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!
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.
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.
But the wonderful thing about Māori place names is their meanings. They are often a number of words, joined up:
and we can’t forget the longest place-name in New Zealand:
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.
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!
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:
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!
Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
Thanks for reading & happy travels!
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