Brian Edwards Media

Um, er, like, y’know and what the hell happened to the schwa?


We Kiwis are as a rule not a highly articulate people. We tend to the taciturn and, when we do have something to say, struggle to get the words out in a coherent flow. We ‘um’ and ‘er’ our way through the simplest proposition. Even those in the speech-making business, whom you might expect to be fluent  –Trevor Mallard, John Key and the lovely David Shearer come to mind – pepper their responses with time-to-think, space-filling noises. And you could have driven trucks through the late lamented Rob Muldoon’s rasping ‘ers’.

I sometimes think that this phenomenon may reflect the emphasis placed in Kiwi culture on the virtue of humility. Our heroes blush when praised and pronounce themselves “humbled” by the nation’s applause. The word seems to indicate they feel their success wasn’t  deserving of such acclamation. Overt celebration of a win or achievement might suggest vanity. People might think they were “up themselves”. So they keep their heads down and communicate through half-closed mouths and clenched teeth.

To be absolutely fair, the fear of public speaking – from making a two-minute speech at an office “do” to addressing the United Nations – is recognised as being near the top of the commonly accepted list of debilitating phobias. But our Kiwi inability to express ourselves fluently can be observed in everyday conversation and not just in those scary situations. We stammer and stutter, mutter and mumble.  

We see all of this in our media training courses where our clients are the crème de la crème of the business, academic and political worlds. After one chap had managed to have more ‘ers’ and ‘ums’ in a 5-minute interview than nouns, verbs and adjectives, I once heard myself say in a loud and somewhat unfriendly tone: “JUST STOP DOING THAT!!!” His colleagues (and Judy) seemed rather taken aback by this display of pique, but he nonetheless went back into the studio and re-did the interview with barely a space-filler to be heard. Shock treatment!

In everyday life, I’m not particularly fluent myself. But I’ve learnt that the key to fluency is having what you want to say pre-programmed in your brain a few seconds before it comes out of your mouth. You can learn to do this!

Judy has a brilliant formula for getting rid of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’: It’s a 3-stage process: being conscious of  the ‘um’ or ‘er’ after you’ve  said it; being conscious of the ‘um’ or ‘er’ as you’re saying it; and, finally, being conscious of the ‘um’ or ‘er’ just as you’re about to say it. It works. (No charge!)

‘Like’ is a more recent and unwelcome addition to the list of Kiwi space-fillers, though I suspect it’s of American origin. I suppose if means: ‘so to speak’ or ‘if I can put it this way’, or ‘you know what I mean’, or ‘this is hard to explain’, or ‘I just can’t think of the right word’, or ‘hold on a minute, I’m thinking’. Or something. Or nothing.

On a 10-minute bus trip home from the city to Ponsonby recently, two youngish women in the seat behind us managed to fit not just one, but two or three ‘likes’ into every sentence. Sample: “He was, like, kind of, like, good looking but, like, you know, I, like, didn’t, like, really like him.’  Well, I know what  you’re, like, thinking – I made this up. But it’s, like, almost verbatim.

This is how a majority of young New Zealanders now communicate and, though I’m sorry to be an old language fuddy-fuddy, I think it’s awful to listen to. Bugger it, I’m not sorry at all. It is awful to listen to and they sound like mentally defective copycats. It’s um, er, like, y’know, they’ve never been to school.

Now here’s my final language bleat (till next time):

What has happened to the indefinite article ‘a’. Until recently ‘a’ was almost universally pronounced ‘uh’ as in ‘huh?’. The language expert in the house tells me this unstressed central vowel is known as the “schwa”. It’s how I would pronounce ‘a’ 99 times out of a hundred as in, for example, “Can I have a sandwich please.”

Considerably less common is the pronunciation of ‘a’ as in ‘What did you say?’ The purpose of this stressed pronunciation seems primarily to be to emphasise the singleness of the word, as in,  “I wanted a sandwich, not six sandwiches.”

