2nd October 2016
How to speak Kiwi: A guide to New Zealand English
Kiwis are the friendliest, most welcoming people on the planet, but I must admit that when I first arrived in New Zealand I hadn’t a clue what they were saying! It’s a bit embarrassing to admit this, but I didn’t really know New Zealand English was even a thing before I came here. I knew that English is the official spoken language (more on Māori in a moment!) and I figured that New Zealanders might have a bit of an accent, probably an Australian one, because I also naively thought NZ was just off the coast of Australia (WRONG.) I didn’t think I’d need lessons on how to speak like a Kiwi. Because even if they had an accent, all the words would be the same, surely, because English is the spoken language and us Brits invented English, right?
Oh, how wrong I was.
New Zealand English is truly special. It’s a mix of Māori, British English, American English, Australian English, and some completely bizarre, seemingly made-up words. I have stared blankly at Kiwis, I have pretended to know what they are talking about and then had to admit I have no clue, and I have mispronounced words so badly it’s made Kiwis burst out laughing. I say that like it’s all in the past and I’m now a pro at Kiwi English; I’m not – even though I’ve been living in NZ for 17 months, these things still happen at least once a week. But it works both ways; their accent gives me the giggles at least every other day.
There are heaps of blog posts out there to teach you how to speak like a Kiwi. I don’t have time to go through all of them, but I’m confident this post will include words or phrases not in other posts. I’ve tried to add as many little quirks from my own experiences into this post as possible; I promise I have heard every single one of these phrases used by a Kiwi at some point or other while I’ve been in NZ!
A little Maori goes a long way
Let’s start at the beginning. Although English is nowadays the most commonly spoken language in NZ, Māori is the language that the first settlers in New Zealand spoke – a mix of different Polynesian languages. At the beginning of the 1800s it was the predominant language spoken in New Zealand, however, with the huge influx of European settlers, English soon took over.
Before I started my research for my trip to New Zealand, I didn’t even know the Māori language existed. That’s a really crappy thing to admit. Luckily, I managed to learn a little about it and a few key phrases from the language section of my Lonely Planet guidebook.
I was quite shocked to learn that te reo Māori isn’t widely spoken in New Zealand, considering that it is an official language here. Only a minuscule 4% of the entire NZ Population (including just 23% of the Maori population) can hold a conversation in te reo Māori. Te reo Māori was reintroduced into the education system from infant level around the 1980s, when it was finally recognised as an official language in New Zealand.
Once you’ve got your head around the fact that ‘wh’ makes a ‘f’ sound, pronunciation of Māori words is, in theory, quite simple. You pronounce every syllable as it appears, however, where the intonation and stress go is another challenge I’m still working on.
- Kia ora – A greeting wishing good health, often used to say ‘hello’. The two words are often blended together so it’s pronounced more like kee-ora.
- Hangi – An oven in the ground made of wood and bricks. Also the name for the traditional maori dish cooked in this oven.
- Kai – Food.
- Aotearoa – The Land of the Long White Cloud (New Zealand).
- Marae – A traditional Maori meeting house.
- Tangata whenua – People of the land (traditional people belonging to a place).
- Iwi – People. It’s more commonly used to mean ‘tribe’.
- Haere Mai – Welcome. You’ll hear this greeting when you get on the train in Welly.
- Tapu – sacred. Many lakes and areas in New Zealand are considered tapu by the maori, so you shouldn’t touch or eat near them.
- Waka – A traditional maori canoe.
- Pākehā – European (white) settlers.
- Koha – Donation. You’ll regularly see events with ‘entry by koha’ advertised.
- Bird names such as the tūī, kaka, kererū (wood pigeon), kakariki (parakeet), korimako (bellbird) and pīwakawaka (fantail) are often used more than their English translations – if they have one!
A waka in Whakatāne, North Island
Place names are a whole ‘nother story
There is no doubt about it, you WILL say the place names wrong. Lots of places in New Zealand have Māori names; some even have an English one as well as a Māori one, for example Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
- Ngauruhoe – Mount Doom‘s real name is a little more challenging. The Nga part is pronounced like the ng in English’s ing words. The ending is pronounced hoe-ee.
