New Zealand English

From Academic Kids

New Zealand English is the dialect of English spoken in New Zealand, occasionally referred to within New Zealand as Newzild.

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New Zealand English is close to Australian English in pronunciation, but has several subtle differences often overlooked by people from outside these countries. Some of these differences show New Zealand English to have more affinity with the English of southern England than Australian English does. Several of the differences also show the influence of Maori speech. The most striking difference from Australian English (and other forms of English) is the flattened i of New Zealand English.



Possibly the most significant difference between New Zealand and British spelling is in the ending "-ise" or "-ize". Britons may use either ending (although "-ise" is by far the more popular), and some British dictionaries and style manuals prefer the "-ize" ending. New Zealanders tend to use the "-ise" ending exclusively.

A peculiarity of New Zealand English is that the spelling "fiord" is preferred over the spelling "fjord" used in most of the English-speaking world. This spelling can be found in the name of the Fiordland National Park in the southwest of the South Island.

Where there is a distinct difference between British and US spelling (such as words like colour/color and travelled/traveled), the British spelling is universally found in New Zealand. New Zealand English sticks very closely to British English in spelling - even more so than does Australian English. Some Americanisms have begun to creep into the country through their exposure in mass media (such as "thru" for "through"), though these spellings are frowned upon and are definitely regarded as non-standard.

Mass media exposure (through early childhood programmes such as Sesame Street) has also led to more acceptance of the term "zee" for the last letter of the alphabet, but "zed" is still seen as standard.

Māori influence

Many local everyday words are not English at all, being traditional Māori language names for local flora, fauna, and the natural environment, and some other Māori words have made their way into the vernacular.

The dominant influence of the Māori language (Te Reo Māori) upon New Zealand English is lexical. An 1999 estimate based on the Wellington corpora of written and spoken New Zealand English put the proportion of words of Māori origin at approximately 0.6%; mostly place and personal names.

The use of Māori words is increasing, particularly in the North Island, although there are regional variations. For instance, in most of the country the native wood pigeon is called "kereru", but in Northland it is called "kukupa" and sometime "kuku", and on the Chatham Islands the "parea".

"Kia ora" literally means "be healthy" but it has also become a standard term of greeting, meaning "hello" or "welcome". It also signifies agreement with a speaker at a meeting. Other Māori greetings, "Tena koe" {one person} or "Tena koutou" {three or more people} are also widely used. Similarly the phrase for goodbye, "Haere Ra", which may also be the origin of the once much widely used NZ phrase for goodbye "Hooray". The Maori phrase "kia kaha", literally "be strong", is also frequently encountered as an indication of moral support for someone starting a stressful undertaking or otherwise in a difficult situation.

Greeting someone on a cold morning is sometimes expressed as "Makariri ne?", (cold isn't it?). This phrase may have spawned the bastard Māori-English word "maka-chilly" which probably started as a joke and is not widely used. The slang word "buggered" is often equated with the Māori word for "broken", "Pakaru", and is synonymous with "Pakarued".

Some hybrid words, part English and part Maori, have developed, the most common of which is probably half-pai (often written half-pie), meaning incomplete or or substandard quality (pai being the Maori word for "good"). Similarly, the Maori word ending -tanga, which has a similar meaning to the English ending -ness, is occasionally used in hybrid terms such as kiwitanga (i.e., the state of being a New Zealander).

Intriguingly, several Maori words are used in English as lighthearted, or even slang, equivalents of their more common English counterparts. The term puku for stomach, for example, is more likely to be encountered during a friendly chat than in more formal circumstances.

The common Maori sentence ending ne (meaning literally isn't it?) is thought to possibly be responsible for the exclamational and/or interrogative use of "eh!" at the end of sentences in New Zealand English (as noted below). Evidence supporting this suggestion is the increased prevalence of the usage of eh in areas with a higher proportion of Maori population. It is thus a far more common usage in South Auckland, for instance, than in rural Canterbury.


Examples of centuries old Māori names for native birds are the kiwi, kea, kakapo, tui and pukeko, the extinct moa, and the kotuku or white heron. There are also fish such as hoki, kahawai, tarakihi or terakihi and mako shark, and shellfish like toheroa and paua.

Most of the native trees also have Māori names such as the kauri, rimu, totara, kowhai, matagouri and pohutukawa. Other vegetation with Māori names includes the kumara, a type of sweet potato.

The word kiwi has acquired other meanings, most commonly as an informal term for New Zealander, or as an adjective instead of New Zealand. The use of kiwi to refer to kiwifruit is not part of New Zealand English.

