Accent on New Zealand and Australia

New Zealand English Tips

New Zealanders don’t like it when foreigners tell them their accents are just the same as Australians’. And once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll realise they aren’t. Pick up some light-hearted tips about the accents of New Zealand English.

what's that you're saying?
What's that you're saying?

New Zealanders like to think of their country as classless – a country where everyone has the same accent. They will admit that the Southland accent is a bit different, owing to the large numbers of Scots who settled there. Southlanders tend to roll the “r” sound in their speech.

Of course, many Maori also speak English with a distinct accent – and the difference between their more staccato way of speaking and other New Zealanders is quickly heard. There are other differences, but before we look at these, I’d like to answer the question: ‘Why do New Zealanders and Australians sound so similar when they are separated by a sea that takes three hours to fly over?’

The answer, although not widely advertised in New Zealand, is straightforward. The first English-speaking settlers of New Zealand were Australian seal-hunters from the penal colony of Port Jackson (Sydney). Later settlers were mainly British. The New Zealand accent grew from an Australian foundation spiced with inputs from the different regional accents of the British Isles – English, Scots, Welsh and Irish.

So, what are the sounds in their speech that make New Zealanders sound like New Zealanders?

The first sound that comes to my mind is one I noticed a few days after arriving in New Zealand. I was standing in a queue at the bank listening to the young woman behind me. I wasn’t eavesdropping you understand – I just couldn’t avoid hearing what she was saying. She was talking to her friend about the “cheek” she was getting. I soon realised that she was neither talking about a part of her anatomy nor about someone’s sarcasm towards her. She was talking about the cheque (U.S. check) she was there to collect.

There is a tendency in New Zealand English to shorten the long ‘e’ sound found in beg, said and leg, into a short ‘ee’ sound of the type found in seek, leak or peak. So when a New Zealander tells you to do something ‘ageen’, you know they want you do it ‘again’.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that this tendency to shorten the ‘e’ sound varies widely between speakers – and, to my ears, is heard more often in the South Island than the North Island – but this might just be my impression.

cat on mat
A Cet on a Met

To illustrate the second difference, I’d like you to cast your mind back to an old favourite from children’s ‘learn to write’ books, the infamous “The cat sat on the mat”. The pronunciation of this sentence might seem straightforward enough to you – lots of “ah” sounds of the type a doctor might ask you to make during an examination. To a New Zealander, however, the doctor is entirely absent from consideration. In fact, a New Zealander will say, “The cet set on the met”. If you haven’t noticed this before, listen out the next time you hear a New Zealander speaking and you’ll hear it.

Moving on again, the next two sounds that come to mind are found in both New Zealand and Australian English. The sounds are best illustrated by a joke.

The scene is North Africa, at the height of fierce battles in World War 2. An Australian junior officer meets a British senior officer on the front line. “Good morning young man,” says the British officer, “Did you come here to die?”

“No Sir,” replies the young Australian, “I came yesterday”.

To British ears, our heroic young Australian would sound like he said “Oi kime yester-die”. The butt of the joke here is how, to British ears, Australians (and New Zealanders) pronounce “day” as “die” and “lay” as “lie,” etc so that “today” becomes “to die”. Of course, British people with a Cockney accent also come close to pronouncing “day” as “die” and the Cockney influence is certainly the source of the sound in Australian and hence New Zealand English. The way in which ‘i’ becomes ‘oi’ is very much more an Australian pronunciation than a New Zealand one. Some New Zealanders can sound very Australian in this regard. I’m not quite sure why New Zealanders vary so much in this – it doesn’t seem to be a regional variation.

Finally, the true clincher to decide whether you are listening to an Australian or New Zealander lies in the pronunciation of the letter “i” in the famous fish and chips test.

If your companion likes eating “feesh and cheeps,” he or she is Australian.

If, on the other hand, they prefer “fush and chups,” you are undoubtedly dealing with a New Zealander.

Here's a fun look at the origins of the New Zealand accent.