New Zealand English

Last updated

New Zealand English
Region New Zealand
Ethnicity New Zealanders
Native speakers
3.8 million in New Zealand (2013 census) [1]
150,000 L2 speakers of English in New Zealand (Crystal 2003)
Early forms
Latin (English alphabet)
Unified English Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog newz1240
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

New Zealand English (NZE) is the dialect of the English language spoken and written by most English-speaking New Zealanders. [2] Its language code in ISO and Internet standards is en-NZ. [3] English is the first language of the majority of the population.


The English language was established in New Zealand by colonists during the 19th century. It is one of "the newest native-speaker variet[ies] of the English language in existence, a variety which has developed and become distinctive only in the last 150 years". [4] The varieties of English that had the biggest influence on the development of New Zealand English were Australian English and Southern England English, with lesser influences from Irish English, Scottish English and the British prestige accent Received Pronunciation (RP). [5] An important source of vocabulary is the Māori language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, whose contribution distinguishes New Zealand English from other varieties. [5]

Non-rhotic New Zealand English is most similar to Australian English in pronunciation, with some key differences. [6] A prominent difference is the realisation of /ɪ/ (the KIT vowel): in New Zealand English this is pronounced as a schwa.


The first dictionary with entries documenting New Zealand English was probably the Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary published in 1979. [7] Edited by Harry Orsman (1928–2002), it is a 1,337-page book with information relating to the usage and pronunciation of terms that were widely accepted throughout the English-speaking world, and those peculiar to New Zealand. It includes a one-page list of the approximate date of entry into common parlance of the many terms found in New Zealand English but not elsewhere, such as "haka" (1827), "Boohai" (1920), and "bach" (1905). A second edition was published in 1989 with the cover subtitle "the first dictionary of New Zealand English and New Zealand pronunciation". A third edition, edited by Nelson Wattie, was published as The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English by Reed Publishing in 2001. [7]

The first dictionary fully dedicated to the New Zealand variety of English was The New Zealand Dictionary published by New House Publishers in 1994 and edited by Elizabeth and Harry Orsman. [8] [9] A second edition was published in 1995, edited by Elizabeth Orsman.

In 1997, Oxford University Press produced the Harry Orsman-edited The Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles, a 981-page book, which it claimed was based on over 40 years of research. This research started with Orsman's 1951 thesis and continued with his editing this dictionary. To assist with and maintain this work, the New Zealand Dictionary Centre was founded in 1997. It has published several more dictionaries of New Zealand English, including The New Zealand Oxford Paperback Dictionary, edited by New Zealand lexicographer Tony Deverson in 1998, culminating in the 1,374-page The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary in 2004, by Tony Deverson and Graeme Kennedy. [10] A second, revised edition of The New Zealand Oxford Paperback Dictionary was published in 2006, [11] this time using standard lexicographical regional markers to identify the New Zealand content, which were absent from the first edition.

Another authoritative work is the Collins English Dictionary , first published in 1979 by HarperCollins, which contains an abundance of well-cited New Zealand words and phrases, drawing from the 650-million-word Bank of English, a British research facility set up at the University of Birmingham in 1980 and funded by Collins publishers. [12] Although this is a British dictionary of International English there has always been a credited New Zealand advisor for the New Zealand content, namely Professor Ian Gordon from 1979 until 2002 and Professor Elizabeth Gordon from the University of Canterbury since 2003. New Zealand-specific dictionaries compiled from the Collins English Dictionary include the Collins New Zealand Concise English Dictionary (1982), Collins New Zealand School Dictionary (1999) and Collins New Zealand Paperback Dictionary (2009).

Australia's Macquarie Dictionary was first published in 1981, and has since become the authority on Australian English. It has always included an abundance of New Zealand words and phrases additional to the mutually shared words and phrases of both countries. [13] Every edition has retained a New Zealander as advisor for the New Zealand content, the first being Harry Orsman [14] and the most recent being noted New Zealand lexicographer Laurie Bauer.[ citation needed ]

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

Historical development

From the 1790s, New Zealand was visited by British, French and American whaling, sealing and trading ships. Their crews traded European goods with the indigenous Māori. [15] [16] The first settlers to New Zealand were mainly from Australia, many of them ex-convicts or escaped convicts. Sailors, explorers and traders from Australia and other parts of Europe also settled.

