It was gratifying last weekend to see TVNZ’s Sunday programme devote an item to changes in the way we’re speaking. Here I was thinking I was the only person who had noticed the ghastly transmutation of the New Zealand accent, and the fearsome speed with which it’s progressing. But no – it seems some linguists are onto it, as is Jane Clifton.
What aroused Sunday’s interest, apparently, was an Australian video taking the peece out of the Koiwoi accent. Shown on YouTube, the Aussie veedeo attracted 40,000 heats. Now Orstrylians should be the last poiple to mock anyone else for the way they speak, but let’s set that aside for the moment. The indisputable fact is that the New Zealand accent is changing dramatically, which raises a couple of questions, such as: does it matter, and should anyone care? To which I would answer yes and yes.
Let’s back up for a moment. What are these changes? Interviewed by reporter Janet McIntyre, linguist Liz Gordon identified the confusion of “i” and “e” sounds (so that check-in sounds like chicken), the muddying of the “l” sound in words like milk and children, and the substitution of “f” and “v” sounds for “th”, so that mother becomes muvver, thing becomes fing and so on.
To those examples I could add a long list of others that I've noticed, mostly to do with the strangulation or blurring of vowel sounds. Hence Air New Zealand morphs into Ear New Zealand, electricity becomes alictricity, Helen Clark becomes Hullen Cluck, Wellington becomes Wullington and hips becomes hurps.
Other grating mispronunciations include chooldren (who sometimes drink moolk), jewel for duel, knowen for known, reconnised and vunnerable. One of my favourites came from an 0800 road closures line which informed me that cushion was advised on icy roads in the central North Island.
Then there’s the phenomenon known as the rising terminal, in which statements are made to sound like questions – a practice now endemic in New Zealand English – and an increasing tendency to pronounce the “ing” sound as “een”, as in: “He disappeared on a fisheen trip" (sorry, trup).
You expect to hear the language mangled by teenage schoolgirls (and I’ll explain later why I refer specifically to girls), but what irritates me is that you now routinely hear female journalists talking like this on television and radio, which once considered it their responsibility to uphold speech standards.
Reporters like Lisa Owen (One News), Kate Rodger (3 News) and Toni Street (TVNZ Sport) are as painful to listen to as fighting cats or the graunching of gears by a learner driver. Even Radio New Zealand, once the standard-bearer for correct diction, has let standards slip appallingly.
Jane Clifton accurately described this hideous new Kiwi accent as sounding like baby talk. She’s right: there’s a new generation of women who insist on talking like little girls. Clifton compared it with the voice she uses to speak to babies or her dog.
So, does it matter? I got the impression Liz Gordon didn’t really think so, but as a linguist was simply excited that the language was changing in such an interesting way.
Janet McIntyre also interviewed young singer/songwriter Anna Coddington, a qualified linguist. Coddington, who’s very pretty as well as smart and vivacious (a word mispronounced by one of TV3’s star reporters this week as “vyvacious”), speaks with the Westie schoolgirl accent that now seems the norm among New Zealand women of her age, and makes no apologies for doing so. As long as people understand each other, she reckoned, there should be no problem.
But that is the problem. The New Zealand accent is being tortured and reshaped to such an extent that it’s not only seriously unpleasant to listen to, but is perilously close to being incomprehensible.
I feel especially sorry for tourists who have to deal with young female staff in shops, hotels and restaurants. They must wonder whether they’ve been hoodwinked by tourist brochures telling them New Zealand is an English-speaking country.
Gordon made an interesting point. She said that changes in the way the language is spoken are typically driven by young women. She didn’t explain why this was the case (or maybe that was edited out), but she confirmed my impression that it’s the female accent that is changing most noticeably. Perhaps this has something to with the fact that young women are naturally loquacious, so change spreads with the speed of a viral infection.
Sunday also left unanswered the intriguing question of why the accent has changed so markedly (and with such speed). Coddington thought it was part of a move away from the influence of the “mother country” that once dictated “proper” standards of speech.
I think she’s right, but I’d go further. It’s not just a reaction against our old colonial obeisance toward Britain. I think it’s a misplaced expression of egalitarianism – a rejection of traditional speech standards that are now seen as elitist. And I suspect it began, as with so many things, in the classroom. Many educated 1970s feminists went out of their way to adopt a determinedly slovenly way of speaking, presumably seeing this as another way of shaking off oppressive male power structures, and inevitably it seeped into the education system.
As is our wont in New Zealand, we lurch from one extreme to the other. In the 1950s and 1960s, radio announcers, newsreaders and politicians went to absurd lengths to sound like the upper-crust English. Sunday illustrated this point by playing a brief clip of Keith Holyoake, who was often mocked for his pompous way of speaking (perhaps unfairly, as his biographer Barry Gustafson has pointed out that Holyoake’s mother coached him to talk that way because in those days it was considered proper. Listen to a tape of Sir Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister of the era, and you’ll notice exactly the same thing).
But there is a neutral New Zealand way of speaking that neither mimics BBC English (which is itself a lot less stuffy and formal than it used to be) nor goes to the grating extremes of today’s young women. Examples? Mike McRoberts and John Campbell of TV3, or Simon Dallow and Peter Williams of TVNZ. They have unmistakeable New Zealand accents but they enunciate clearly and are easy on the ear. The same could be said of most Radio New Zealand announcers and newsreaders (though not, regrettably, of all RNZ’s journalists).
Another marked change in the New Zealand voice not covered in the Sunday item is the number of New Zealand men who, although heterosexual, speak in a way that would have once been considered effeminate. I wonder whether this has something to do with the fact that many men are educated entirely by women and a large number grow up in fatherless households. In such circumstances their speech patterns are bound to be picked up mainly from women.
John Key, who grew up without a Dad around, has what I would describe as a namby-pamby manner of speaking, accentuated by thlight lithp. In a previous generation this would probably have been considered a liability; not manly and authoritative enough. That it doesn’t seem to have impaired his political career suggests such a voice is no longer considered slightly odd for a red-blooded Kiwi male.
A final thought: we are in the rare position of having to choose on Saturday between a female politician who often sounds like a bloke and a male politician who sounds a bit like a sheila. No wonder the rest of the world thinks we’re a bit peculiar.