Well, it was considerably less common. But check out the pronunciation of ‘a’ on TV One or TV3 news by newsreaders, reporters and weather presenters alike. ‘A’ as in ‘uh’ has completely disappeared; ‘a’ as in ‘hay’ is now universal. The significant distinction between the intended meanings of the two pronunciations has therefore been totally lost, making us linguistically worse off.

Which is curious because near-illiteracy is the defining characteristic of New Zealand television field reporters, if not of the news readers, but this looks like some sort of attempt to be formally correct in pronunciation at least. Unfortunately they’re buggering the language, which in all probability will lead to the rest of us doing the same.

Mind you, they’re still intent on saying ‘an hotel, an horrific, an habitual, an historic’ which only the pretentious gits among us would wish to emulate. So this is all probably a total waste of breath.


  1. It’s a progression, Brian. First, TV journalists were innumerate, now they are also illiterate. But they look nice.

    • It’s a progression, Brian. First, TV journalists were innumerate…

      I wonder if that explains David Farrar, pollster and intimate phone mate to John Key, and his silly numeric foulup today…

      Someone sent me a facebook image of him saying that 49-31 = a difference of 28. I’d give the link, however that wasn’t sent (and so I can’t post on it). This was related to the one news poll.

      His commentary after that was hilarious as it was all about how a 28% polling difference was so unique. This is the guy who tells John Key what he wants to hear?

      I’m sorry Brian, I think that an inability to speak without umms and ers would have to be of a secondary importance to simply getting the numbers right. Which is why Nick Smith, Steven Joyce, John Key, and now apparently David Farrar are a problem almost every time they open their mouths.

      • 1.1.1

        You quote Farrar as saying something was “so unique”. It is either unique or it isn’t. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Add illiteracy to innumeracy.

      • Judging by talkback radio (plain folks) and our prime minister (moron), we must have a near perfect democracy.

        ““As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

        ― H.L. Mencken

  2. English, and NZ English, are not the only languages which have “ums and errs” in them. The two other languages I’m most familiar with, Japanese and Chinese, both have them; “sou desu ne/da ne” in Japanese, and “jishi neger” in Chinese. In those two languages some speakers never use them, but others use them a lot. With the teaching of English to international students they are called “fillers”, as they can give a second language learner a valuable few seconds to think about how to finish constructing a sentence, or time to think about what to say next.
    The discussion about the letter “a” seemed to be about the pronunciation of short vowels and long vowels. The way English words are spelled makes the pronunciation of vowels fairly clear, but the spoken varieties of English are a different matter particularly with “disintegrating vowels” which linguists have described for both NZ and Australian English. As a speaker of NZ English though its not my problem if other English speakers don’t understand my disintegrated vowels. Its my native language and I have no desire to start taking elocution lessons to “improve” my spoken English.

    • I once made a colleague laugh by translating some Plato into Billy T James NZ English. It works quite well at accounting for all the little particles. Sadly, it got lost in a computer move some years back.

  3. All so true, annoying, cringeworthy and far worse than the passive imperative “enjoy” or the overuse of the words awesome and cool.

    • I’m with you on “awesome”. Largely, I think, used by younger people. I take “awesome” to mean “awe inspiring” or “filled with awe”, not simply “really great”. “Awe” might require Jesus to appear at the bottom of one’s bed!

      • “Awe” might require Jesus to appear at the bottom of one’s bed!”

        Couldn’t help but think of John Wayne with your reference to Jesus.

        “As Jesus dies on the cross, with wind swirling, rain falling, and dramatic music rising, the Centurion says, “Truly this man was the son of God.” Fair enough, how can anyone mess that up? Well, apparently, the Duke was not too thrilled about working on this film under Stevens, so he kept flubbing the line and saying it too generically. Finally, after numerous re-takes, Stevens yelled at Wayne, telling him to, “Put some awe into it!” because of how important the scene would be. Annoyed and angry, Wayne took the direction literally, and when filming began, he announced sarcastically in his Midwestern cowboy drawl, “AWE! Truly this man was the son of God!” The only thing more hilarious than this was the fact that THIS would be the take included in the final cut of the film. I guess all the other takes were so terrible, that Stevens’ only choice was to use this one.