Many Māori words or phrases that describe Māori culture have become part of New Zealand English. Some of these are:

  • haka: a chant and (war) dance of challenge, popularised by the All Blacks rugby team, who perform it before the game in front of the opposition
  • hangi: a method of cooking food in a pit; or the occasion at which food is cooked this way (compare the Hawaiian use of the word luau)
  • Hui (Maori assembly): a meeting; increasingly being used by New Zealand media to describe business meetings relating to Māori affairs
  • iwi: tribe, or peoples
  • kia ora: hello, and indicating agreement with a speaker (literally 'be healthy')
  • kohanga reo: Māori language pre-school (literally 'language nest')
  • mana: reputation—a combination of authority, integrity, power and prestige
  • Maoritanga: the sum of all Maori culture and existence. "Maori-ness".
  • marae: ceremonial meeting area in front of the meeting house; or, the entire complex surrounding this, including eating and sleeping areas
  • pakeha: people of non-Māori origin, especially those of European origin
  • puku: belly, usually a big one
  • whanau: extended family

Other Māori words may be recognised by most New Zealanders, but generally not used in everyday speech:

  • aroha: love, affection
  • haere mai: welcome, come here
  • haere ra: goodbye to one who is leaving
  • hapu: subtribe; or, pregnant
  • hongi: traditional Maori greeting featuring the pressing together of noses
  • ka pai: good; well done
  • kai: food
  • kapa haka: cultural gathering involving dance competitions
  • kia kaha: literally 'be strong'; roughly "be of good heart, we are supporting you"
  • koha: gift
  • korero: to chat; to speak in Māori
  • mauri: spirituality
  • tangi: to mourn; or, a funeral at a marae
  • taniwha: mythical water monster
  • tapu: sacred, taboo; to be avoided because of this; probably borrowed from Tongan tabu
  • te reo: the Māori language (literally, the language)
  • tohunga: priest, shaman
  • turangawaewae: one's own turf, "a place to stand" - also the name of the National Marae
  • wairua: spirit
  • whakapapa: genealogy, to discuss family history

New Zealanders also refer to Māori people, in the plural as Māori, not as 'Māoris', and this is often pronounced as 'maw-rri' with a trilled 'r'. Note that the term "mauri" above could easily be confused with this, however (it is correctly pronounced 'moh-rri', again with a trilled 'r').

Pronunciation of Māori place names

Many Māori place names suffered from a fairly ungainly anglicisation for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, but since the 1980s increased consciousness of te reo Māori has led to a shift back to correct pronunciations. The anglicisations have persisted most among natives of the towns in question, so it has become something of a shibboleth, with correct pronunciation marking someone as non-local.


  • Paraparaumu - para-pram
  • Pauatahanui - part-a-noo-ee
  • Oakura - okra
  • Hawera - hara
  • Te Awamutu - tee-a-moot
  • Waikouaiti - wacker-wite or weka-what

To further confuse matters, many southern Maori words, which have a distinctive pronunciation that differs from standard Maori, are frequently mistaken for anglicisations and "corrected". These include the pronunciation of Oamaru as Om-a-roo and of Kawarau as Ka-warra.

A mixture of southern Maori speech patterns and anglicisation leads to a third trend, the removal of the final vowel of place names, or the reduction of final vowels to a schwa. This is particularly common in the southern South Island. This pattern also results in local shibboleths, and result in such pronunciations as Lake Wakatipu being referred to as Wakatip, and Otago being pronounced o-taag-uh.

Unique New Zealand English vocabulary

There are also many non-Māori words that are unique to New Zealand English, or shared with Australia.

