A Brief Clarification About New Zealand Accents

New Zealand

(Wikimedia)

I want to quickly clear something up about New Zealand accents, since the topic was touched upon briefly yesterday.

In New Zealand English, the vowel in “short e” words like dress or bed moves very close to the vowel that Americans and Brits use in the word kit. In a strong Kiwi accent, therefore, red will sound very similar to American rid (i.e. IPA ɹɪd).

Just to be clear, though: the vowel in dress does not merge with the vowel in kit. Kiwis do not pronounce bed and head the same as bid and hid. Rather, the vowel in kit is retracted (that is, pronounced with the tongue further back in the mouth).

To an outsider, then, New Zealand bet and bit can sound sort of like “bit” and “but” (this is more accurately IPA bet and bɘt, but the “layman’s” transcription is more amusing!)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the vowel in words like trap in NZ English likewise moves upward toward the vowel in dress. To give an example of all these vowel shifts in action, if a New Zealander were to say …

Peck the pack of pickles

It might sound to an American like …

Pick the peck of puckles

(In IPA, this would be pek ðə pɛk əv pɘkɫz.)

This little quirk is the biggest difference between Australian English and New Zealand English. In Australian accents, the vowel in kit actually does the opposite:  it moves toward the vowel in fleece. Hence Australian bit can sound a bit like beat to an American.

I hope this clarifies things.  I’ll end this post with an accent sample of a famous New Zealander, so you can see what I’m talking about for yourself. Here’s a snippet of NZ prime minister-elect John Key:

P.S. This post is unusually terse today as I have been battling massive server outages with my web host.  My apologies for anybody trying to reach my site earlier this morning!

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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10 Responses to A Brief Clarification About New Zealand Accents

  1. dw says:

    This difference between New Zealand and Australia led to the famous graffiti: “New Zealand sucks: Australia seven”

    • trawicks says:

      There are also quite a few jokes involving “six” and “sex,” although “e” is an even more inaccurate way of writing the retracted KIT vowel.

      • Dave says:

        The version I heard was ‘Australia Sucks’ to which was added ‘New Zealand Nil’. Probably a made up story?

      • Dave says:

        The version I heard was ‘Australia sucks’ to which was added ‘New Zealand nil’. Probably a made-up story?

  2. Cclinton says:

    On John Well’s blog he says that, because of his lexical sets, the rising part of the shift is humorously termed “Dress rising.”

  3. Chris Waugh says:

    Prime minister-elect? Last I heard he’d been the prime minister for the better part of three years already.

  4. ASG says:

    This post brings back fond memories of a classic scene in Flight of the Conchords, in which the hapless band manager Murray tries to explain to Dave, an American friend, the dangers of muggings in New York. “He may be dead!” “He maybe did what?”

  5. Jenni says:

    Please are you able to post the phonetic alphabet for NZ English?

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