More on Young New Zealand English

Ubiquitous on the radio recently has been “Royals,” a minimalist anti-consumerist (I think) anthem by 16-year-old New Zealand singer Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor). She been busy on the American interview circuit, revealing her non-singing, New Zealand-accented voice:

Something that struck me about Lorde/Yelich-O’Connor’s speech was her relatively “conservative” vowel in words like “right” and “kind,” which sometimes approaches the “American” . This feature strikes one as slightly different from “canonical” Australian English. Indeed, Macquarie University has an online set of vowel charts comparing Australian, American, New Zealand and British (RP) accents; for Australian English, they suggest the diphthong in “kite” starts with a nearly back vowel, while for New Zealand English, they represent this diphthong as starting at a point between central and front. (I’m not sure which data were used to construct the New Zealand English chart, but it matches my general impressions.)

I’m not certain this is an entirely youthful or Kiwi phenomenon, by the way; I’ve heard this more “genteel” diphthong in older New Zealanders as well as some Australians. The KITE vowel seems to exhibit a kind of spectrum in “Oceanic” English generally, ranging from markedly Cockney-esque variants (e.g. ɒe) to more the more RP/GenAm-like diphthong just mentioned. I will say, however, that I’ve heard the latter more commonly among younger Kiwis like Lorde. And more specifically,  strikes me as slightly more common in NZ than Australia. But I haven’t managed to find much scholarly research on this phoneme, so I can only offer broad impressions.

I want to be careful, as well, in suggesting anything along the lines that NZ English is becoming more “Americanized” or “Anglicized” or some other dubious “-ized” (especially based on this one feature alone). You’ll note that Lorde (who is still a high school student in her home country) speaks with strongly raised TRAP and DRESS vowels, and has a strongly retracted KIT vowel. As I’ve mentioned before, there seem to be some ways in which New Zealand English is evolving rapidly among younger people, but that doesn’t mean the accent becoming “milder.”


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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9 Responses to More on Young New Zealand English

  1. Tomasz says:

    I’ve heard a similar realization of /aɪ/ from some young Australians. My impression is that it’s more common with young females than young males, although I have heard it from young males too. To me it often sounds a bit different from both the /aɪ/ of RP and the /aɪ/ of GenAm. I think the glide is often weakened compared to RP or GenAm.

    This is OT, but I see that you linked to your post about a rhotic dialect in New Zealand. I have heard some rhotic pronunciations from young Aussies too. I don’t know if there’s any connection between the two.

  2. JL says:

    Hmm, her accent strikes me as unusual. There are some typical kiwi features, but it sounds to me like a NZer who’s spent years in the US, which Lorde obviously hasn’t. Is it possible she’s deliberately trying to sound less NZ? There’s very strong cultural cringe in NZ about their accent, many are ashamed of it when they move away.

    But then again, maybe it’s just that I haven’t paid attention to developments in NZ English for a while now.

  3. Nico says:

    I’m a fan of Lorde’s music, and I definitely picked up on some rhotic tendencies in most of her songs. Truth is she has quite a few American features when she sings, but that’s nothing unusual from artists of other English-speaking countries given the great American influence in the music industry. A lot of people sing that way in order to accommodate certain styles that originated in the US and became popular elsewhere. However, singing is not the same as speaking. She sounds like a normal, young Kiwi to me in interviews.

  4. Nico says:

    By the way, is T-flapping typical of Kiwi English like it is in Aussie English? I know it’s a typical feature of Australia (along with North America), but didn’t want to assume that Australia and New Zealand share that allophone.

  5. DfNZ says:

    Ella’s speech sounds far more Americanised to me than just one vowel. Her accent shifted after travelling to America but other than that she was fairly typical of many Auckland teen females. Here is an interview from before she went to America where she sounded different
    At the beginning, middle and end of this video she is speaking at age 12 still with noticeable American influences

    Both the New Zealand and Australian accents are being displaced by the American accent albeit at a significantly faster pace in New Zealand. There is a long discussion thread on the Whirlpool forum called “Australians that get an american accent” about this phenomenon.

    A solid majority of teenagers in New Zealand now sound American to at least some extent while many women in their 20s and 30s have been Americanising their speech over the past five years. Some teens sound more American than Ella, a few far more so. If present trends continue I believe the New Zealand accent will be effectively replaced by a variety or varieties of American English over the coming decades.