  • arvo afternoon
  • bach a small holiday home, usually near the beach, often with only one or two rooms and of simple construction. Pronounced "batch".
  • brekkie breakfast
  • cher bro pronounced chair usually a strong voicing of thanks but also a parting salutation. Shortened from "cheers brother" although can be said to either male or female. Common in South and West Auckland.
  • chip, punnet or pottle, depending on the region, the unit by which strawberries and certain other fruit are sold. Pottle is also a standard term for containers of yoghurt.
  • chips "cold chips" as in US "chips" and UK "crisps", and "hot chips" US "french fries" and UK "chips".
  • chippie, a carpenter (same as the nickname in the UK), or a fish and chip shop.
  • choice!, excellent! Great idea!
  • crib, another word for bach, more commonly used in the south of the South Island.
  • The Ditch, the Tasman Sea, the "ditch" separating New Zealand and Australia. Occasionally also means the Cook Strait between the two main islands of the country.
  • domain, as well as its common overseas uses can mean a public park, especially a small flat grassed area within urban surroundings (from demesne: any estate in land).
  • eh!, used for emphasis at the end of a sentence, eh! (see note above on Māori influence. A similar but not identical usage is found in Canadian English).
  • flatting, sharing a flat (apartment or rented house).
  • footpath, pavement or sidewalk, shared by many countries outside US.
  • footy, football (usually Rugby Union or League, rarely soccer).
  • freezing works, a meat-packing plant, an abattoir.
  • G'day/ Gidday, standard New Zealand greeting ("good day").
  • good as gold, great, just right. Often shortened to good as (see also "sweet as", below).
  • flash cool
  • Jafa, a derogatory description of Aucklanders used by non-Aucklanders.
  • Mainland. Usually, but not always, refers (sometimes mildly humorously) to the South Island, which, despite its much smaller population, is the larger of the two main islands of New Zealand.
  • OE or Big OE, Overseas Experience, time spent travelling and working overseas, usually in Europe.
  • onya, short for "Good On Yer" (You).
  • pants, as in US "pants", much more common than UK "trousers".
  • Pavlova, favourite meringue-like dessert made from egg whites, frequently served with cream and kiwifruit. Often shortened to pav.
  • pom, British person, usually English (mildly derogatory).
  • Queen Street farmer, a usually pejorative term for an investor in rural land with no knowledge of land use.
  • Remuera tractor, a usually pejorative term for a SUV (compare Queen Street farmer, above).
  • scarfie, a university student, particularly one at the University of Otago.
  • smoko, rest break during work (especially as smoking is totally banned in public/workplaces).
  • super, old age pension scheme (from superannuation).
  • sweet as, fine with me (see also "Good as gold", above)
  • togs, swimming costume.
  • varsity in New Zealand refers to the university itself, not to a sports team.
  • WOF/Warrant, (Warrant Of Fitness), vehicle roadworthiness test, similar to British MoT and the Australian Roadworthy Certificate, except that it is required 6-monthly for older vehicles.

Unique phrases

It is in metaphorical phrases that NZ English has made most progress or divergence. Often they reflect significant differences in culture, for example:

Ladies, a plate is often seen as part of the advertisement for social functions. It means that the function is self catering; people attending are meant to bring a plate-full of food. Many new arrivals in New Zealand have mistaken this and turned up with an empty plate, but only once.

Up the Puhoi without a paddle meaning to be in difficulties without an obvious solution. The Puhoi is a river just north of Auckland. Over the years the phrase has evolved and is now often heard as "Up the Boohai without a paddle". It is also sometimes attributed to other New Zealand rivers. It will be interesting if the phrase can withstand competition from the modern and very colourful variant "Up shit creek without a paddle".

A variant of the latter is up the boohai shooting pukeko with a long-handled shovel, meaning a fictitious place.

Waikikamukau ("Why-kick-a-moo-cow") is also often used to represent a fictitious place, particularly as a sparsely populated rural area in the "back of beyond", and is a pun on the sound of many Māori placenames. Similar, but very rarely used now is Erewhon, the title of a book by 19th century novelist Samuel Butler. It is of course (nearly) the word "nowhere" backwards, and has an almost Māori appearance except that it does not end with a vowel. Although rarely heard in common parlance, a number of places have been anmed Erewhon, i.e. Erewhon Tce and Erewhon Park in Christchurch, and also Mountain bike tracks.

Wide enough for an Ox team to do a U-ie —Said of very wide roads.

Sticky Beak meaning someone unduly curious about other people's affairs, a nosey parker. Sticky beak is used in both New Zealand and Australia with the same meaning but slightly different emphasis. In Australia "sticky beak" is quite pejorative, to be called sticky beak is definitely a criticism, whereas in New Zealand it is used with more affection, it is often used as a tease.

Box of Birds or even more colloqially "Box of Fluffies" or "Box of Fluffy Ducks" meaning to feel very good, chirping even. "How are you feeling?" "Oh, a Box of Birds"

Rattle yer Dags an instruction to hurry up. Sheep running through gates and yards often make a curious rattling noise caused by their 'dags' (dried faeces on wool about their hind-quarters) clattering together. Similarly "He's a bit of a Dag" describes someone as a comedian. The word "dag" possibly derives from the regional English word, "daglock" (Middle English dagge) meaning the same thing. See also Fred Dagg, Footrot Flats.

The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise was an affectionate term for NZ back in the 1970s. It was originally the title of a book written by expatriate Austin Mitchell.

