Our Kiwi Twang
Do New Zealanders have an ugly accent or should we be proud of the way we speak? David Killick lends an ear.
Gidday. Air gun?
(Good day. How are you going?)
The New Zild axsint: Uzza toe kay? Or uzza chuss duffrunt?”
(The New Zealand accent. Is it OK? Or is it just different?)
Debate over the Kiwi accent has been hotting up. Blame Prime Minister John Key and his vowels. Or today’s crop of broadcasters. Talkback radio debated the topic recently; The Listener ran a cover story.
Is the New Zealand accent changing? Or is our attitude to it changing? Does the way we talk really matter as long as we are understood?
You may be fed up with those Aussies mocking us for our “fush and chups” when they would prefer to serve you “feesh and cheeps”; “meelk” for “muwlk”.
You may cringe at some of the words broadcast over our airwaves – make that “earwaves”. You can't stand reporters saying “knowen” and “showen”. The “sheermarket” makes you nervous. The forecaster warns of “shares”, and worse, an “ear mess” moving across the country. A rough crossing on the Cook Strait “fairy” makes you sick.
For me, growing up in New Zealand with English parents, the differences were fascinating. Mum had a very clear English schoolteacher's voice that never changed in 50 years; Dad, who did amateur drama, said “room” with a short u, “ruhm”, instead of a long o like boom.
New Zealand actor Andie Spargo does character voices. He can switch seamlessly from English Upper Class twit to Scottish loon, to mad German scientist. Spargo recalls when Lorraine Downes became Miss Universe in 1983. “Here she was, this gorgeous woman on the international stage, and she was asked what she would like to do, and she said something like, ‘I’d like to go to Efrica? To hilp the chuwdren learn to speak Unglush?’ I thought, ‘You’d better not!’ ”
Cultural cringe, or a painful accent? New Zealand English is lazy speech, says Spargo. To talk New Zild, “Be as lazy as you possibly can. Don’t open your mouth. Only say the beginning and end of each word.”
Chilean poet and designer Cecilia Guridi lived in England before settling in Christchurch. Having studied English, she thought she would be fine, but found Kiwese baffling.
“I love it!” says Kathy Nilsson, a frequent visitor from California. “What tourist could ever get tired of it? Especially, “veeeeeegtebels”.
Mangled vowels and muddy tones are accusations hurled at New Zild English.
Want to talk like a Kiwi? Easy. Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: a to e, e to i, i to u. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.
Lack of emotion is another charge. “His voice rarely rising above a dull monotone...” a British commentator said, describing All Black captain Richie McCaw's press conference after the team’s last World Cup loss. But, of course, New Zealand sportspeople usually talk in a dull monotone, whether they win or lose, unless they are bright and bubbly Barbara Kendall. They lack animation. “We’re very excited,” they say in an emotionless, deadpan delivery.
New Zild and How to Speak It by Arch Acker, written in 1966, is the country’s answer to Let Stalk Strine (see sidebar). It includes such classics as “Air Mice Poster” (“Air mice poster sleep while you keep making all that noise?”) And:
“Do you speak English?”
“Ear sick horse!” (Yes, of course.)
New Zealand accents vary. Very broad accents, mostly rural – think of John Clarke as Fred Dagg, or Gary McCormick – sound like chainsaws being revved up.
Press columnist and University of Canterbury linguistics professor Elizabeth Osmers Gordon says apart from the change from “trap to trep, dress to driss, kit to kut,” the “l” at the end of a word is being lost. “A lot of people don’t always say ‘l’ like feel, but fee-aw. Not child but chi-awl. I have a sister-in-law called Jill and somebody wrote her name as Jool. I think we’ll probably lose the ‘l’. It’s on the way out.”
Phil gets called “Full”. “Wool” or “wuw” for will is another giveaway. Call in the “buwlder”.
Gordon says “th” may also be under threat, starting with “wiv” and “muvver”.
While some claim to hear regional accents, Gordon says linguists have only been able to differentiate Southland. Ask Press journalist Jo McKenzie-McLean, from Southland, to say “purrple worrk shirrt” and she rolls her rs superbly. But she says “horse and cart”, not “horrse and carrt”.
Town and country, and social class differences persist. “I think we’re losing the extremes, the very broad New Zealand accent, and the very cultivated New Zealand accent. But there are new variations appearing, like Maori English.”
Prime Minister John Key’s strong Kiwi accent got him in trouble. A former colleague said when he was in London he used to lay on his accent a bit thick, to win people over. Or was Key just being himself? The PM has also been accused of saying “sh” not “s”, as in “Aushtralia”.
“Somebody wrote a letter saying he sounded as if he was drunk,” says Gordon, “and I replied saying he wasn’t drunk. I thought I was doing him a good deed, but I got some very cross letters.”
As early as 1900, people were talking of a “dreadful” colonial twang. “Now you don’t hear the cringe so much. You don’t hear people saying New Zealanders speak badly, [that] we should speak like people from Britain.”
