(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 18.)
A recent edition of my favourite magazine, Britain’s The Spectator, included a travel article in which the writer had made a brief stopover at Auckland.
She described New Zealand as “utterly draconian” about what people are allowed to bring into the country. “I disembarked to dire warnings of crippling fines for smuggling in food, seeds, plants or pets. It’s a brave traveller who wanders in with a forgotten banana skin in their bag.”
She went on: “To my horror, I was pounced on immediately. A guard grabbed my handbag, dragging it off my shoulder. ‘D’you hev food of eny kind in your beg?’ she demanded. ‘Boris [her bouncy beagle] thinks you hev’.
“My bag was wrenched from my grasp, emptied out on to a table, and given a thorough snuffle by Boris.”
I suspect a bit of journalistic exaggeration here. Granted, our border protection people sometimes lack a bit of finesse. This is a hazard of their occupation internationally. Customs and immigration people everywhere have a way of making innocent travellers feel guilty, or at the very least under suspicion.
But what particularly struck me was the writer’s mocking of the New Zealand accent.
Before I go any further, a disclosure. I cringe at the way many of my fellow New Zealanders speak.
The New Zealand accent is changing, and not in a pleasing way. I reckon the time will come when people of my generation will struggle to understand what millennials are saying.
Younger staff in cafes and shops are often incomprehensible. They speak a dialect recogniseable only by their contemporaries.
On a recent Air New Zealand flight I winced at the strangled pronunciation and grotesque, sing-songy vocal cadence of the 30-something woman making the in-flight announcements. Our national airline leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to recruit cabin crew who speak atrociously.
But here’s the thing. As a New Zealander, it’s my right – a right of citizenship, you might say - to comment critically on the way we speak. But when people of other nationalities make disparaging remarks about the New Zealand accent, that’s a different story. I always feel my hackles rise.
Why? Because it’s the sneerer’s way of asserting cultural superiority.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to make fun of the way other nationalities speak, but it reveals more about the mocker than the mocked.
The Brits still carry a lot of imperial baggage, and some can’t help revealing their disdain for cultures that they once governed, and which they still consider a bit primitive – like us, for example.
The United States-based TV host John Oliver is another Pom who enjoys making fun of the New Zealand accent. The irony that has escaped both Oliver and the Spectator writer is that their own country is home to a wondrous assortment of bizarre regional accents and dialects, some of them almost incomprehensible to outsiders.
This illustrates two truths about accents. The first is that most human beings can’t help the way they speak, any more than Oliver can help looking and sounding like a dork. Accents are markers of regional origin, social class and education. They are part of a lifelong cultural conditioning that starts at birth and over which most people have little control.
The other truth is that most national and regional accents sound funny to outsiders and are therefore ripe for mockery. This is just as true of a farmhand from the English West Country – or, for that matter, a Welshman or an Old Etonian with marbles in his mouth – as it is of a biosecurity officer at Auckland Airport.
The British are not the only nationality who derive amusement from the way New Zealanders speak. Australians do it too.
A recent example was when the now-disgraced former Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was revealed as having dual citizenship of Australia and New Zealand. This was the cue for much gleeful satirical comment on Australian TV shows in which Joyce mysteriously acquired what was presumably meant to sound like a New Zealand accent.
Sigh. Australian jokes about the Kiwi accent are as tedious, predictable and infantile as the tired old ones about sheep. But who’s to say that our accent sounds any more ridiculous to an outsider than the Australian one?
Done without malice, mimicry of other accents can be funny. The late Peter Sellers made a career out of imitating Hindus and Frenchmen – something he would never get away with today. But the way the New Zealand accent was described in the Spectator article had nothing to do with humour.
It was a sneering putdown of a crude colonial – one, moreover, who had the impertinence to subject the English journalist to the inconvenience and humiliation of a bag check. How dare she!
It’s a sign of insecurity when one nationality tries to build itself up by putting others down. The sooner people realise this, the sooner the disparaging jokes about national accents will dry up.