A New (Rhotic?) Dialect in New Zealand?

Sky Tower

Photo: Miguel A. Monjas

Needless to say, I was quite intrigued by this recent article at Stuff.co.nz about a new urban dialect spoken in South Auckland, New Zealand.  A unique type of youthful, urban speech has emerged, not dissimilar to Multicultural British English in terms of its cultural relevance. And curiously, these young Kiwis fully pronounce the /r/ in nurse, world, and pearl (most New Zealand accents are firmly non-rhotic, meaning they drop the r’s in these words).

Seeking corroborating evidence, I found this interview with an Auckland hip hop artist named Savage who definitely pronounces a few more /r/’s than what we think of as typically Kiwi:

Note the ‘strong’ /r/ sound in ‘first’ at :05 in the video, ‘Universal’ at :33, and a smattering of other rhotic pronunciations of ‘first’ in the second half of the interview.

Semi-rhoticity is not the only thing that marks this accent as different. Like Cockney and African American Vernacular English, there is a tendency to render ‘th’ in ‘this’ as a /d/ sound. You also may note that, as is the case with Multicultural British English, the diphthongs in ‘face’ and ‘kite’ tend to be a more ‘conservative’ (that is, the ‘i’ in ‘kite’ hasn’t shifted as much toward the ‘oy’ in ‘boy’ and the ‘a’ in ‘face’ hasn’t shifted as much toward ‘kite.’)

The original article makes a comparison that won’t make much sense to non-Kiwis: Like teenage South Auckland speech, the Southland Burr spoken on the South Island of New Zealand is rhotic. But I doubt there’s any connection between the two; it’s only in a country as ‘r-less’ as NZ that one might see a link between these two entirely different accents.

So where does the South Auckland /r/ come from? One obvious (but tired) explanation is that they pick up the sound from American media. If so, this would be one of the few places in the world where America has managed to change an accent from non-rhotic to rhotic via the airwaves. After all, Britain is far more exposed to American TV than it was 50 years ago while being a far more non-rhotic country than it was fifty years ago.

That being said, this subculture of South Auckland seems to have a stronger than average connection to American hip hop. If you watch this Savage music video, you’ll notice he raps in fairly fluent African-American Vernacular English rather than any kind of New Zealand-specific ethnolect. And notably, his pattern of rhoticity is similar to that of AAVE, with the ‘r’ in stressed syllables like ‘nurse’ pronounced, but the ‘r’ in unstressed syllables like the ‘er’ in ‘butter’ not.

Any thoughts on the origins of this new /r/?


About Ben

Ben T. 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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24 Responses to A New (Rhotic?) Dialect in New Zealand?

  1. dw says:

    I’m not particularly amazed by the rhoticity of an accent that has /r/-coloration only in NURSE words: that is a rather superficial development, requiring only a new realization rule for the pre-existing NURSE phoneme. Indeed it’s one thing that might be expected from a fundamentally non-rhotic speaker who is trying to imitate a rhotic accent.

    If the rappers start differentiating between lettER and commA, between PALM and START, or between THOUGHT and NORTH, then that would be remarkable!

    • trawicks says:

      Well, such accents are certainly not remarkable in and of themselves. It’s obviously the typical pattern of ‘non-rhotic’ accents in the US, and conversely, common among formerly rhotic speakers in the UK. What makes this case slightly unusual is that there is no clear influence within Auckland that explains the change.

  2. Thoughtful Troll says:

    Yawn. This is kind of like saying that there’s a “blue suede shoe” trend among Elvis impersonators in Zimbabwe–it might be true but it’s not emblematic of a trend beyond a subgroup of enthusiasts. Normal Kiwis simply don’t talk like this.

    • trawicks says:

      I don’t think it’s a ‘subgroup’ of enthusiasts, however. I’ve chosen to focus on a particular rapper in my post, but as the original article makes clear, it extends beyond those explicitly involved in the hip hop scene.

  3. Josh McNeill says:

    I can’t say anything about his normal speech but I’m always a bit surprised when rappers, even within the United States, all attempt to mimic AAVE regardless of their normal speech. It’s strange because other dialects still work as you’ve shown here when you made the post about the Irish rapper. There are also plenty of British rappers like Tricky whose accents are very clear and yet still work very well. It makes me wonder what draws so many to mimic AAVE while rapping.

    • gaelsano says:

      Why does Eric Clapton sing in an American accent? It’s part of the style. Mimicking the slang colours one’s phones. Certain rhymes work better, too.