    To the best of my knowledge this process had begun at a low level by the second half of the 1990s around the time the Sky Satellite pay television service began broadcasting. The earliest clear example I’ve seen was a youth in “More Flatmates” from 1998 who had some American vowels. The teenagers in the “Sweet As” clip from 1999 on the NZOnScreen website appear to show subtle American influences. By 2003 some early teenage girls from the North Shore where Ella is from were sounding quite American. It seems to have really accelerated from about 2007 onwards. The change is now fast enough that the typical urban teenage female may display a perceivable increase in Americanisation after any 18 month period.

    Although there is rapid linguistic change in New Zealand, rapid change has been going on since at least the mid 1980s. It is difficult to know whether American English was playing any more subtle influence over the large changes in the decade before 1995.

    The strange thing is the young people cannot perceive that their speech is Americanised. Many would insist they have a New Zealand accent, but they would see an actual New Zealand accent as being just how dumb and unsophisticated people talk. An increasing number of individuals are however so sociolinguistically integrated into North America that they would indignantly insist they “don’t have an accent” because to them a General American accent means “not having an accent” and “having an accent” is supposedly shameful and undesirable. Increasingly youth of an overseas background are sidestepping the New Zealand accent and either retaining their parents’ accent or adopting an American one.

    There is alot of arguing about Ella’s accent on the Youtube videos’ comments; mostly people asking why she sounds American, and local teens insisting she doesn’t. You would be correct to think she has an Americanised “LIKE” vowel. That is now ubiquitous among teen females in most areas and has been the most swiftly adopted of all American characteristics. The spectrum you spoke of is a double reason why it has been adopted so widely – there wasn’t a consistent way of pronouncing it in New Zealand previously and it acted as the key indicator of personal social identity. The “genteel”, as you put it, way of pronouncing this vowel was from the upper sociolect in 20th century New Zealand; it is distinct from the American equivalents but it can be similar.

    “has a strongly retracted KIT vowel”
    That characteristic has been in decline in recent years and may be shifting in the direction of “KET” or “KEET”. A recent television advert had the narrator playing to the forefront of linguistic faddishness by announcing what sounded like the “Burger Keeng Cheenge Reenge”.

    “There’s very strong cultural cringe in NZ about their accent, many are ashamed of it when they move away.”
    This video explains the price of keeping it
    Ironically, Americans seem to react better to a New Zealand accent than anyone else. But I’ve noticed younger New Zealanders who spend time overseas typically immediately change their accent and don’t readily revert those changes after returning.

  6. AUS says:

    That is not a standard New Zealander accent, and it is quite likely she is deliberately using more American speech patterns, if not she is an extreme example of Americanisation in NZ English, and not the norm.

    While the shift does exist, it’s more in terms of vocabulary then pronunciation. Though the pronunciation of some words is also affected it general might only affect one part of a word. In either case the accent and vocabularly will still be distinctly NZer to those familiar with the dialect and culture. With just a sprinkling of American words and terms.

    For a better example of NZ youth speech patterns and pronunciation have a look at those various “Accent Tag” videos on youtube.

  7. DfNZ says:

    The way Ella spoke in the clip I linked to above from before she travelled to America is fairly mainstream for teenage girls from where she lives.

    Compare with this example of a younger girl from the North Shore

    There is a full spectrum of teenaged individuals with different degrees of American influence but the absence of that influence has disappeared from most areas by now. What was on the extreme end of the scale a decade ago is mainstream now, and what is extreme now will be in the mainstream in a decade’s time. The arrival of tablets like iPads in education may accelerate the trend for change.

    Although there is influence on vocabulary I think it is far more prominent on vowels. While a teenager could speak for half an hour without saying “cookie” not many would be able to say a sentence without shifted vowels.

    The accent tag videos can be slightly misleading as they are a self-selecting sample. Individuals who think their accent is shameful or who think they “don’t have an accent” are less likely to participate and it is those individuals with the greatest American influence. Nonetheless, the Americanisation is widespread enough that I was only able to find two or three examples of under-20 females without it.

    Not many people perceive accent change very well as it is a incremental process and that change is staggered over different age groups. The changes are too normalised for most to notice and the lost features either too unknown or forgotten.

    • David Jensen says:

      “Individuals who think their accent is shameful or who think they “don’t have an accent” are less likely to participate…”

      I know this isn’t the main point of your comment, but I think people who think they don’t have an accent might be more likely to do an accent tag video. They might want to show off how little of an accent they have, maybe despite the fact that they’re from New York City, the southern US or some other place that’s famous for having a thick accent. Having “no accent” is considered to be a good thing by many. On the other hand, some people with accents that others would find shameful might instead be very proud of their accent and even exaggerate it for the camera. But in any case, the people who participate in that are a self-selecting sample. I agree with you there.

  8. Norman says:

    There’s certainly a lot to find out about this subject.
    I really like all the points you’ve made.