The first English-speaking settlers in New Zealand came from many different areas of Britain and Ireland. With the discovery of gold, many more arrived, especially via Australia. For the first few decades, many dialects of English were heard in New Zealand but, by the turn of the century, complaints were being heard about a new and distinctive variety of speech, often dismissed as a "colonial twang". This variety of English had probably emerged earlier but was not recognised as distinctively New Zealand among the mixture of different dialects spoken at that time.
New Zealand-born children who lived in isolated areas usually grew up speaking with the same dialectal features as their parents. Others who lived in larger towns, or where there was regular communication with other places, began to develop the features of early New Zealand English. This was especially noticeable in goldmining areas, where many settlers had come via Australia. New Zealand soldiers who went away to the First World War spoke with a recognisable New Zealand accent. Since then, the accent has been slowly changing, with the result that children's speech differs from that of their grandparents. Both, however, speak recognisably New Zealand English.
When New Zealand children were first heard speaking with a New Zealand accent, many teachers and school inspectors were dismayed and put the emergence of this new variety down to the pernicious influence of the home and the street. It seems that the New Zealand accent was first associated with children and people who were lower class.
The view was strongly held in educational circles that educated people spoke with middle-class British accents - what the Professor of English at Canterbury University College, Professor Arnold Wall, called "the language of the best speakers at Home". Efforts to get New Zealand children to change their New Zealand vowel sounds for those of the British middle class continued for some years, and the Department of Education supported these efforts with manuals and with elocution lecturers in Teachers Colleges; it was also a constant concern of the school inspectors. Eventually, as complaints came that the teachers also had this New Zealand accent, it was seen to be a losing battle.
The development of the New Zealand accent was part of New Zealand's close relationship with Britain, and these links influenced teachers' attitudes towards it. For many years, the language of Britain was regarded as the standard for both speaking and writing in New Zealand. The variety promoted for speech was RP - Received Pronunciation. The word "received" in this context means "accepted" or "standard." This variety of pronunciation is associated with the British upper class and public school education. It is a social accent that gives no information about the region where a speaker comes from. In New Zealand, RP is sometimes called "BBC English" or "an Oxford accent".
Today, understanding of the relationship between language and social identity is increasing. Young children who arrive at school with an accent different from that used in the school change and adapt with remarkable speed. Peer group pressure is a powerful motivation for language change. Many children are able to keep two accents - one for home and one for school.
The requirement for people to change their accent is not a simple demand. Such a change can affect personal relationships. The New Zealander who drops his or her accent for RP may be regarded with suspicion and may even be seen as a poser or as selling out. It is important that students be encouraged to speak clearly and confidently using speech that is not muffled or slurred; it is not necessary for them to change their speech to an approved set of vowel sounds as people thought in the past. The way people speak identifies where they come from and the group they wish to associate with. A person's speech is an important aspect of his or her identity and must be treated with respect.
Today, New Zealand English is a distinctive variety of English, distinguished among other international varieties of English that include Australian English, Canadian English, South African English, and so on.
Strictly speaking, the term "dialect" implies regular grammatical patterns and a distinctive vocabulary as well as features of pronunciation that characterise the language of a particular area and distinguish it from other dialects and from standard English. It is questionable whether New Zealand English is a dialect of English in these terms because syntactically it is very similar to British English. It is better to refer to New Zealand English as an international variety of English.
The term "accent" refers only to pronunciation. A person may use the syntax of standard English, but speak with the pronunciation features of a dialect. Someone might speak standard English with a Yorkshire accent or a Welsh accent. In these terms, we can say that New Zealanders speak English with a New Zealand accent. Their pronunciation is the strongest distinguishing mark of their particular variety.
Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.
Published on: 24 Feb 2009