Other Voices

6th March 2011

Certain regular readers of this blog have remarked that my updates have slowed to a virtual drip-feed of late (yes, I do actually have regular readers, much to even my own surprise, and according to the handy stats function the host site provides, I’ve had pageviews from countries as diverse as China and Belize, where, as far as I’m aware, I don’t know a single soul). The reason, ladies and gentlemen, is twofold. Firstly, I have over the course of the last six weeks landed myself A Job, and am therefore far shorter on leisure time than I was in those halcyon days when I was a wide-eyed New Zealand virgin. I’m not convinced this is necessarily an appropriate forum to be discussing the ins and outs of said job, but some of the people and experiences to which it is daily introducing me will no doubt end up getting their fair share of coverage in future entries. More importantly, it has for obvious reasons been a incredibly difficult time for New Zealand since the devastating second Christchurch earthquake struck a couple of weeks ago and I felt it would have been unseemly of me to be blabbering on about my own trivial affairs when the terrible losses suffered by so many people here were still so raw. It will be a long time before the wounds can properly start to heal, especially when the whole Canterbury region is so geologically unstable at the moment, but there is at least a determination among the people of Christchurch, and New Zealand as a whole, that the city will one day re-emerge as a stronger, and perhaps even better, place than it was. In the meantime, I would urge you all to donate as much as you can to the various earthquake appeals to at least give those who have lost so much a helping hand in their path to recovery.

My primary topic today is language. One of the many appealing things about emigrating to New Zealand rather than, say, Slovenia, was that I wouldn’t be required to learn a new lingua franca. Foreign tongues, I have to admit, have never been my strongest suit. My best languages at school were Latin and Ancient Greek, which, fun though they were, are about as much use in modern day life as a Betamax video recorder. French I am average at, while my Italian and Spanish have barely moved beyond the confines of the “useful phrases” section of my Rough Guide to Europe. And as valiantly as I’ve tried to improve mon francais during my numerous forays across the Channel, my brain’s apparent inability to retain new vocabulary and verb forms without perennial drilling from my French teacher means that I never seem to get much further than the most mundane of conversational patter. I’m certain that this would be at least partially remedied were I to spend a significant chunk of time living and working alongside Les Grenouilles, but given the inevitable stresses of moving to a foreign country, I was rather glad that language was one of the few things I wouldn’t have to worry about before relocating to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Or, at least, this is what I thought before I found myself surrounded by New Zealanders 24/7. It turns out, you see, that my Kiwi girlfriend’s (to these ears) distinctly English-sounding tones are not necessarily indicative of your average New Zealand accent. I’m still not entirely sure whether Holly has always sounded like this, or whether she absorbed more of the local tongue than your average worldly traveller during her two years in London, but either way, it meant that I didn’t really start to pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand’s distinct brand of English until I actually moved over here.

One of the first things that struck me when I started listening properly to the way Kiwis speak was that curious rising intonation at the end of every sentence, which has the disorienting side-effect of making them sound like they’re asking a continuous stream of questions. It’s a quirk that becomes quite easy to mimic after a while, though obviously I try to suppress the temptation till I’m standing alone in front of a mirror. I’ve never studied linguistics or accents academically so have been left to ponder in my own mind how such a distinctive trait has manifested itself over what can be no more than a hundred and fifty years. The first European immigrants to New Zealand were, after all, mainly from the UK, yet I’ve never heard an accent from my own sceptred isle, from Cockney to Scouse, that sounds anything like Kiwi. Clearly, the influence of the Maori and the significant number of immigrants from non-English speaking countries like the Netherlands can’t be ignored, but its deviation from the accents of the homeland is nevertheless rather surprising.

While the dominant New Zealand accent – and by that, I mean the one heard in and around Auckland, whose population accounts for almost half of the whole country’s – has clearly followed its own evolutionary trajectory, free from the influence of the motherland, there are traces of some British regional accents in other parts of New Zealand. I was somewhat startled, for example, by the unmistakable West Country burr that greeted me when we first visited the South Island’s Central Otago region. Thankfully, there was no call for any of the people we met down there to say “combine harvesturr”, otherwise I might have struggled to suppress a smirk.

The accent is inevitably only one of several facets that distinguish the way New Zealanders speak from the way we Brits do. The vocabulary used for certain commonplace items can sometimes be wildly different, particularly when it comes to food, where Kiwis seem to follow American custom rather than British. Peppers are universally known as capsicums here, while courgettes are commonly referred to by the more exotic-sounding zucchini. And even when we appear to use the same word on paper, there can be an unexpected twist of pronunciation. For example, the “yog” of “yoghurt” is pronounced to rhyme with the “bog” of “bogey” rather than that of “boggle”, while “chilli con carne” is spoken as if the final word ended with the “n”.

These variations are minor, though, when compared to some of the slang terms you commonly hear bandied around in everyday conversation. I noticed early on that the affectionate address of “mate”, with which many of my British male contemporaries end a sentence, comes a distant third behind the more customary salutations “cuz” and “bro”. New Zealanders love the qualifier “heaps”, as in, “I love you heaps” or “I’ve eaten heaps of crumpets”, which gets a bit irritating after a while, though I suppose it’s at least less coarse than the more common urban British variant “shitloads”. I have already touched upon the slightly sordid feeling I get when I find myself having to use the term “jandal” (see, see, it’s underlining it in my spellchecker!) rather than flip-flop, just to make myself understood. Likewise, I have been compelled to adopt such unnatural vocabulary as gumboots (wellies), grunds (underpants) and togs (swimming trunks), just to avoid a sea of blank faces when conversing with the locals. Less common, but certainly more intriguing, are those words and phrases that, if you didn’t know better, you’d assume were some kind of gag from Flight of the Concords. The expression we chose for the title of this very blog, “rattle your dags”, was one example I picked up when browsing through a dictionary of Kiwi slang when we were still in England (for those of you who haven’t worked it out by now, it means “hurry the **** up!”)

Though there have been odd occasions when I’ve been sat in a room full of bantering Kiwis and wondered what the hell they’re babbling on about whilst simultaneously feeling horribly self-conscious about my own accent, which in that sort of context sounds like my mouth has been surgically replaced by Boris Johnson’s, I’ve been here so long now that I only tend to notice an accent when I hear a fellow foreigner speaking. Plus, as most New Zealanders are self-confessed anglophiles, not only because many of them have British ancestors, but because prime time television over here is largely dominated by UK imports, they positively lap up my accent. If anything, they’re disappointed that I don’t sound more like Vera Duckworth from the much-loved Coronation Street. What’s worrying, though, is that last time I spoke to my parents back home, my dad made the shattering accusation that I’ve started to speak a bit like them. As if such a thing were possible! I might say “jandal” and even drop the odd “yoeghurt”, but I swear my accent is resolutely English. Oh.


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