When in 1788 the colony of New South Wales was formed, most of New Zealand was nominally included, but no real legal authority or control was exercised. However, when the New Zealand Company announced in 1839 its plans to establish colonies in New Zealand this and the increased commercial interests of merchants in Sydney and London spurred the British to take stronger action. Captain William Hobson was sent to New Zealand to persuade Māori to cede their sovereignty to the British Crown and on 6 February 1840, Hobson and about forty Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. [17] From this point onward there was considerable European settlement, primarily from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland; and to a lesser extent the United States, India, China, and various parts of continental Europe. Some 400,000 settlers came from Britain, of whom 300,000 stayed permanently. Most were young people and 250,000 babies were born. New Zealand ceased to be part of New South Wales and became a British colony on 1 July 1841.

Gold discoveries in Otago (1861) and Westland (1865), caused a worldwide gold rush that more than doubled the population from 71,000 in 1859 to 164,000 in 1863. Between 1864 and 1865, under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, 13 ships carrying citizens of England, Ireland and South Africa arrived in New Zealand under the Waikato Immigration Scheme. [18] [19] According to census data from 1871, around half the early settlers were English, a quarter were Irish, a quarter were Scots and 5% were Australian. [20] The European population of New Zealand grew explosively from fewer than 1000 in 1831 to 500,000 by 1881. By 1911 the number of European settlers had reached a million.[ citation needed ] The settlement of peoples from various foreign countries and the intermingling of the people with the indigenous Māori brought about what would eventually evolve into a "New Zealand accent" and a unique regional English lexicon.

A distinct New Zealand variant of the English language has been recognised since at least 1912, when Frank Arthur Swinnerton described it as a "carefully modulated murmur". From the beginning of the haphazard Australian and European settlements and latter official British migrations, a new dialect began to form by adopting Māori words to describe the different flora and fauna of New Zealand, for which English did not have words of its own. [21]

The New Zealand accent appeared first in towns with mixed populations of immigrants from Australia, England, Ireland, and Scotland. These included the militia towns of the North Island and the gold-mining towns of the South Island. In more homogeneous towns such as those in Otago and Southland, settled mainly by people from Scotland, the New Zealand accent took longer to appear, [22] while the accent was quick to develop in schools starting from the 1890s. [20]

Since the latter 20th century New Zealand society has gradually divested itself of its fundamentally British roots [23] and has adopted influences from all over the world, especially in the early 21st century when New Zealand experienced an increase of non-British immigration which has since brought about a more prominent multi-national society. The Internet, television, [24] movies and popular music have all brought international influences into New Zealand society and the New Zealand lexicon. Americanization of New Zealand society and language has subtly and gradually been taking place since World War II and especially since the 1970s, [25] as has happened also in neighbouring Australia.

While both the Māori language and New Zealand Sign Language have official status, as detailed in legislation, this is mostly limited to the right to use these languages in legal proceedings and other limited circumstances. [26] English has no equivalent legal protection, but its widespread use is commonly accepted and generally assumed by common law. [27] Though requiring a completely “English only” workplace, without a justifiable reason, could be seen as discriminatory. [28] In February 2018, Clayton Mitchell MP from New Zealand First led a campaign for English to be recognised as an official language in New Zealand. [29] [30] Justice Minister Amy Adams said "English is a de facto official language by virtue of its widespread use," while Professor Andrew Geddis called Mitchell's bill "legal nonsense". [27]


Variation in New Zealand vowels
Lexical set PhonemePhonetic realisation [31]
KIT/ə/[ ɪ̠ ][ ə ]
COMMA[ ə ]
DRESS/e/[ ][ ]
TRAP/ɛ/[ æ ][ ɛ̝ ]
PRICE/ɑɪ/[ɑ̟ɪ][ɒ̝ˑɪ], [ɔɪ]
NEAR/iə/[i̞ə], [e̝ə][i̞ə]

