New Zealand Accent in contrast to RP

Term Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 2,5 (B)





2.1 The KIT vowel
2.2 The DRESS and TRAP vowels

3.1 A case study
3.1.1 I-decentralisation
3.1.2 U-fronting




I chose to write a term paper on the New Zealand accent because I plan to travel around the country in the near future. Therefore it is very interesting for me to know a little bit more about the variety which is spoken there. While I was reading different books, I learned that New Zealand English is, on the one hand, a variety which is spoken all over the country without any regional dialects, but on the same time, there might be a vernacular that is spoken by the Maoris, the original inhabitants of New Zealand.

As I would like to get to know the country and its people as well, I think it would be best to look at both varieties. In this way, I hope to get a general overview of the situation, for the Maoris are a minority in New Zealand and their language is in danger of dying out. But as is nearly always the case when one language is replaced by a second, as was Maori by English, they will be influenced by each other. Therefore it is my concern to work out some differences between New Zealand English (NZE) and the English used by the Maoris (Maori Vernacular English (MVE)).

To have a basis on which I can present these possible findings, I want to compare the New Zealand accent to RP, which I know best.

The structure of the term paper will be divided into three parts. The first part will give a general overview of the origin of the New Zealand accent. The second part will concentrate on the New Zealand accent in comparison to RP.The focus here will be on the three short front vowels and two diphthongs which make the New Zealand accent distinctive from other varieties. The third part will give a short overview of the situation of the Maori language and will show similarities to and differences from the general New Zealand accent. In addition, a case study will be looked at to underline distinctive features.


Where did the New Zealand accent come from? This question has puzzled many people over the last few years. There are some very fanciful common reasons such as those for the nasal quality of New Zealand speech. It was said, for example, that this was the result of a nasal infection of hay fever because of the pollen in the air. Another explanation in New Zealand was that many New Zealanders had ill-fitting false teeth and that they did not dare to open their mouth, for fear, that their teeth might fall out. An even more common reason for the New Zealand accent was that of laziness. It was thought that the children especially made no effort to open their mouths to pronounce each sound distinctively.

There are also two different serious theories, ‘the mixing-bowl theory’ and ‘the single origin theory’. The mixing-bowel theory says that when people move from the country into a city, such as London, they mix their accents and dialects together and thus create a new urban accent. In regard to New Zealand it might have been the same process. Through the colonialisation of the country, dialects from different countries and regional areas have merged and in this way the New Zealand accent has been formed.

The single origin theory was to a large extent developed by Wall, who presents a very common explanation. According to him, the origin of New Zealand pronunciation came from the working class London dialect of Cockney English. It seems to be true that there are some similarities between New Zealand speech and Cockney, but there are many more differences. If, as he said, 80 percent of the population spoke with a Cockney accent, this would suggest that either a great number of people came from the Cockney area or that people chose to change their language towards the Cockney accent. But as Cockney was always regarded as a lower-class accent, this is not very likely. In the Australian Bulletin in 1893 a leader-writer wrote:

‘The twang of Cockney vulgarity –we imported it long before rabbits, sparrows, snails and other British nuisances were grafted upon our budding civilisation.’ (taken from E. Gordon and T. Deverson, 1999, p. 27).

Immigration figures about the origin New Zealand settlers do not support the idea that there was a sizeable number of settlers from the London region. The early immigrants to New Zealand came from all parts of England, with a considerable number also from Scotland and Ireland and a smaller number from Wales. A study of immigration to Wellington province from the 1850s to the 1870s showed also that a very small proportion of immigrants came from Australia.

The first evidence for a New Zealand accent comes from written sources. When people began to notice that children spoke with a distinctive New Zealand accent, they complained about it in magazines and journals. One of the difficulties they had was to describe the offending sound in ordinary spelling, for the IPA has not been developed yet. We can see this in numerous attempts to convey the pronunciation of the diphthongs in cow /aυ/ in written form:

Teown for town (Wellington School Inspector, 1908)

Nee-ow for now (The Triad, 1912)

Bree-own for brown (Listener, 1946)

(taken from Gordon and Deverson, 1998, p.30)

But it is not certain that these all refer to the same pronunciation.

The first recording of New Zealand speech was after the Second World War in 1946. The National Broadcasting Service set up a Mobile Disc Recording Unit. On account of this project we can now listen to the voices of very old people born in New Zealand in the last century. They also recorded local singers, pipe bands, school and church choirs. In addition, some data in Maori was collected, because even then some of the Maori elders were anxious about the losses in their language as older generations of Maori died.

Analyses of the speech on the mobile unit tapes have shown that there is a great amount of variations in the speech of that first generation born in New Zealand. Some speak with a dialectal accent from England, some sound Scottish, some sound Irish, some speak RP and some sound like elder New Zealanders, depending on their social background and where they grew up.

Today, there are several characteristics of the New Zealand accent which are obvious and make this variety distinctive. There are also changes going on at the present time and some characteristics can affect older speakers and some only younger speakers.


The most distinctive feature of the New Zealand accent is the pronunciation of the vowels. As was said in the introduction, the focus will be on the three short front vowels. To describe the New Zealand vowels it is useful to compare them with the RP vowel system, because the New Zealand vowels differ systematically from those of RP. The differences can be seen very clearly in the vowels in TRAP/æ/, DRESS /e/, and KIT /ɪ/. These are the short front vowels which all differ from the equivalent vowels in RP. In general, the New Zealand front vowels are raised and/or centralized with the tongue higher in the mouth than they are in most other varieties of English, including RP. These differences can lead to some confusion for people speaking a different variety, for example RP. New Zealanders on the other hand, do not have any difficulties in understanding each other. The vowels in TRAP, DRESS and KIT are just as clearly separated and contrasted as the RP vowels are.

2.1. The KIT vowel

The greatest apparent difference between NZE and RP is with the KIT vowel. The development of the /ɪ/ sound has been going from high front to mid central. Thus, the vowel is lowered and centralised.

The vowel in KIT is technically known as the ‘centralisation of /ɪ/’. In an unstressed positions, it is one of the features of the New Zealand accent which will be commented on. It is the sound which distinguishes New Zealanders from Australians.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


New Zealand Accent in contrast to RP
Bielefeld University  (Anglistics Institute)
2,5 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
569 KB
Zealand, Accent
Quote paper
Ann-Kathleen Kraetzig (Author), 2004, New Zealand Accent in contrast to RP, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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