questions that are checking that the speaker really is giving the information that the listener wants, and that the listener understands what the speaker is saying” (28).
Another suprasegmental feature is stress. In English, stress often falls on certain syllables in different words and sentences. Most words will have the same syllable stressed each time and the meaning can change according to where the stress lies. We buy produce (noun) but we produce (verb) things. This stress differentiation between noun and verb is not consistent in English, though in NZE some other words seem to be merging. We have imports and we import iron. (Others, including other speakers of NZE, will say we import iron).
Finally, the English language is stress-timed. “Stressed syllables occur at approximately equal time intervals … This can be seen most clearly in poetry or nursery rhymes, where different numbers of syllables take up the same time”: The authors give the example of Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Even though there are two syllables between sat and wall, they take up the same amount of time as the single syllable between Hump and Dump. However, NZE is less stress-timed than British English, as can be seen for example in giving fuller pronunciation to syllables often unstressed in British English. This is perhaps due to the influence of Māori, which is a syllable-timed language, having roughly equal time intervals between syllables rather than between stressed syllables.
NZE also currently looks to be undergoing sound changes. The authors note a number of these but I will only address a few. The hw sound in white and which has for many NZers become simply a w sound. For other NZers, the two th sounds, in words like thumb and thing on the one hand and then words like this and the on the other, are being pronounced as fs and vs, respectively. Many NZers now pronounce words like grown and thrown with two syllables, whereas in British English they rhyme with groan and throne.