So is the New Zealand accent good or bad? “I’m proud of my accent. When you go overseas and you’re coming home and you are getting in the queue and you hear New Zealand accents, you think, ah, that’s where I come from, that’s where I belong.
“It worries me that quite a lot of people in the media see it as a joke and sometimes when I talk about it they write it up in the newspaper with funny spellings.
“It’s much better to encourage people to do things like public speaking, and to be confident speakers, and to be able to stand up in public and speak clearly and speak convincingly.”
Crime writer and theatre producer Ngaio Marsh, a proud Anglophile who used to tootle around Christchurch in a Jaguar, found the New Zealand accent ugly.
A former student of Marsh’s, retired Court Theatre artistic director Elric Hooper, says some voices please us, others don’t.
“What is beautiful sound? I think you can point to examples of beautiful voices where people’s knees weaken and their sexual juices flow. Richard Burton, for instance. Or beautiful female voices – Judi Dench, which is a peculiar voice because it’s got a strange crack in it but it does allow huge emotional range. There are voices that just turn you on.”
Italian and French and even German can sound mellifluous, euphonious, yes, sexy – but New Zild? “Well, we keep breeding, so they must be,” says Hooper drily.
Shakespeare wrote: “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low; an excellent thing in woman,” describing Cordelia in King Lear. Margaret Thatcher had voice lessons to take the harsh edge off her voice.
Class overtones crop up again. “We are still getting over the post Colonial thing because the received British accent is of course the accent of the imperial world, and it’s part of our national identity to withdraw from that, to establish our own identity. The marker of the English overlord is the Upper Class accent – though, God help us, the real Upper Class English accent is worse than the New Zealand accent. Freyberg, I remember hearing him speak and was astonished to hear this Upper Class accent.”
Some women on the radio have no sense of structure and very short-breathed sentences, or breathe too often, says Hooper. “Glissando”, a sliding scale that makes speech sound more flowing, is missing. New Zealand English tends to go along at much the same pitch.
But there are pleasing Kiwi accents, too. “I think Kathryn Ryan is a very fine example of a really good New Zealand accent. I just wish John Key and Helen Clark had had some voice lessons to get rid of that adenoidal thing. John Key tightens the lips too much. He just needs some good voice lessons. He won’t turn out posh, he’ll just turn out clearer.”
Hooper speaks of “the animal element of the voice”, and the idea that the voice is “an emotional aircraft carrier”. Words, not planes, take off from its deck.
“Everyone has emotions, maybe it’s afraid of letting them out, of being discovered.”
It’s not accent, it’s clarity, insists Hooper. “It’s a joy just to hear someone who speaks well, without any territorial or class thing about it.”
Dave Dunlay, who has 30 years of experience in broadcasting, directs Christchurch agency Tandem Voice Booth, which sources voices for advertising and production work. He says the Kiwi accent is more accepted now than ever before.
“Not that many years ago we had to have pseudo English accents in our approach, but now you listen to New Zealand radio and it’s very definitely New Zealand voices talking about New Zealand…
“In the not too distant past BCNZ had a massive voice training section. Because so many people were trained in the correct use of voice and enunciation and pronunciation you ended up getting that very clipped New Zealand-English style of presentation. That’s what was accepted. Now, you don’t have that same focus on voice training.”
This is not always positive. “You do have that natural New Zealand style, but then you do have some quite horrible habits that come in that the broadcasters don’t really know they’ve got; or they just get so used to it just becomes part of their speech.
Dunlay agrees clarity is important. “On radio, and to a lesser degree on television, first and foremost, you have got to be heard. People have got to know what you are talking about. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.”
My hearing is not perfect, especially in the higher frequencies. Apparently this is common for males in their 40s. It helps explain why men don’t always listen to women: They can’t help it. Honest.
Certainly, when I was in radio back in the ‘80s, we had extensive voice training. One thing to be said for the now unfashionable BBC, or RP (received pronunciation) accent is it’s super clear. Try this: in a room full of background noise, listen to a clipped southern English accent (RNZ’s Peter Sledmere used to fire out words like bullets). Now listen to a broad Kiwi accent. It sounds muddy, wooly. I can’t separate all the words.
Or perhaps it’s technique. Broadcaster Peter Williams has a distinct Kiwi twang, but stresses right words. He sounds enthusiastic and animated.
RNZ announcer Stewart Keith has one of the finest voices on radio. He even makes the weather sound dramatic.
I wonder if immigrants are having an impact – more British and South African (Seth Efrican) voices. And what of TV and the internet? Gordon doesn’t think so, but I am not so sure. Listen out for “zee” in place of “zed” and “proh-cess” for “pro-cess”. And ”gotten” and “magazine” with the emphasis on the first syllable. All are Americanisms.
“It’s that sort of mixture of accents and Polynesian, Maori, European kind of thing that is making a lot of the New Zealand accent distinct – to us,” says Dave Dunlay. “Well, having said that, you go overseas and everyone thinks you’re an Aussie.”