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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Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!

Maori Proverb

Korubrighter

A koru I found while walking in the bush

One of the most important, fundamental differences between England and New Zealand is one that is often overlooked when juxtaposed with the landscape, wildlife and weather: it is the people.

The people of New Zealand are called kiwis. This can cause a certain amount of confusion among tourists, as there are two other distinct entities in New Zealand that also bear the name kiwi:

1)      The endangered, native bird that is a symbol of New Zealand, the equivalent of Australia’s kangaroo.

2)      The fuzzy, green fruit also known as the Chinese gooseberry, the growing of which is an important industry in New Zealand.

Despite this, kiwis (the people) are in no way confused about their identity. They are a proud nation of do-it-yourselfers, tough and laidback at the same time. They embody the spirit of adventure – a relic, I suspect, from the colonial days of old, when you had to both help and accept help from your neighbours to survive. Above all, it is their attitude – their niceness – that sets them apart from their distant cousins in Mother England.

To illustrate just how different New Zealanders are from the English, I’d like to tell you a story, something of my personal journey since immigrating to New Zealand at the age of ten. You see, I was first awakened to how different kiwis are on my first day of school here. As usually happens when a new kid shows up in class, the teacher introduced me by getting me to stand up in front of everyone.

“This is Abigail. She’s from England. Abigail, why don’t you tell us a bit about what England’s like?”

So, shaking under the scrutiny of thirty pairs of eyes, I tried desperately to think – what was England like? For me, it was just normal, a more overcast version of New Zealand. It was August at the time this was happening; I’d just taken a plane ride from the middle of summer to the middle of winter, but the weather hadn’t changed. It was hot in New Zealand. Well, not hot for New Zealand, but hot to me. I was sweating, yet somehow frozen. My throat was stuck.

“I know,” the teacher said, gently. “How about the class asks you questions – would that be easier? Does anyone have a question about England?”

Of course, I don’t remember everything they asked me, but how could I forget these four questions:

 “Is there grass in England?”

 “Do you speak English in England?”

 “Do you have a butler?”

 “Have you met the Queen?”

I had come to a country of morons.

I suppose they were only ten, and New Zealand is rather cut off from the rest of the world. Some of them must have only seen England on the news, or in American cartoons. They must have thought my home country consisted of the brown and grey streets of London stretching from coast to coast, populated purely by toffs… Not that they were familiar with the word toff. I’d grown up physically and culturally so far away from the world they thought I’d come from! They all thought I was posh, not realising how ridiculous the idea was, or quite how much it offended my Northern, working-class roots.

Me

A younger me looking not quite at home in the New Zealand bush

I soon found that what kiwis lack in general knowledge, they make up for in moxy.

The first break time of the day, or, as kiwis call it, morning tea, arrived. When I’d entered the classroom, I’d seen that most of the other kids had bare feet, which I’d thought was strange, but maybe it was the custom to remove shoes inside wherever you were, so I’d taken my sandals off, leaving my socks on. Now I hurriedly put my shoes back on, realising as I did that no one else was. They were actually going outside in bare feet!

You see, kiwi feet are like hobbit feet – though in most cases less hairy – with thick, rubbery soles. My classmates were not just walking across grass and smooth concrete, but across gravel and bark chippings! One of them had a bit of broken glass stuck in the ball of their foot and, when I asked if they were all right, they responded, “Yeah, it’s been in there a while.”

After a few days, some of my classmates coaxed me into taking my shoes and socks off outside. They ended up having to carry me, as my soles were as delicate as a baby’s bottom. They haven’t improved much in the last eleven years.

Another thing I discovered during those first few days of school is how confusing the kiwi accent is. My classmates decided to play a game of hide-and-seek, but, as I wasn’t yet familiar with the layout of the school, one girl offered to team up and hide with me.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go and get on the dick.”

I blinked. “On the what?”

“The dick.”

I looked around, bewildered.

“That dick over there.”

She was pointing, but I still couldn’t see what she meant.

“The big dick! The big, brown dick!”

My mind reeled.

“All that wood! It’s right in front of us, by the school hall.”

And before the unintended puns could get any worse, I clicked. “Oh, you mean the deck.”

