My Wandering Accent

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be a New Zealander. As soon as I open my mouth, people assume I’m on holiday here. Or that I’m one of Britain’s post-Brexit escapees. It’s the same conversation every time:

“No, I’ve lived here since I was child,” I say.

“Oh, your accent’s still really strong,” they say.

“They don’t think so back in Britain,” I say. “They tell me I sound slightly Australian.”

It’s the inflection, I think. I’ve picked up on the Kiwi inflection, but not the vowel sounds.

People say I haven’t lost my accent, but a while ago Dad was digitising some home movies, and we were all shocked at how strong my accent used to be! There’s a video of a tiny me reciting Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and my short ‘a’s and short ‘u’s stand out like gunshots.

That’s the Northern accent. Those harsh, practical vowel sounds are obviously so ingrained in me that no amount of Kiwi influence can erase them. Only smudge them.

“Your accent’s all over the place, to be honest,” a British friend told me recently. “But you can still tell you’re fundamentally a Northerner. I couldn’t say where in the North…”

My accent’s partly all over the place because I spend a lot of time putting accents on, especially the various British accents. If I watch Shirley Valentine or Red Dwarf, I’ll briefly become a Scouser. Once, I binge-watched the entire first series of The Crown and, without meaning to, spoke in an awfully plummy RP accent for the rest of the week. I find it surprising difficult to put on a Kiwi accent, though.

When I first moved to New Zealand, I was very stubborn about keeping my English identity. I didn’t want to lose my accent. I exaggerated the Northern as a matter of course. (This was partly because my Kiwi classmates thought that being English automatically made you posh. I. AM. NOT. POSH.)

As with my accent, I accidentally, and then accidentally-on-purpose, wrote £ signs on my maths work instead of $ signs. Then, one day, I realised I’d been using $ signs without thinking about it. My parents also pointed out that I was beginning to sound Kiwi. I stopped. I haven’t started again.

The Kiwi accent is so laidback, you see. All the vowels end up sounding the same. They get blurred together in a sort of lazy, monotonous mumble. As soon as you put any effort into a Kiwi accent, it becomes Australian. (And you can’t fake an accent without putting any conscious effort into it.)

The only time I’ve ever come out with a Kiwi accent is when I haven’t been thinking about it.

Once, I had such a sore throat that I was putting as little effort into speaking as possible.

“You sound like a Kiwi right now,” a Kiwi friend said.

Another time, I was pretending to whine about something, and my Kiwi flatmate said, “Ooh, you sounded Kiwi then.”

“That’s because I was whining,” I replied.

He pulled the finger at me.

“I’m not trying to insult the Kiwi accent,” I continued, battling to construct an academic argument through our laughter.  I really hadn’t meant it as an insult. (That time.) “It’s just the truth.”

Various Kiwi comedians have pointed out the whiny and monotonous nature of the Kiwi accent. It sounds like an accent that’s trying its best to be unobtrusive. Maybe it’s all to do with Tall Poppy Syndrome. Kiwis don’t want to stand out. (As a country we do, but not so much as individuals.) I occasionally catch myself deliberately toning down my articulation so people won’t think I’m pretentious.

Hey – I never realised quite how many metaphors for the Kiwi attitude to life can be found in the Kiwi accent. (I should also point out here that, on the whole, unpretentiousness is a good thing, and one of the reasons I like living in New Zealand. Laziness – or, to put it another way, carefreeness – can also be a good thing. What’s the point of working hard if you don’t enjoy life?)

I may not habitually speak in a Kiwi accent, but I have, of course, picked up plenty of Kiwi slang. I criminally overuse the word ‘awesome’. I never say ‘sweet as’, but I quite often respond to people with ‘sweet’ – in a Kiwi accent, I might add. I don’t try – it doesn’t work in any British accent. (Try grunting the word ‘swede’ with an upward inflection. That might get you close.)

I feel like my years in New Zealand have kind of neutralised my original accent; averaged it out across all of England. I definitely sound posher than I did as a kid. More Southern, even though those harsh, Northern vowels can still be detected by someone who knows what they’re listening for. It’s easy to slip back, though.

It’s so funny meeting another English person at a party. I met someone from near Nottingham (Not-ing-um) once and, before I knew it, I was speaking with the broadest Nottinghamshire accent imaginable. So was the other person. It was like a positive feedback loop. My partner said the same thing happened when we met a lady from Yorkshire in an antiques shop. He said he watched in bewilderment as our accents just got stronger and stronger. It’s a wonder all the Yorkshire didn’t explode and knock over a table of antique teacups.