- Whakatane – Pronounced fok-a-tar-knee.
- Whakapapa – Pronounced fok-a-papa (I laughed the first time I heard it, too.)
- Kāpiti Coast – the stress is on the first ‘a’. Ka-piti, not ka-pee-tee.
- The stress on Wanaka goes on the first ‘a’, but it’s pronounced more like Wo-na-ka anyway.
- Dunedin is pronounced dun-ee-dun, not June-din.
But the wonderful thing about Māori place names is their meanings. They are often a number of words, joined up:
- Kaikoura, a fishing town on the south coast of Canterbury, means Eat Crayfish (kai = to eat, koura = crayfish).
- Te Puke (pronounced pook-e, not like the synonym for vomit) is town in the Bay of Plenty on a hill, near the Papamoa Hills. The name translates fittingly as The Hill (te = the, puke = hill).
- Waiotapu, a geothermal area near Rotorua, translates as Sacred Waters (wai = water, o = of, tapu = sacred).
- Urewera is a very maori area of forest and lakes in the Hawkes Bay region, which translates as Burnt Penis (I’m not kidding!! Ure = penis, ‘wera’ = burnt). Legend has it that a Māori chief died after rolling over in his sleep while lying too close to a camp fire.
and we can’t forget the longest place-name in New Zealand:
- Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu (I haven’t a clue how to say this one!) is a tiny town in the Hawkes Bay region, with a name that means “The brow of the hill where Tamatea, who travelled all over the land, played his flute to his lover”. Thankfully, the name is shortened to ‘Taumata’. Phew.
The Kiwi Accent
Once you get your head around the Māori words, you then have to decipher what kiwis are saying when they are speaking English! The accent is a bit difficult to understand at first, but you get used to it quickly.
I advised before that Kiwis say a number of American words; they also use the American pronunciation for some, such as data and project. Route, as in to be en route to a place, is pronounced like the word ‘out’ but with an ‘r’ on the front. Don’t do what I did and shout “root” across the office… it’s slang for sex!
The British ‘i’ sound changes to a soft ‘u’, so kids become kuds and fish n chips becomes fush n chups. However this is only really noticeable in a really thick Kiwi accent.
Another funny one is how the British ‘e’ sound becomes almost like an ‘i’. Yip meaning “yep” is the only word I’ve come across that’s actually spelt how it’s said in a Kiwi accent. Pens become pins, pegs become pigs, Ben becomes a bin, and “deck”, well… I’ll leave that for you to figure out. The video below is slightly exaggerated but so funny and so true – I still giggle every time I watch it.
They use a mix of British English and American English – and completely new words
In Kiwi-speak, some things have the British English name, and others the American English name, and then they have completely different words for other things. It’s no wonder I get laughed at for not having a clue what they are talking about sometimes!
- Pants aren’t underpants in New Zealand, they’re trousers – the same as in the US.
- A bach is a holiday home, normally by the coast or a lake or a mountain. or somewhere picturesque.
- Kiwis don’t use the word hiking, though they do know what it means. They say tramping instead.
- Stubbies are very short shorts, usually brown, worn by men. They’re surprisingly popular for all ages.
- If you go running, you might wear tights (leggings), but you’d wear stockings (tights) with a skirt if it’s cold out.
- Crook means sick, as in poorly (not “really good” as English chavs adopted saying).
- Gumboots are wellington boots! Funny, I always thought they would call them Wellingtons over here, since Wellington is the capital city, but wellington boots don’t have anything to do with Welly!
- Lollies are sweets or candy, not lollipops or ice lollies.
- The kettle is known as the jug, the hob is called an element, and a saucepan is called a pot.
- Chips are crisps, unless you get them with fish – but chips without fish are specifically called Hot Chips, or fries.
- If you go to the beach, you should take your togs: your swimsuit or trunks – whatever it is you wear to go swimming.
- An aubergine is an eggplant but a courgette is not called a zucchini, a sweet potato is called a kumara and a bell pepper is a capsicum.