Skimming Stones

Two friends, one a kiwi and one a British immigrant like me, skimming stones on the shore

I got used to the accent fairly quickly, and could soon tell it apart from the Australian accent, something you need to learn fast if you want to survive in New Zealand. Kiwis are very touchy when it comes to Australians, like us Brits with the French, I suppose. Except Brits are nothing like the French, whereas Australians and New Zealanders are practically the same people. ***Ducks a volley of ANZAC biscuits*** (ANZAC biscuits are what the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were given as rations in the First World War, and it was said they were so hard it was better to lob them at the enemy than eat them.)

My nana, who now lives in New Zealand with us, once met a kiwi on the London Underground. By this point, she’d visited us enough times to recognise the person’s accent, and the person was so grateful that Nana hadn’t assumed they were Australian!

Speaking of the London Underground, let me fast forward my story a few years. I was now seventeen years old, in my final year of high school, (or college, as kiwis call it,) and my drama class was going on a very expensive field trip to England, to perform a show at a performing arts school in Devon, to watch a few musicals at the West End, and to take in the sights. I hadn’t been back to England since leaving it seven years previously, and I’d got used to how safe New Zealand is – you don’t have to be paranoid about locking things or walking through parks on your own at night. Well, in most places, anyway.

After travelling around the southwest of England and encountering mysterious, new wonders like squirrels and stinging nettles, my kiwi classmates and I made it to London. We were on a tube train, packed in like sardines in the middle of this sweltering, July rush-hour, when the train stopped and a dry announcement came on:

“We apologise for the delay, as a body is being removed from the line.”

Immediately, the kiwis began to freak out. The Londoners, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eyelid; they remained engrossed in their newspapers, or the Underground map opposite them. There were so many pairs of eyes around, but none of them would move in case – horror of horrors – they ended up crossing paths with another pair. I had been living in New Zealand long enough to find this unsettling.

Then, when the train got going again, the motion sent me stumbling into a middle-aged woman.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.

“WATCH IT!” she growled, turning her back on me.

That moment shocked me. A kiwi would never do that. They’d smile at you and say, “That’s all right.”

I needed reassurance. I needed some kindness. I tried to catch someone’s eye and smile. They weren’t having it. I realised I’d changed. In this aspect, at least, I’d become a New Zealander.

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

I used to be like those Brits on the tube. Cold, isolated, mistrusting of every stranger I met. I remember when I was a child – quite a young child, like four or five – my family and I were walking over a hill in the Lake District. Whenever we walked past fellow hikers coming in the opposite direction, my dad would greet them, and they’d politely say something back. I didn’t understand.

“Why did you talk to them, Dad? You don’t know them!”

Dad explained that there was an unspoken truce amongst mountaineers. Everyone on the mountain was your friend. I found it very strange and quite uncomfortable. Then we moved to New Zealand and it turned out that kiwis are like that with everyone they pass on the street. It’s just nice. If you drop your shopping, you know that someone will stop to help you pick it up, and they won’t nick it. If you’re waiting for a bus, people will ask you how your day’s been. I’ve noticed it is changing in the busy centre of Auckland city, which is unfortunate, but in general it’s far nicer to step out of your front door in New Zealand than it is in England.

Maybe kiwis are so nice because there are so few of them. They aren’t elbowing each other out of the way to get to where they need to be. The population only exceeded the four million mark a few years ago, and the landmass of the country is larger than the whole of Great Britain, which has a population of sixty-something million. When my family was travelling around the South Island in a campervan, we kept bumping into people we knew from the North Island, on holiday just like us.

Kiwis are generally outdoorsy-types: they like hiring campervans and sleeping in tents. They like doing silly, adventurous things. They are responsible, for example, for the invention of commercial bungee jumping, jet-boating and zorbing. Of these, I’ve only done jet-boating, but I’ve done it a few times in various locations because it’s so incredibly fun. My favourite jet-boating experience was when we were on our Great New Zealand Campervan Holiday, on the Shotover River, which was one of the locations Peter Jackson used for the River Anduin in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not only was this the fastest jet-boat ride I’ve ever been on, I kept expecting to see the Argonath looming up on either side of us!

So anyway, that’s kiwis for you. Not fruit or birds, but a genuinely nice ilk of people. Completely mad, of course, but wonderfully mad. Caring and relaxed, yet hardy and adventurous; fiercely independent, yet always happy to help. Perhaps the difference in attitude between Brits and kiwis can be summed up like this:

Something bad happens. The Brit thinks, ‘At least it’s something I can complain about later.’ The kiwi thinks, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

A New Zealand sunset

A New Zealand sunset