How to speak Kiwi: A guide to New Zealand English

2nd October 2016

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.

Waka, Whakatāne -

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.

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:

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!

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:

kiwi words -

Kiwi Lingo

Other kiwi lingo

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!


Note: This post contains affiliate links which help to run this blog.

17 responses to “How to speak Kiwi: A guide to New Zealand English”

  1. Jub says:

    Lol this made me happy Abbi. We are so weird. For myself, any words that has at least two e’s in them becomes a shocker for me to say in a way other people can understand haha.

    Overall, from what I’ve gathered we are just really informal with our language. This morning I said ‘all good, we’ll suss it out later’…translation: ‘No problem, I will solve the problem later today’.

    Didn’t know we were unique with the ‘dub dub dub’. It just makes so much sense!

    • Haha, thanks for your comment Jub! I think informality is a good thing though; it makes conversations so much more efficient! I’m not sure if ‘dub dub dub’ is unique to NZ but I haven’t heard it anywhere else – agreed, it definitely makes sense!

  2. Krysti Jaims says:

    This is such a great post! As a Kiwi I always enjoy reading other people’s views on us and our country and this was the most in-depth and well written one I’ve ever read! I see the person before me bet me with the ‘dub dub dub’ comment but that also cracked me up! Had no idea that wasn’t normal haha! And we say ‘chur’ for thanks and also cool or sweet. 😀

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Krysti! Glad you like the post, and I’m glad you found it funny! Maybe I should try to introduce ‘dub dub dub’ to the UK?! Thanks for the heads up on ‘chur’, it’s definitely the strangest one I’ve come across yet!

  3. Julie says:

    This is great!! My boyfriend is a Kiwi and oftentimes I have no idea what he says, or I just make fun of his accent and he makes fun of me and how I sound American but since I lived in London for sooo long, I use a lot of English words… Ooh, that movie was too funny – he made me watch it. HA

  4. Very interesting post! I have never known this. I hope to travel to New Zealand someday so this is very useful information. We would also say “I am going to do some study” in my native language, Finnish, so I can relate to that. We also “put the light on” instead of turning them and we “wash laundry”, don’t do it. After living in USA I noticed I sometimes would say them wrong in Finnish, which sounds quite funny.

    • Thanks for your comment Paula. That’s so interesting, the differences between languages really fascinates me! As a Brit, I say both put and turn the light on. It’s these little quirks that make each language so unique!

  5. ehsanhaque24 says:

    Kia Ora Abbigail! This was a pretty sweet read. I cannot wait to get to New Zealand. Right now I do have a plan for Australia/New Zealand in 2018 (First Europe for few months, then 1 year in the Gulf/North Africa).
    It is such a fun thing to try and learn some words from the local language of a place you are visiting. It tremendously helps to show an effort! Will definitely come back to this when its time to head over there 🙂

  6. Thanks for this! I’m using it for book research, to help make a character a little more rich and accurate. Super helpful!

  7. Simon says:

    I would disagree with us kiwis saying “clothes peg” as “pig.” Pretty sure it’s more common in the South Island though. There is a huge difference of that from the word pig. Yeah nah is the most common phrase we say bro, its crack up (crack up is another common phrase meaning hilarious). I love New Zealand, our varient of English is the best, one of the many things that make us unique and stand out.
    I actually enjoyed reading your post, even though some assumptions from you are false. Anyway, hope you’re enjoying it here in nz.
    Peace out girl scout

    • Thanks for your reply Simon! These are just how I interpreted the accent when I was living in New Zealand. I’m sure my perception of the UK’s Geordie accent is completely different to how someone from Newcastle would think they pronounce their words. I hope I didn’t cause any offence; I’m just a British girl who found there were lots of differences between the way I speak to how my flat mates spoke! Glad you enjoyed the post. I do agree that the NZ variant of English is the best!

  8. Taylor says:

    Hi there! Just thought you should know but Dunedin isn’t actually Maori, it’s gaelic for Edinburgh. Otipoti is the Maori name for Dunedin

  9. Danielle says:

    A good wee read.

    It’s worth noting though that some New Zealander’s find the term Pakeha offensive and don’t identify as such.

  10. Sue says:

    Kia ora! I’m American with a Maori partner, I’m loving learning the language and the culture. I love your post and wish I’d found it sooner.

  11. Jack Evans says:

    I’m a Kiwi of 66 years and can offer a bit of insight.
    The reason a lot of New Zealanders don’t bother with the Maori language is because it is very limited in both vocabulary and grammar.
    It has never had an alphabet so was purely a spoken language.
    Once the European arrived that changed and today Maori borrows the following Roman alphabet to put their language on paper.
    a, e, h, i, k, m, n, ng, o, p, r, t, u, w, wh
    All the vowels are employed except for ‘Y’ but a limited number of consonant sounds are used.
    One other reason for its slow uptake by European here is the fact that it is rammed down the European New Zealander’s throat at every opportunity. He is forever being criticized by Maori for poor pronunciation of Maori language. In fact, Maori are so precious about their language, they are in fact worse than the French. The French at least, don’t demand your average Algerian to “Parlez Français correctement !” do they ?
    It is so bad here now that all journalists and TV presenters are forced to do a Maori pronunciation courses.
    I could go on, but I won’t. We’ve really had enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

I’m a travel loving sustainability advocate, on a journey to live a low-impact lifestyle alongside seeing the world. I’m obsessed with my two dogs, secondhand shopping, and growing vegetables.

error: Content is protected