      Think of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla”. [j@] [gA:t] me on my knees, [leIl@] . Now imagine it sung as “[jUv] [gQt] me on my knees, [lEIl@]”

      The Beatles tried a Western American accent, but they were god-awful at it, so they stopped. But if you listen to their early hits, you can hear hyper-intrusive “r”s and THOUGHT-PALM mergers, stuff like that. Maybe it was just McCartney, now that I think about it.

  4. Jim Johnson says:

    I’m not finding the R-coloring strong in the video example, actually. There’s a tendency in a lot of non-rhotic speakers to make it more of a turn-v sound, which makes it more clearly non-rhotic, but in this example I think he is still using the turned-epsilon, but I think it’s non-rhotic. (I think we’re filling in the rhoticity in our interpretation of this turned-epsilon only.) If there is rhoticity, I think it’s in his first “first.”

    • trawicks says:

      I have to admit that I’ve occasionally mistaken an (an entirely non-rhotic) NZ accent for rhotic when it’s actually been non-. Because the Kiwi NURSE vowel is often close, and rounded, it’s perceptually a good deal closer to an American syllabic /r/ than, say, a Londoner’s NURSE vowel.

      One possibility which I didn’t mention (due to space) is that the ‘rhotic’ vowel in NURSE is simply an extremely advanced variant of the forward-and-upward trajectory that the NZ vowel shift normally takes. It wouldn’t be unprecedented: Wells mentions a variant of the MOUTH vowel in Belfast which renders ’bout’ nearly homophonous with ‘Bart.’

      • Larry says:

        They sound like rhotic variants to me. I think you what you originally said was right.

      • Jason Reid says:

        This is off topic, but what you said about Belfast MOUTH is interesting to me. It makes me think that ʉ and ɻ must have something in common in their formant structure or something. Otherwise how could such a variant come about? It’s also interesting to me that I’ve heard people claim that there’s an Aussie GOAT variant with an R “at the end” (as the second element of the diphthong, presumably). I don’t know if that’s true or not, but based on what I’ve read, Aussie English GOAT is phonetically similar to Northern Irish MOUTH ([əʉ ~ ɒy] or similar). Hmm…

        • trawicks says:

          That makes sense. Northern Irish MOUTH is obviously quite similar to Australian GOAT. The distinction between rhoticity and non-rhoticity gets a bit blurred in that section of the vowel space, especially with lip-rounding.

      • John Pierce says:

        This section in New-Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes by Peter Trudgill (2004) may help explain why you hear the New Zealand NURSE as closer to /r/ (if Google Books lets everyone see that page). Although, I remember John Wells mentioning occasional rounded variants of NURSE in London English too in AOE (not Age of Empires :).

  5. gaelsano says:

    Rhoticity (as in the realization of the “r-colored” phonemes, not as in the presence of a comma-letter distinction) is not exact anyway. The distinguishing feature is the tongue movement. I find that RP NURSE can sound rhotic because RP doesn’t really have pure long monophthongs. Listen to any recordings from any era. They always move a bit. FLEECE definitely starts closer to KIT. GOOSE starts more open and more fronted. THOUGHT is probably the closest to a pure long monophthong. At the edges of RP I’ve heard it become more open and I’ve heard it become more close. Doesn’t seem to be any defined direction.

    I think certain environments cause rhotic speakers to be extremely articulate in their “r”s and that we become more aware of missing “r”s in certain words.

    For example, a RP speaker’s pronunciation of “fort” is much more marked than that speaker’s pronunciation of “north.” Possibly because of the confusion with “fought.” In my own speech I notice that the “r” is quick and light in north but quite heavy in fort, learn, par, court, poured, stork, but less strong in north, four, for, star, letter, figure, governor (actually the middle r is always absent), horse, hoarse.

    • gaelsano says:

      what I meant, by rhoticity being ill-defined is that there is not so much an “r” consonant phone inserted, but that there is a change in the vowel formant frequencies. It’s the coloration of vowel. Compare the “r” in “par” with the “r” in “ride.” For convenience’s sake we write “par” as /pA:r/, but it’s [p_hA:`] or [p_hA@`]. No one says [p_hA:r\].

      • Jason Reid says:

        “No one says [p_hA:r\].”

        I’m not so sure on that myself. I think there may be some Scottish or Irish people who say [p_hA:r\] (or [p_ha:r\] maybe).

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  8. Baker says:

    I think that this ‘rhoticizing’ has less to do with influence from American media and more to do with the multicultural dialect that has arisen in Auckland which is shaped primarily by the confluence of accents and speech patterns from various Pacific islands (you’ll notice in the original video that all the South Auckland kids interviewed are from island nations such as Tonga and Niue), combined with hip-hop slang and speech patterns from the US and UK (especially London) and a Kiwi youth overlay. Have you ever seen the Kiwi show Brotown? I think it does a good job of portraying this dialect.

