Saturday, October 26, 2013

Kiwi-ish: a post about how Kiwis say stuff

I've been meaning to do this for ages. A post about how Kiwis talk. I was given a reminder at the latest body corp meeting, when someone asked, "Claire, are you clear...". If there was a difference between Claire and clear, I couldn't hear (or hair or here or hare) it.

A few things before I go any further:
  • I'm only considering how Kiwis say their words, not what they say, which is for another post.
  • Pronunciation and accent aren't the same thing. When I say "park" and a Kiwi says "park", the difference is purely down to accent (the "ah" vowel is less open in NZ English than in my English). But when I say "pasta" with a short "a" sound, and a Kiwi says it with a long "ah" sound (like the one in "park"), that's not just accent: we're using different vowel sounds entirely. John Wells's lexical sets, which are very useful when describing accents, help with this distinction. (Mr Wells wrote an excellent blog on phonetics - check it out if you're interested in such things.)
  • What's my English? I'd say it was "standard" British English, very unregional, not posh, not working-class, not anything in particular. Boring, isn't it? Inevitably after living in New Zealand for nearly ten years my speech has become Kiwified to some extent, but not nearly as much as you might suspect.
  • By comparing Kiwi English to my English (or anyone else's), I'm not saying it's any better or worse, just different. And I am half Kiwi after all.
  • I won't mention the classic attributes of Kiwi-ish that we all know about ("fush and chups" or "unternit exciss").
  • I won't be using IPA. I do know what the funny symbols mean (ɑɪ θɪŋk) but I won't assume everybody else does.
Right, here are some of the less obvious characteristics of Kiwi speech that I've picked up:
  1. Kiwis love the "aaah" sound (the one that dentists get you to say). They eat paaahsta (as I mentioned above), talk about the Maaahfia and enter daaahta into their computers. The last one isn't universal: John Key talked about "dayta" when discussing the GCSB bill, which is how I've always pronounced it, although I hesitate a bit when I say the word now. Is this love of "aaah" influenced by Maori? Someone corrected me when I pronounced mana as "manna" (like manna from heaven): no, it's "maaahna".

  2. The way I say the depends on what the next word is. Before a vowel I say "thee" as in "thee apple". Otherwise it's "thuh" as in "thuh ball". But a lot of Kiwis, particularly younger ones, say "thuh" regardless: "Thuh aaahnswer is on thuh unternit." Some take this a step further and say "a" instead of "an" when the next word begins with a vowel: "I'll send you a email." On occasions I've heard "ay" instead of "an": "That's ay interesting idea."