No wucking furries is a deliberate spoonerism to moderate the phrase, "no fucking worries". Both mean "no problem", often given as a response to accepting a task asked of one.

Differences from British English

Main article: phonemic differentiation.

Flattened 'i'

The most noticeable difference in pronunciation is probably the flat "i", so that "six" is pronounced in a way sounding like "sucks". This is a part of the vowel shift that has occurred in New Zealand.

Below, the latter word is how the former word sounds to the ears of a non-New Zealander:

  • pan → pen
  • pen → pin
  • pin → pun
  • peek → peck

Note that many of the differences listed below are avoided by New Zealanders speaking "properly", as in public speaking for example, in which case the main differences are the shifted vowel sounds listed here.

Additional Schwa

Typically, a New Zealander will insert the schwa to words such as grown, thrown and mown, resulting in grow-en, throw-en and mo-wen. However, groan, throne and moan are all unaffected meaning these word pairs can be distinguished by ear, unlike in British English.

This has also been seen (rarely) in the pronunciation of the word three, where the schwa appears between the 'th' and the 'r', creating a two-syllable word.

Distinction between and

In thicker New Zealand accents, words like "chair" and "cheer", (, )are pronounced the same way (, i.e. as "cheer" in British, American or Australian English). The same occurs with "share" and "shear" (both pronounced ), bear and beer, spare and spear. This pronunciation is not universal, many New Zealanders do in fact distinguish these words (IPA used for phonetic transcriptions).
Younger speakers tend to merge toward , while middle-aged speakers tend to merge toward . This merging has been seen in some other varieties of English, but notably not in Australian English.

Lack of distinction between and

There is a tendency for some words in New Zealand English to be pronounced with rather than the found in Southern British English, especially in those cases where the vowel with this particular sound is a stressed "A". Thus words like "warrior" and "worrier" are harder to differentiate in New Zealand English than in many forms of English.

Rising Inflection

New Zealanders will often reply to a question with a statement spoken with a rising inflection on the last couple of words (known in linguistics as a high rising terminal). This often has the effect of making their statement sound like another question. There is enough awareness of this that it is seen in exaggerated form in comedy parody of working class/uneducated new Zealanders.

Use of 'She' as third person neuter

New Zealanders, in informal speech, will often use the third person feminine she in place of the third person neuter it as the subject of a sentence, especially when the subject is the first word of the sentence. Thus phrases such as "She's a beaut day" (i.e., It's a beautiful day) are not uncommon. The most common use of this is in the phrase "She'll be right" meaning either "It will be OK" or "It is close enough to what is required".

Differences from Australian English

Although foreigners can find it hard to distinguish the New Zealand dialect from the Australian, there are differences in the pronunciation of vowel sounds, which are considerably more clipped in New Zealand English. (Canadians face a similar problem, frequently being mistaken for U.S. Americans by non-North Americans.) The main distinguishing sounds are the short 'i' and 'e', as well as words like "chance", as described below.

Short 'i'

The short 'i' in New Zealand English is pronounced as a schwa . In Australian English, the short 'u' is often thought to be the vowel closest to the New Zealand pronunciation. So Australians frequently joke about New Zealanders having "fush and chups" instead of "fish and chips". However, it is really closer to an almost dropped vowel, so it's more like "f'sh and ch'ps".

Conversely, the closest sound in New Zealand English to the Australian short 'i' is 'ee' , so New Zealanders may hear Australians talking about the "Seedney Harbour Breedge".

Recent linguistic research has suggested that this trait comes from dialects of English spoken by lower-class English people in the late 19th century, though why it persisted in New Zealand while disappearing from Australia is not known. It is, however, also encountered in Scottish English, and given the relatively higher level of Scottish emigration to New Zealand than Australia, this may also be an influence.

Short 'e'

The short 'e' in New Zealand English has moved to fill in the space left by 'i', and sounds like a short 'i' itself to other English speakers. For example, you may hear New Zealanders talk about having "iggs for brickfast".

Chance, dance, etc.

The New Zealand pronunciation of words like "dance" uses the same vowel sound as the "a" in "car", in other words , resembling the broad A of British English. The common Australian pronunciation rhymes with "ants": . However, either form may be used in Australia, with the former usually used in South Australia (and almost universal in Adelaide), and common in New South Wales.


"More" and "sure" are pronounced mua and shua, whereas in Australia they would be pronounced as maw and shaw.

Schwa in unstressed syllables

New Zealanders tend to be more likely to turn a vowel in an unstressed syllable into a schwa, although this is far from a universal trait. A clear example of this trait, however, is shown in the pronunciation of Australia's state of Queensland, which in IPA terms would be to a New Zealander (rhyming with "seasoned"), but to an Australian (rhyming with "freehand"). This difference seems analogous in some ways to attempts by speakers not familiar with British place names to fully pronounce the -shire endings of county names.