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How I Caught a Kiwi Accent

The last two weeks have been bad. They found cancer in my mum’s lymph nodes, they sent her for surgery, and we visited her in hospital. That was covered in my previous post. Since then, my body has gone and decided that my mum really shouldn’t get all the attention.

Certain problems that have been developing in the background for some time have suddenly jumped to the fore. On Thursday, I woke up in agony and ended up in hospital myself. That was the day before we were due to travel to New Plymouth.

You see, I was expecting this post to be a happy one: a return to the traditional travel blog format. My partner, Tim, and I had been planning this trip to New Plymouth for a while. It was the weekend of our fifth anniversary.

We were supposed to travel down with our mate, Ems, meet up with Tim’s family, spend a day at WOMAD, (a hippy music festival,) a day at my favourite museum, and then head back to Hamilton. Even with the day in hospital, it still looked like this was going to happen.

I was sent home from hospital loaded up with painkillers. (They can’t do anything until I have an ultrasound; it will be weeks before I get an ultrasound.) Ems joked that it would be okay – we could just share her wheelchair at WOMAD! And it would have been, but… then came the flu.

By the time Ems came to pick us up, I had lost my voice. It was still fine. I realised I must have caught it visiting my mum in hospital, because my mum had it too. (On top of recovering from surgery!) I was just a little frustrated sitting on my own in the back seat, unable to communicate.

The drive down from Hamilton to New Plymouth takes three and a half hours. Once you’re past Te Awamutu, a small town just south of Hamilton, mobile reception becomes practically non-existent, so make sure you have physical maps available.

It was late when we got to where we were staying, and my illness had worsened. My body couldn’t decide whether it was hot or cold. I was barely aware of my surroundings. In the morning, I felt thoroughly beat-up, but it was time to go to WOMAD.

I was drenched with sweat before we’d even entered the park. I volunteered to push Ems’s wheelchair because I needed something to lean on as I walked. We joined the growing line of aging hippies eager to get into the festival.

I’d been to WOMAD before. I knew it wasn’t really my thing. I mean I don’t mind the interesting music from around the world. I don’t mind the exciting variety of food stalls. I don’t mind the market filled with beautiful, hippy clothing. It’s just that being in a crowd makes me uncomfortable.

I get panic attacks. And now I was battling a steadily worsening bout of what I was coming to realise wasn’t just a cold.

It was bearable at first. We got there early, so there weren’t so many people. They were still setting up, much to the confusion of these two geese:

We got breakfast from one of the food stalls, (a gorgeous Polynesian raw fish salad,) and I was able to join in the conversation, albeit in a whisper. At some point, Ems asked me why I was speaking in a Kiwi accent.

I’ve lived in New Zealand since I was a child, but I still have a British accent. I find it difficult even to fake a Kiwi accent; whenever I try I sound Australian. The reason, I think, is this: the Kiwi accent is incredibly lazy.

Seriously. As soon as you put any effort into a Kiwi accent, it becomes Australian, and it’s difficult to fake an accent without putting any effort in. Now, however, here I was, speaking Kiwi. Whispering Kiwi.

I realised that, because it hurt so much to talk, I was putting as little effort as possible into making my vowel sounds.

“You’ve caught a Kiwi accent,” Ems laughed.

Whatever I’d caught, it became harder and harder to endure as the day wore on. The whole thing’s kind of a blur. Here are some photos I got:

That was funny. Can see what the sign below it says? PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB ON HISTORIC CHIMNEY.

And oh yeah, that was where I bumped into someone from the same obscure, little town in England as me, but couldn’t say anything to him, so he wandered off awkwardly.

I’m dying in this photo. Like just take it. Please, just take it. I’m about to collapse. No, please, no more, just let me die.

Pretty trees. Can’t breathe. Can’t go on…

And that’s where the weekend ends, pretty much. We couldn’t go to my favourite museum. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Besides, by now Tim was getting sick too. We just had to go home.

The last few days I’ve been drowning in the worst flu of my life. I’ve been coughing up blood and, well, I won’t say what else. Tim’s bad too. What an anniversary weekend! I pictured us lying in bed together, but not like this. Not like this.

Top 20 Things a Brit in New Zealand Misses

This is the article I entered in the 2013 Expat Blog Awards. It ended up winning Silver for New Zealand. You can read it by clicking the link below:

Top 20 Things a Brit in New Zealand Misses

173 Back in Sheffield