- You might leave your keys on the bench, which is the kitchen counter.
- New Zealanders call flip-flops jandals.
- I’ve gotten quite used to being called a Pom since I’ve been here – which is an endearing (I like to think!) term for a British person.
They abbreviate words – a lot!
New Zealanders are laid-back about a lot of things. Why wear shoes to the supermarket when you can wear nothing on your feet? The same goes with words. They have so many abbreviations, it’s hilarious! Here are some of my favourites:
- To pash someone is to passionately kiss them.
- Kiwis shorten the “double U, double U, double U” at the start of web addresses to a simple “dub dub dub“, which cracked me up the first time I heard it (on the phone to a professional firm at work). It actually makes a lot of sense because it saves you saying an extra 6 syllables!
- Hundy is short for a hundred. So if a Kiwi asks how much it cost, you could reply ‘a couple of hundy’.
- Arvo is the afternoon, we use this in the UK too.
- Paraparaumu is a town on the Kāpiti Coast which is often called Pram for short.
- Taranaki, the region on the midwest of the North Island, is known as the Naki.
- Your flatmates or roommates are your flatties or roomies.
- OTP means On the Piss. My flatmate said to me the other night, “Is James OTP?” as he ordered one beer too many…
- Welly is short for Wellington, of course!
- GC and BC are abbreviations for Good Chap or Bad Chap. However, ‘chap’ is more commonly replaced with another word that I won’t write here… I’ll leave you to guess!
Other kiwi lingo
- Kiwis say true in loads of situations. Often when they agree with something.
- Being called bro is like being called mate, the same for cuz (short for cousin).
- [insert any adjective here] as, for example sweet as, gnarly as.
- On that note, gnarly is a way to describe something really dangerous or extreme.
- If you are ever unsure how to end a sentence, just say eh (pronounced ey) There isn’t really any need for it, but they say it all the time. James has started saying it too!
- Chur means thanks, I think, but they kind of say it anytime.
- South Islanders often use the word wee to describe something little, as the Scots do.
- They use the word stoked a lot more over here than we do back home.
- I have no idea how to respond when a Kiwi says ‘yeah nah‘. Is that a yes or a no, then?
- Choice – if something is ‘choice’ it’s good.
- A feed is a meal or just when you get some food. “We’re going for a feed” is the Kiwi way to say “we’re going for some food”. I hate this phrase as I think it makes you sound like an animal!!
- They use the word “heaps” heaps.
- A dairy is a corner shop.
- If you down a drink you scull it. And the next day you might feel a little dusty (hungover).
- Kiwis say “I’m going to do some study” instead of “I’m going to study”. Not sure why.
- Never ask a kiwi “alright?” the way the English typically do. They’ll think something must look wrong with them! Instead, ask “how you going?” or, the more condensed “how’s it?“
- She’ll be right – no one knows who ‘she’ is, but the phrase means ‘it’ll be okay’.
- Kiwis often call their boyfriend/girlfriend their partner, particularly if they’ve been together a while. I like this because it makes James and me sound more serious – until he finally gets down on one knee (oops, did I write that? 🙂 )
- If someone wants to shout you a coffee, they don’t want to shout the word coffee at you. They want to buy you one! Therefore they get a bit confused when James says “That’s a good shout”, meaning ‘that’s a good idea’.
- Calling someone an egg. Remember that they pronounce it “igg”. So funny.
Ricky Baker is a bad igg! (By the way if you haven’t already, you NEED to watch this film, it’s hilarious!)
If you manage to remember a few of these phrases on your visit to NZ, you’ll surely be mistaken for a local! Hopefully when Kiwis use words you’re unfamiliar with you’ll have an idea of what they mean. Oh, and one last note: a kiwi is the native New Zealand bird, or a New Zealander, not the fruit! If you tell someone that you ate a kiwi, you might get a few funny looks!
Have you been to New Zealand and struggled to understand a kiwi? Have you heard any other words or phrases spoken in NZ that are missing from my list?
Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
Thanks for reading & happy travels!
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