  3. This follows on from number 2. Like me, most Kiwis (with the notable exception of some in the deep south) are non-rhotic. That is to say when a syllable ends with an "r" (like either of the syllables of corner), there's no audible "r" sound. Neither do you hear an "r" in a word like alarm, where the "r" is followed immediately by a consonant. However most non-rhotics, myself included, have a linking "r": if a word ends in "r" I do pronounce it if the next word starts with a vowel, as in "car alahm". But not everybody in NZ has a linking "r": you'll hear "cah alahm" from time to time. I think the Pacific Island languages have played a part here. With such high-profile names as Ma'a Nonu, some Kiwis have no problems pronouncing two similar vowel sounds side-by-side.
  4. As I alluded to in the introduction, many Kiwis pronounce beer and bear identically, or very close to it. It's what they call a merger. The subject of how we pronounce these two words came up at work recently. Interestingly, when you added bare into the mix, my colleague (who has the merger) couldn't predict whether I would pronounce it like beer or like bear. This is actually a fairly well-known characteristic of Kiwi speech but I thought I'd include it because it creates extra homophones that I don't have in my speech.
  5. There's also a merger between the 'al' and 'el' combinations. There was this ad on the radio for DIY products: "You know if it's Selleys it works." I thought it was Sally's for about a year, until I happened to notice some of their grout in a hardware store. Then we had someone with the surname Ellis who applied for an insurance policy; he wasn't too happy when he opened a letter addressed to Mr Alice. Strangely the pronunciation of Wellington seems to be shifting in a different way: I hear "Wullington" quite a lot, with the first syllable rhyming with "gull". I think this is due to the close position of the lips after the "w" sound; it's easier to follow up with 'ul' than 'el' or 'al'.
  6. There's another merger going on between 'ol' and 'ul', so that for some Kiwis, golf and gulf are pronounced the same (or near enough that I can't tell the difference). Again a radio ad had me confused for a while: is the country club you're advertising (north of Auckland) called Golf Harbour or Gulf Harbour? It's got a golf course and it's by the Hauraki Gulf, so either would make sense. This is yet another example of homophones that many Kiwis have, but Brits and other speakers of English don't.
  7. Holy homophones, Batman! We have a chain of eateries in Wellington called Wholly Bagels, so I hear the word wholly quite a bit. In these parts, it shares its pronunciation with holy, and I guess you could add holey (as in a sock) in there too. The difference actually lies in the word holy. For most Brits you could divide this word neatly into two syllables (hoe + lee) but for Kiwis the first syllable is coloured by the "l" sound, so it comes out as (hole + lee). A similar phenomenon is found in words like ruler: for poms it's generally (roo + la) but in NZ English it's more like (rule + la). This is one area where my speech has (consciously?) changed since I landed in NZ: the typical pommy pronunciation of words like holy or Poland sounds stuck-up or affected to some Kiwis, and I'd rather not be thought of in those terms.

  8. When an "l" sound ends a syllable, or comes before a consonant at the end of a syllable, it often becomes a "w". Examples are ball, wool, milk, gold, folder and fulfil. This process is known as L-vocalisation. It's not just Kiwis that have this feature; Cockneys have it too, as do I to some extent (this isn't something I've picked up in NZ - I had it before).

  9. In Kiwi speech, some words tend to gain a syllable. The word door, for me, is just one syllable, but for many Kiwis it's two: something like "dor-wa". Likewise the word here (which for me is sort of 1½ syllables) is definitely two syllables for a lot of Kiwis: "hee-ya".
  10. Other words lose a syllable, or at least part of one. When I say file, it's hard to say whether it's one syllable or two. However for a lot of Kiwis it's clearly a single syllable, not far off "fahl".
  11. So far I've dealt mostly with vowels, because that's where most of the differences lie, but consonants play their part too. With a word like tissue, many English speakers (myself included) have decided that "tiss-you" is way too much effort, so we mash the "s" and "y" sounds together to get a "sh" sound. A similar thing goes on with the word measure: the "z" and "y" sounds combine to produce a "zh" sound (which is more common in French - you find it in words like fromage). For many born-and-bred Kiwis this process extends further than it does for me: assume becomes "a-shoom", presume becomes "pre-zhoom", and you get ads (yes, more ads) for home "inshulation".
  12. In some instances (actually quite a lot), Kiwis enunciate their words better than Brits do. A good example is the "t" sound in the middle of a word, when followed by another consonant. When I say Batman, there's no audible "t" there; instead I use a glottal stop. But for some Kiwis you do hear a "t" there, as well as in words like currently, and you'll even hear careful newsreaders pronounce both "t"s in night-time.
  13. Sorry, I'm about to break one of my rules here. The last item on my list is Kiwis' complete butcherisation of foreign words and phrases, particularly French ones, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me just a little. The word croissant usually comes out like "cruh-SONT". I can't really blame them: most Kiwis don't learn French at school any more, and even older ones who did (like my mum) didn't learn good pronunciation - lessons were focused mainly on grammar. What I find kind of funny is when people try to make French words sound even more French than they really are, lingerie ("lon-je-raaayy") being the best example.
So there you go. Phonetics (and linguistics generally) is an interesting subject I think, and I'd like to learn more about the actual physical processes that go on (without thinking) when we make certain sounds. That would surely make the differences between various forms of English easier to get a handle on.

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