Not all New Zealanders have the same accent, as the level of cultivation (i.e. the closeness to Received Pronunciation) of every speaker's accent differs. The phonology in this section is of an educated speaker of New Zealand English, and uses a transcription system designed by Bauer et al. (2007) specifically to faithfully represent the New Zealand accent. It transcribes some of the vowels differently, whereas the approximant /ɹ/ is transcribed with the symbol r even in phonemic transcription. [32] Another feature is that the "e" sound (DRESS) as in "Bret" or "mess" is pronounced as [ ], which sounds like "i" (ɪ; "Brit" or "miss") to American English speakers. This was the subject of jokes in Flight of the Conchords , an American TV show created by New Zealanders. [33] Most accents of New Zealand are non-rhotic.


New Zealand English has a number of dialectal words and phrases. [34] These are mostly informal terms that are more common in casual speech. Numerous loanwords have been taken from the Māori language or from Australian English.

New Zealand adopted decimal currency in 1967 and the metric system in 1974. Despite this, several imperial measures are still widely encountered and usually understood, such as feet and inches for a person's height, pounds and ounces for an infant's birth weight, and in colloquial terms such as referring to drinks in pints. [35] [36] [37] In the food manufacturing industry in New Zealand both metric and non-metric systems of weight are used and usually understood owing to raw food products being imported from both metric and non-metric countries. However per the December 1976 Weights and Measures Amendment Act, all foodstuffs must be retailed using the metric system. [38] In general, the knowledge of non-metric units is lessening.

The word spud for potato , now common throughout the English-speaking world, is first recorded in New Zealand English. [39]

As with Australian English, but in contrast to most other forms of the language, some speakers of New Zealand English use both the terms bath and bathe as verbs, with bath used as a transitive verb (e.g. I will bath the dog), and bathe used predominantly, but not exclusively, as an intransitive verb (e.g. Did you bathe?).

Both the words amongst and among are used, as in British English. The same is true for two other pairs, whilst and while and amidst and amid.

Australian English influences

New Zealand English terms of Australian origin include bushed (lost or bewildered), chunder (to vomit), drongo (a foolish or stupid person), fossick (to search), larrikin (mischievous person), Maccas (slang for McDonald's food), maimai (a duckshooter's hide; originally a makeshift shelter, from aboriginal mia-mia), paddock (field, or meadow), pom or pommy (an Englishman), skite (verb: to boast), station (for a very large farm), wowser (non-drinker of alcohol, or killjoy), and ute (pickup truck).[ citation needed ]

American English influences

Advancing from its British and Australian English origins, New Zealand English has evolved to include many terms of American origin, or which are otherwise used in American English, in preference over the equivalent contemporary British terms. Some examples of such words in New Zealand English are bobby pin for the British hair pin, [40] muffler for silencer, [41] truck for lorry, station wagon for estate car, [42] stove for cooker, creek [43] over brook or stream, eggplant for aubergine, median strip for central reservation, [44] pushup for press-up, and potato chip for potato crisp. [45]

Other examples of vocabulary directly borrowed from American English include the boonies , bucks (dollars), bushwhack (fell timber), butt (bum or arse), ding (dent), dude, duplex, faggot or fag (interchangeable with the British poof and poofter), figure [46] (to think or conclude; consider), hightail it, homeboy, hooker, lagoon, lube (oil change), man (in place of mate or bro in direct address), major (to study or qualify in a subject), to be over [some situation] (be fed up), rig (large truck), [47] sheltered workshop (workplace for disabled persons), [48] spat [49] (a small argument), and subdivision, and tavern. [50] Regarding grammar, since about 2000 the American gotten has been increasingly commonly used as the past participle of "get" [51] instead of the standard British English got. [52] In a number of instances, terms of British and American origin can be used interchangeably. Additionally, many American borrowings are not unique to New Zealand English, and may be found in other dialects of English, including British English.

