Brian Edwards Media

From Wullington to the Southern Elps.

alpsNew Zealand vowels are becoming more centralised.  Oh, really (yawn), who knew?  Actually, this less-than-riveting piece of information explains quite a lot about the way our accent has shifted.

The most noticeable change, and the one most often commented on, is that most Kiwis pronounce “i” (as in “it) as if it were “uh” (as in “the”).  So you get the infamous “fush and chups” that Seedneesiders find so hilarious.

In spoken English lightly pronounced, unaccented vowels revert to this neutral “uh” sound, the schwa. That is, with the exception of “i”. So while rugged will be pronounced as “ruggud”, rigid should be pronounced as “rijid”. Except here, where you’ll hear it rendered almost universally as “rijud” or even “rujud”. And it would seem that none of us is immune.  Listen to our newsreaders.  With the exception of those on National Radio, the “i” sound is as flat as a pancake.

For some reason, the presence of “l” seems to drag our vowels to the centre even faster.  Thus Wellington becomes “Wullungtun”, and the Alps slide inexorably  towards the “Elps”. I’m predicting it won’t be too long before we’re climbing the Southern Ulps.

A lot of people put this centralisation down to laziness.  Linguists will tell you that it’s just a development in our accent, neither good nor bad.  My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that because we all talk with our mouths half-closed, it’s easier to pronounce the central vowels, and the schwa is the easiest one of all.  

One of the first exercises I recommend when I’m voice coaching forces the teeth apart and provides a darn good work-out for the tongue, lips and facial muscles.  Within a couple of weeks, diction is clearer and the vowels start to shift back to their original position with little effort.  

And laziness? No, I don’t think so.  If we were just lazy why would we say “showen” and “knowen” when it’s much easier to say “shown” and “known”?

We’re just sliding towards the centre, and unless there’s a massive outside influence that affects all our young people, I don’t think there’s any way to stop it.  And it’s not all bad.  At least people overseas will stop mistaking us for Australians!

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  1. “At least people overseas will stop mistaking us for Australians!”

    At the rate we’re, like, going, its , like, people will be, like, mistaking us for, like, Californians, soon…like.

    • And that would be irritating. But, y’know, it could be, y’know, even more, y’know, irritating than that!

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    The centralisation of the KIT vowel that you have described is part of a systematic vowel shift in NZ English. I agree that it has nothing to do with laziness but nor is it caused by half closed mouths.
    The first vowel to move in the NZ vowel shift was the TRAP vowel which became higher and moved into the space of the DRESS vowel. The DRESS vowel then in turn had to move higher into the space of the KIT vowel. The KIT vowel then moved into the central region of the STRUT vowel. So “fush and chups” is the result of a push-chain vowel movement.
    This didn’t happen at once. The raised TRAP vowel was probably imported to NZ from England in the 19th century. The other changes took place in NZ.
    The centralisation of KIT is the most recent change – probably in the 1930s and first recognised in print in the 1960s when people wrote to the editor of The Listener complaining about Alison Holst’s pronunciation of “fish”.
    In recent times the DRESS vowel has also moved towards the FLEECE vowel, so that “bed” can sound like “bead” and it is sometimes hard to distinguish “Jenny” from “Jeanie.”

    The effect of “l” on the preceding vowel is well documented in NZ English. Professor Arnold Wall complained in the 1930s that “milk” and “silk” had become “mulk” and “sulk,” “result” and “ultimate” had become “resolt” and “oltimate”. This is a dependent vowel change caused by “l”.
    Dependent changes occur in the history of English. In Shakespeare’s day “swan” and “was” rhymed with “man” and changed because of the preceding “w” – another dependent change.

    • The push-chain effect is a theory I haven’t heard. Presumably the same effect happened in the Great Vowel Shift? Fascinating, and makes total sense.

      Arnold Wall also noted the schwa being used independent of [l], but only in unstressed syllables (New Zealand English: How it Should Be Spoken, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1938). He also observed the extension of the final [i] to [i:], and noted that this appeared to be a purely Australasian change. As a young announcer on the National Programme I had to shorten all my final [i:]s or face the wrath of Ken Green.

      PS: Dear Professor Gordon. Please, please, come up and teach at Auckland. I promise to take every course you give. JC.

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    Thanks Judy. Sorry to make it sound like a mini lecture but this is a subject close to my heart!

    • And mine! When I’ve finally struggled through %^$#@! Stage Three Syntactic Theory I might be allowed to move on to some real work on our accent.

  4. I immediately thought of you yesterday Judy when listening to a NZ broadcaster on Nat Radio’s 12noon programme utter “abzurd” and “agzelurate”. I leapt toward my Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English to confirm that my ears weren’t deceiving me, and then to my century old Chamber’s and 1989 Webster’s. Whew! The only difference in the correct pronunciations of “accelerate” was the third syllable.

    Now what kind of script was being read by the broadcaster? I did find her two pronunciations a little abstuse.

    • Now, you’ve stumbled on something really interesting. Yes, you’re quite right, accelerate has to be “akselurate”. And according to my 1963 12th edition Daniel Jones (the bible of English pronouncing dictionaries) absurd should be “absurd”. But the 2003 16th edition gives the pronunciation as “abzurd”.
      Somewhere during those forty years the second version has become the accepted one, and it makes sense. It’s easier to follow a voiced consonant with another voiced consonant and an unvoiced consonant with an unvoiced one – b and z are both voiced, k and s unvoiced. People tend to do this automatically, and change the sounds without realising they’re doing so. So it could be expected that at some stage “absurd” would start to conform to the norm in its pronunciation and that this would become the accepted version.

      Thanks for that – you’ve made my day. (Yeah, I know. Get a life, Judy.)

      PS: Abstruse will still be “abstroos”, since the s attaches to the t.