The New Zealand accent is a potpourri of international diversity, and it continues to evolve

Congratulations New Zealanders; you have the sexiest accent in the world.

Now the research behind that conclusion might lack a certain … scientific rigour.

And you might have a few people in mind who render that claim … well, spurious.

But it’s undeniable that New Zealanders do have a distinctive sound.

A recent article by Stuff explainer editor Keith Lynch tried to get to the bottom of that distinctive sound: how New Zealand English evolved; the influence of te reo Māori; the differences within regions; and where it might be heading next.

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan sits down with Lynch and Oxford University sociolinguistics professor Miriam Meyerhoff to discuss why we sound the way we do.

Lynch hails from Ireland, and anybody who’s been around that country knows of the abundance of accents of varying intelligibility.

Curiously, in New Zealand – which is more than three times the land area of Ireland – there’s much less aural variety.

Lynch says this phenomenon is partially explained by New Zealand’s young age.

“Hundreds of years ago places like Limerick and Cork, which these days, it takes an hour to drive between those places, but they were quite isolated. So the people there didn’t really have any contact with people outside their own cities and they ended up over time developing their own kind of dialect. And that isolation allowed those particular ways of speaking to develop and grow, while that really never happened here in New Zealand.”

New Zealand English evolved in a very short period, relative to other accents, which can take shape over centuries.

Out of a melting-pot of English, Irish and Scottish immigrants, with a healthy dose of Australians, and the distinctive vowel sounds of te reo Māori, emerged something approaching what we hear today.

The lone regional variant identified by linguists is the Southland accent, often described as a ‘burr’.

This has long fascinated linguists – in fact, a couple of years ago, researchers at the University of Canterbury conducted a study into where the accent stemmed from, which was documented by RNZ’s Allison Ballance in an episode of Our Changing World.

But accents don’t stagnate: they are constantly evolving and changing, if at glacial pace.

Meyerhoff, who’s waiting for Covid to settle down before heading over to the UK to work at Oxford University, has been researching accent varieties in Auckland, and has noted a distinctive trend emerging in the Mount Roskill area.

“In communities where you have a lot of immigration … where there’s no ethnic, or ethnic-linguistic, majority, there seems to be some kind of levelling that’s happening.

“Certain features that are maybe a little bit irregular, in the grammar of English, are getting evened out, getting regularised. Some of the pronunciations that are quite distinctive in New Zealand … (like the short ‘a’ in ‘bag’ which to outsiders sounds much more like an ‘e’ sound) we’re finding out in places like Mt Roskill the young speakers are not doing that any more. They’re moving away from that.”

Australians say they’re sounding Australian – but Meyerhoff says while that’s sort of true, they’re not trying to sound that way. She thinks they’re trying to keep some distance from the strongly stereotyped Kiwi accent.

“I don’t think they want to be associated with those sort of good-Kiwi-blokes.”

Today on The Detail she goes through what makes up an accent, and how little changes make a difference.

We also talk about the evolution of the New Zealand broadcaster and there’s a montage in the podcast that might have you scratching your head a bit … the broadcasters are, in order, Angela D’Audney, Haddo D’Audney, Philip Sherry, Hewitt Humphrey, John Hawkesby, Nicola Wright, and Oriini Kaipara.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Leave a comment