New Zealandisms

In addition to word and phrase borrowings from Australian, British and American English, New Zealand has its own unique words and phrases [53] derived entirely in New Zealand, many of which are slang terms. The following list summarises some such words and phrases:

Differences from Australian English

Many of these relate to words used to refer to common items, often based on which major brands become eponyms.

NZAustraliaTranslation to US/UK English
cellphone [note 1]
mobile phone
mobile phone
A portable telephone. "Cell" and "cellphone" are predominantly American. "Mobile" and "mobile phone" are predominantly British. Australia uses the terms "mobile" and "mobile phone" exclusively. The term "cell" is only used in Australia as in cellular tower. The US and New Zealand term cellular network is called mobile network in Australia. [69]
chilly bin Esky [note 2] An insulated box used to keep food or drink cool
crib [note 3]
shack [70] a small, often very modest holiday property, often at the seaside
dairy [note 4] milk bar
Convenience store, a small store selling mainly food
duvet Doona [note 2] Doona is an Australian trade mark for a brand of duvet/quilt.
ice block
ice block
Icy Pole [note 2]
Ice pop
jandals [note 5] thongs Flip-flops
thong, G-string G-string Thong (clothing)
candy floss fairy flossCandy floss in the UK, cotton candy in the US
cattle stop cattle gridA device for preventing cattle wandering onto country roads
salliessalvosFollowers of the Salvation Army church
speed bump
judder bar [71] [note 6]
speed bump
speed hump [note 7]
A raised section of road used to deter excessive speed
no exitno through roadSignage for a road with a dead end, a cul-de-sac
Twink [note 2] Liquid Paper [note 2]
Wite-Out [note 2]
Correction fluid. Note that Twink is a New Zealand brand name which has entered the vernacular as a generic term, being the first product of its kind introduced in the 1980s. The common Australian general term is white-out. [72] Liquid Paper is also a brand name which is sometimes used as a generic term in Australia or New Zealand. As with other countries (but not Australia) the European brand Tipp-Ex is also available in New Zealand and is sometimes used as a generic term as well.
Motorway Freeway In Australia, Controlled-access highways can be named as either Freeway (a term not used in NZ) or Motorway, depending on the state.
"hello" (etc.)
Although the greeting "G'day" is as common in New Zealand as it is in Australia, the term "Howdy" can be heard throughout New Zealand [73] [74] but not frequently in Australia. This contraction of "how do you do?" is actually of English origin (South English dialect ca. 1860), however is contemporarily associated with Southern American English, particularly Texan where it is a common greeting. It is possible the NZ origin is from the earlier British usage. In present day, Howdy is not commonly used, with "how are you?" being more ubiquitous. When a rising intonation is used the phrase may be interpreted as an enquiry, but when slurred quickly and/or with a descending intonation, may be used as a casual greeting
vividtextaA marker pen
trekking [ citation needed ]
(or less commonly) hiking
Travel through open or (more often) forested areas on foot
  1. The terms mobile(phone) and cell(phone) are used interchangeably, with cell being the predominant term. [ citation needed ]
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 a genericised trademark
  3. Crib is mainly used in the southern part of the South Island, bach in the rest of New Zealand.
  4. In larger cities in New Zealand convenience store is used due to immigration (and to current NZ law forbidding a dairy from selling alcohol), though dairy is used commonly in conversation.
  5. The word jandals was originally a trademarked name derived from "Japanese sandals".
  6. The term judder bar is regional in its usage in New Zealand, and is rarely encountered in some parts of the country.
  7. The latter is used in New South Wales and Victoria


Some New Zealanders often reply to a question with a statement spoken with a rising intonation at the end. 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 New Zealanders, such as in the 1970s comedy character Lyn Of Tawa . [75] This rising intonation can also be heard at the end of statements that are not in response to a question but to which the speaker wishes to add emphasis. High rising terminals are also heard in Australia. [76]

In informal speech, some New Zealanders 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. The most common use of this is in the phrase "She'll be right" meaning either "It will be okay" or "It is close enough to what is required". Similar to Australian English are uses such as "she was great car" or "she's a real beauty, this [object]".

