Friday, December 14, 2018

The kiwi is a bird. I am a New Zealander.


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., December 13.)

Call me the paper’s resident Grinch. While other people make lists of cards to send and presents to buy, I’ve been compiling an inventory of things that get on my nerves. Here are a few:

• I am not a kiwi. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a freakish-looking bird with nostrils at the end of its beak. I do not scurry around in leaf litter at night probing the soil for grubs and worms.  I am of the species homo sapiens, not apteryx australis.

Accordingly, I cringe at the fashion across all the media for referring to New Zealanders as “Kiwis”. It’s patronising, cloyingly sentimental and just plain wrong. It promotes a comforting nationalistic myth that we are all the same, with common characteristics, opinions and aspirations, rather than representative of what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the crooked timber of humanity, in all its glorious complexity.

In any case, we managed perfectly well with “New Zealanders” until someone decided to infantilise us. It may be four syllables rather than two, but I think we can still get our tongues around it.

• That Air New Zealand engineers’ strike threatened for the week before Christmas. Déjà vu, anyone?

People over 50 will recall the Cook Strait ferry strikes that just happened to coincide with school holidays, or the walkouts by freezing workers that left yards full of sheep at the height of the killing season – anything to maximise the pressure on the employers to cave in.

A generation has grown up with no memory of the enormous economic harm done by industrial disruption during the 1970s. Some would say the subsequent labour law reforms which stripped unions of much of their power went too far. But by cynically and heartlessly calling a strike at the busiest time of the year for domestic air travel, the Aviation and Marine Engineers’ Association has obligingly reminded of us how things used to be.

The sense of nostalgia was sharpened by hearing the engineers’ spokesman interviewed on Morning Report. He spoke with an English accent, recalling an era when New Zealand unions were infected by British class warfare.

• What has Jacinda Ardern got against the letter T? On the TV news the other night she referred to hospidalidy and modorists. I’ve previously heard her speak of credibilidy, creadividy and inequalidy. And because the prime minister is an influencer and role model, other people are already imitating her pronunciation.

Nothing is more susceptible to the whims of fashion than pronunciation and language. The letter L seems well on its way to extinction in some usages – note how often you hear “vunnerable” and “howth” in place of “vulnerable” and “health” – while other words have inexplicably gained an extra syllable, so that we now have “befor-wah” and “unknowen”.

Now the inoffensive letter T, which never harmed a soul, is being usurped by a rampant, invasive D. Someone should mount a campaign to prodect the integridy of spoken English.

• Someone from Otago University watched 24 James Bond movies and read all the Bond books, carefully noting every occasion on which he drank alcohol and the high-risk activities that he engaged in afterwards. I’m not sure what the purpose of this exercise was, but I’m assuming the taxpayer paid for it.

Perhaps we’re supposed to assume it was a bit of a jape, but that wasn’t obvious from the interviews given by the professor (an academic title that once commanded respect) who led the project. He po-facedly pronounced that Bond drank a potentially fatal quantity of alcohol on one occasion and was a consistently heavy drinker over six decades.

But for heaven’s sake, Bond is a fantasy character. So what did this exercise achieve? Are the Otago researchers trying to persuade us that we shouldn’t try to emulate Bond’s drinking?

That would be consistent with their obsessive taxpayer-funded wowserism. But New Zealanders are no more likely to mimic Bond’s drinking patterns than they are to tussle with komodo dragons or indulge in any of the other absurd escapades that occur in his movies. What the research project really reveals is that the Otago academics don’t trust us to distinguish real life from Hollywood escapism – just as they don’t think we can be trusted to drink responsibly. 

• On a cheerful note more appropriate to the festive season, it was a joy to hear the prickly Chris Finlayson, former Minister of Treaty Negotiations, frankly unburden himself on radio of his feelings about the iwi leaders who for years have frustrated attempts to achieve a Treaty settlement in the Far North.

Finlayson, of course, is stepping down at the next election, so could afford to be blunt. But what a shame that politicians should have to wait for their impending retirement to tell us what they really think.


9 comments:

Unknown said...

Mine is silly females pronouncing said words ending them in a high pitch.

David said...

You lost the kiwis one years ago, Karl.

The fact a university paid for a professor's research into James Bond's drinking in every film from Dr No to Spectre quite frankly astounded me. Almost enough to make me pour a martini (if I knew how), the way I am tempted to buy a juicy beef steak every time Radio NZ trots out another worthy to exhort me to go vegan to save the planet. Which is several times a day.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Traveled the world with a kiwi emblem sewn on my pack. People always pointed and exclaimed "New Zealand" Go figure!!

hughvane said...

Heard of Ostriyins? Niu Zilanders? Heard Nicola Wright using ta and fa instead of to and for? A linguistic academic once maintained that NZ'ers sounded like the Neanderthals would have. How he might have known that is open to speculation. Actually, he was referring to NZ females and the way they speak, voice tone like fingernails on chalkboards, butchering vowels left, right and centre, but we'd better go with the flow and be inclusive of males, yeah nah.

Remember Mr du Fresne that you amongst many in the general media decried the BBC's influence on our earlier broadcasting standards, particularly as it related to speech on radio and television. It was indeed about oral delivery standards, demanding ones at that. Time to bring them back?

Keep up with the dislikes. You used to produce a list of them every now and then. The one I remember best is "had enough of Sonny Bill Williams yet?" You could repeat that one every week!

pdm said...

Karl I am with you re Kiwi - I am a New Zealander.

Another one is newspapers headline saying, as I saw a while ago on Stuff or the Herald -`man hides from cops in wheelie bin'. They are Police for goodness sake.

As far as James Bond is concerned I was more interested in Ursula Andress than I was in Bonds drinking when I saw Dr No in the Waipukurau theatre in the good old days.

Compliments of the season to you and yours Karl.

Karl du Fresne said...

You too, Donald. Good to hear from you.

Karl du Fresne said...

Hughvane:
It's true that I wrote years ago that we didn't need to slavishly imitate the BBC, and I'm still of that view, but I have never defended slovenly speech. My argument was (and remains) that there is a neutral New Zealand accent that is recogniseably ours but perfectly easy on the ear. I can think of any number of radio and TV presenters, male and female, who still speak this way. Off the top of my head, Jim Mora, Peter Williams and RNZ's Vicki McKay come to mind. It's not a choice between two extremes.

David said...

pdm said:

As far as James Bond is concerned I was more interested in Ursula Andress than I was in Bonds drinking when I saw Dr No in the Waipukurau theatre in the good old days.

Being in possession of said film on DVD and having rewatched it recently, I assure Dr No is just as good now as it was in "the good old days" -- by when I suspect you mean 1962 when it was released -- and the famous scene with Ms Andress is just as good as it was back then, if not better, now we have decades of context for it.

hughvane said...

Mellifluous NZ Voices of the past: First on the list for me will always be Marama Martin, but to your mentions Karl I would add Graeme Thomson, Philip Sherry; and in radio try listening on a Sunday morning to RNZ Concert with the soothing tones of presenters Carey McDonald and Margaret Ogilvie. No plummy, affected 'Beeb' accents, just wonderfully enunciated vocabulary, with voice tone to support.