  9. DfNZ says:

    These speech characteristics are in fact far more an ethnolect than a geographical phenomenon restricted to South Auckland. They are more prominent there because parts of northern South Auckland have the highest concentration of Polynesians in New Zealand.

    Mid-word rhoticity in words such as “burst” has spread quickly amongst young and middle aged Polynesians and Maori youth over the last few years. I’ve heard it from teens in the South Island to youth in the northernmost town of Kaitaia. This feature likely has a carrot and stick quality – giving a martial value that boost’s a person’s status with their peers while failure to do it could be perceived as being weak and poncy. Hip hop and rap singers were rhotacising their speech a decade ago so while I think this is likely to have originated from American influence it is more likely to have been picked up from music than television.

    The next level is pronouncing mid-word S sounds as SH when succeeding an “er” sound, so “burst” becomes “bursht”. This has become common amongst young and lower middle aged Polynesians in Auckland. This might have originated from early attempts at producing a pseudo-rhotic “er”.

    Youth of Fijian background in South Auckland are also adopting these two characteristics.

    The speech of some Polynesians in Auckland is in fact now fully rhotic but that is still uncommon. I’ve only heard it from teenage girls and young women from South and Central Auckland. The teenage girls who do this typically sound slightly more American than their peers.

    The replacement of the TH sounds is more complicated and might disappear in time like it did in Brisbane. Polynesian languages have few phonemes and the traditional approach to newly encountered ones is to eliminate them. So not having English as the main home language in some cases may have weakened the uptake of the most difficult English sound. Hearing difficulties are unusually common amongst young Polynesians so that would also make the sound invisible to some individuals. I don’t think this feature is as tied to ethnic identity as the other characteristics and many individuals would be unaware they were doing it. With some Maori youth subcultures it is fashionable to substitute TH when writing e.g. “with” as “wiv” and so there is some low level replacing of TH among Maori children but it is still an uncommon practice outside of Auckland.

    For contrast, this video from 1996 has the voice of a mid-20s speaker from upper South Auckland

    “That being said, this subculture of South Auckland seems to have a stronger than average connection to American hip hop.”
    As odd as it may sound, many younger Polynesians in Auckland don’t fully understand that New Zealand isn’t part of the USA. Also in this context, most on some level identify with black Americans.
    To give a couple of examples, in late 2008 the then leader of the opposition made a faux pas by asking a group of children who their parents were voting for – they fervently replied “Obama!”; currently Burger King is running a not unsubtly targeted television advert showing a young man’s afro haircut expanding as he holds their burger.

    Rhoticity was never entirely eliminated in New Zealand and outside the aforementioned social circles it seems to be on a slow upswing. I’ve noticed increasing instances of individuals rhotacising two syllable words such as “thunder”, and the rhotic area of the South Island seems to be expanding. One gateway to rhoticity may be the appearance of young women imitating their Californian counterparts in drawling the last syllable that would precede a full stop or a comma and therefore rhotacising the final “er” for emphasis. I think there is a strong chance that English in New Zealand will become fully rhotic again in time.

    “A unique type of youthful, urban speech has emerged, not dissimilar to Multicultural British English in terms of its cultural relevance.”
    I think a better comparison would be with Ebonics, although that might change in the future.

    “If so, this would be one of the few places in the world where America has managed to change an accent from non-rhotic to rhotic via the airwaves.”
    Once thing noticeable in this video is that Fijian speech is starting to become rhotic as part of the process of Fiji English being replaced by American English

    Baker: knowing the structure of Polynesian languages I would be surprised if the rhoticity came from there although it is possible it was transposed from Polynesian speakers of American-influenced English who migrated to New Zealand. I cannot imagine contemporary London speech having much influence over South Auckland.


    • DfNZ says:

      Some Maori/Polynesian youth in Auckland are now imitating the Ebonics feature of pronouncing “ask” as “ax”, or as “ux” which may be related to the pronunciation shift of saying “chance” like “chunce”.

      On TV I heard a black man from Los Angeles say “first” as “firsht” so it’s possible the S as SH thing was picked up from music and wasn’t a local innovation.

      It’s my impression the frequency of rhoticity among non-Polynesian/Maori early adolescent female speakers has been rapidly accelerating this year. Some are not just rhotacising but quite directly copying the R sound one would expect to hear from young Californian actresses.

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