Another specific New Zealand usage is the way in which New Zealanders refer to the country's two main islands. They are always (except on maps) referred to as "the North Island" and "the South Island". And because of their size, New Zealanders tend to think of these two islands as being 'places', rather than 'pieces of land', so the preposition "in" (rather than "on") is usually used – for example, "my mother lives in the North Island", "Christchurch is in the South Island". This is true only for the two main islands; for smaller islands, the usual preposition "on" is used – for example, "on Stewart Island" (the third largest), or "on Waiheke Island" (the third most populous).

Māori influence

Many local everyday words have been borrowed from the Māori language, including words for local flora, fauna, place names and the natural environment.

The dominant influence of Māori on New Zealand English is lexical. A 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. [77]

The everyday use of Māori words, usually colloquial, occurs most prominently among youth, young adults and Māori populations. Examples are kia ora ("hello"), nau mai ("welcome"), and kai ("food"). [78]

Māori is ever present and has a significant conceptual influence in the legislature, government, and community agencies (e.g. health and education), where legislation requires that proceedings and documents be translated into Māori (under certain circumstances, and when requested). Political discussion and analysis of issues of sovereignty, environmental management, health, and social well-being thus rely on Māori at least in part. Māori as a spoken language is particularly important wherever community consultation occurs.

Dialects and accents

Recognisable regional variations are slight, except for Southland and the southern part of neighbouring Otago, with its "Southland burr", where the postvocalic R is pronounced rather than clipped. This southern area traditionally received heavy immigration from Scotland (see Dunedin). Several words and phrases common in Scots or Scottish English persist there; examples include the use of wee for "small", and phrases such as to do the messages meaning "to go shopping". Other Southland features which may also relate to early Scottish settlement are the use of the TRAP (short A) vowel in a set of words which usually use the BATH vowel (long A), such as dance or castle, which is also common in Australian English. Another feature is the maintaining of the /ʍ/ ~ /w/ distinction (e.g. where which and witch are not homophones). [79]

Recent research (2012) suggests that postvocalic /r/ is not restricted to Southland, but is found also in the central North Island where there may be a Pasifika influence, but also a possible influence from modern New Zealand hip‐hop music, which has been shown to have high levels of non‐prevocalic /r/ after the NURSE vowel. [79]

Taranaki has been said to have a minor regional accent, possibly due to the high number of immigrants from the south-west of England. However, this is becoming less pronounced. [80]

Some Māori have an accent distinct from the general New Zealand accent; and also tend to include Māori words more frequently. Comedian Billy T. James and the bro'Town TV programme were notable for featuring exaggerated versions of this. [81] Linguists recognise this as "Māori English", and describe it as strongly influenced by syllable-timed Māori speech patterns. [82] Linguists count "Pākehā English" as the other main accent, and note that it is beginning to adopt similar rhythms, distinguishing it from other stress-timed English accents. [83]

It is commonly held that New Zealand English is spoken very quickly. [84] [85] This idea is given support by a study comparing adult New Zealand English and American English speakers which observed faster speaking and articulation rates among the New Zealand English group overall. [86] However, a similar study with American and New Zealand English-speaking children found the opposite, with the speaking and articulation rates of the New Zealand children being slower. [87] The same study proposed that differences in the relative number of tense and lax vowels between the two speaker groups may have influenced the speaking and articulation rates. [87]


See also

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This article covers the phonological system of New Zealand English. While New Zealanders speak differently depending on their level of cultivation, this article covers the accent as it is spoken by educated speakers, unless otherwise noted. The IPA transcription is one designed by Bauer et al. (2007) specifically to faithfully represent a New Zealand accent, which this article follows in most aspects.


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  3. en-NZ is the language code for New Zealand English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).
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Further reading