Letter 'h'

Pronunciation of the name of the letter 'h' is , as in Great Britain and North America, as opposed to the aspirated , found in Australian English, in turn of Hiberno-English origin. (This refers only to the pronunciation of the letter's name, not to the pronunciation of words beginning with that letter.)

Letter 'l'

Pronunciation of the letter 'l' at the end of a word such as kill, is sometimes voiced as a 'w'. This is further found in provincial cities and towns. Some speakers will not differentiate the sound of the word 'bill' from 'bull', and both will have the final 'l' sound changed to a 'w'. Even words such as 'build' will be affected and will sound like 'buwd'. A common use of this is the word 'milk' usually said 'muwk' (rhyming with 'sulk' to a speaker outside of New Zealand). Although this varies greatly in different areas and between different socio-economic groups within New Zealand itself. This seems to be most commonly found in the southern suburbs of Auckland City.

Vocabulary differences

Other differences in the dialects relate to words used to refer to common items, often based on major brands:

NZ Australia Explanation
jandals thongs backless sandals (or flip-flops in other English dialects)
chilly bin Esky insulated container for keeping drinks and food cool
Swanndri Driza-Bone The quintessential back-country farmer's jacket of each country, a woollen shirt and oilskin jacket respectively.
dairy milk bar
A kind of convenience store
duvet doona A padded blanket

In New Zealand, the word "milk bar" refers only to the milk bar of the 1950s and 1960s, a place that served non-alcoholic drinks, primarily milkshakes, tea and sometimes coffee. Ice creams were also served.

Dialects within New Zealand English

Most Kiwis speak Newzild "as she is spoke": geographical variations appear slight, and mainly confined to individual special local words.

One group of speakers, however, hold a recognised place as "talking differently": the South of the South Island (Murihiku) harbours a "Celtic fringe" of people speaking with a "Southland burr" in which a trilled 'r' appears prominently. This dialect is also rhotic; that is, speakers pronounce the 'r' in "bird", "work", etc. while other New Zealanders do not. This southern area formed a traditional repository of immigration from Scotland. Several words and phrases common in Scots or Scottish English still persist in this area as well. Some examples of this include the use of wee to mean "small", and phrases such as to do the messages meaning "to go shopping". Many of the region's place names also reflect their Scottish origin, such as those of the region's two main cities (Invercargill and Dunedin) which both have Scots Gaelic origins.

The trilled 'r' is also used by some Māori, who may also pronounce 't' and 'k' sounds almost as 'd' and 'g', especially in the south of the country (see Maori language for more details). This is also encountered in South African English, especially among Afrikaans speakers. The Maori 'r', though, is more like a short 'd'.

Dictionaries of New Zealand English

The first comprehensive dictionary dedicated to the species of English spoken in New Zealand was probably the Heinemann New Zealand dictionary, published in 1979. This work, edited by Harry Orsman, was a comprehensive 1300 page book covering English as spoken in new Zealand, with information relating to the usage and pronunciation of terms that were both widely accepted throughout the English-speaking world and those peculiar to New Zealand. The book included a one page list of the approximate date of entry into common parlance of many terms found in New Zealand English but not found elsewhere, such as "haka" (1827), "Boohai" (1920), and "bach" (1905).

In 1998, Oxford University Press produced a Dictionary of New Zealand English that it claimed was based on over 40 years of research. This research started with Orsman's 1951 thesis and continued with his publishing this dictionary as the editor. To assist with and maintain this work, the New Zealand Dictionary Centre was founded in 1997.

A more light-hearted look at English as spoken in New Zealand, A personal Kiwi-Yankee dictionary, was written by American-born Otago University psychology lecturer Louis Leland in 1980. This slim but entertaining volume lists many of the potentially confusing and/or misleading terms for Americans visiting or migrating to New Zealand. A second edition was published during the 1990s.

See also

Further reading

  • Dictionary of New Zealand English (1998). Oxford University Press.
  • Grant, L.E., and Devlin, G.A. (eds.) (1999). In other words: A dictionary of expressions used in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.
  • Leland, Louis S., jr. (1980). A personal Kiwi-Yankee dictionary. Dunedin, NZ: John McIndoe Ltd.
  • Orsman, H. W., (ed.) (1979). Heinemann New Zealand dictionary. Auckland, NZ: Heinemann Educational Books (NZ) Ltd.

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