        You may be able to get through most of the film without cringing—if so, God bless ya. But no one will make it through this scene without going, “What the f—?!” Thank you John Wayne for providing us with this amazing piece of movie trivia and a humorous way to celebrate our Easter. Have a great day, everyone!”

      • BE its awesome that you would entertain the notion that, at the bottom of the bed is JC – and no, not Judy, for Christ’s sake!

      • 3.1.3

        So it’s spelled “awesome”! Up until now, I’d though it was “ossome” and wondered what it meant. I still wonder what it means.
        I know what “cool” means, though. If something is cool, it’s hot.

      • 3.1.4

        Does it really matter? Effective communication is sustained between people who misuse those words, and part of their intentional misuse is to create and sustain subcultures.

        What would be worrying is if people no longer had the ability to express complex thoughts. I’m not sure if that is happening, but the texting culture doesn’t help.

        • You could argue that it detracts from precision and subtle nuance which are sometimes very important.

          But you are right – language is continually evolving. I suspect the main driver of that has always been hoi polloi (or is that the accusative tous pollous? Either way the Billy T James translation: “youse fellas what didn’t sit School C”) who refuse to be bound by the codified language rules of their more educated “betters”.

    • Can I add a vote for “bae”. I’ve noticed several journalists – of all people! – using it on their Twitter to mean “significant other”. When you can abbreviate to gf or bf and save a letter, there’s just NO excuse!!


    • Having recently marked many assignments, can I add in ‘massive’, used where ‘significant’ or ‘substantial’ would work better? Sometimes used in conjunction with awesome…sigh.

  4. Nu Ziln’d from the PM sets the modern standard in Kiwi pronunciation! And the widely adapted and constantly spouted “won’t rule it in or out” seems to be about as informative as political media speak gets.

    • Is ‘won’t rule it in or out’ the truncated version of ‘won’t rule it in or out until we’ve got the focus group/poll results’?

  5. Don’t forget “Have a nice day”. Grrr, I hate that expression. One of these days I fear I’m going to tell someone where to put their nice day. :(

  6. eh?

  7. Wasn’t till I was actually living overseas and then saw or heard a Nuh Zilund speaking on media that I realised *quite* how dreadful the speech of some people is, most notably our current PM.

    Don’t currency traders need to communicate their decisions clearly, unambiguously and quickly? I can’t imagine the trading room ringing to calls of “Uh, well, at the end of the day, I’ll, uhhh, buy a million…” (nor can I imagine a trader saying “I sold just before the dollar rose and lost a million? No, that wasn’t me it was my office”, but that’s another story).

    I recall on a very slow night once editing an interview for Morning Report (using razor blade and tape in them days!) and taking out all the “umms” and “ahhs” of one interview, just to see if I could. I even copied and inserted breath pauses so other words wouldn’t run together. Even so, I ended up with a piece less than half what we’d started with. To be fair, he wasn’t used to being interviewed, but why the journalist hadn’t taken him through it a few more times till he was coherent I don’t know. As long as he doesn’t change his story it’s not “cheating”, it’s helping the audience understand the topic.

    As for the notion that people may think those who speak without mumbling, pausing, and swallowing their vowels are “up themselves”, I never found that in careers in radio, television and politics (or perhaps they were *thinking* it… still, they hung round to listen).

    [And Anne… I generally politely ignore “have a nice day” but I am currently in the midst of moving house. I rushed into a service station, hot, sweating and running behind schedule, to buy a drink. Upon being told “enjoy your day”, my response was “There is absolutely NO chance of that occurring”. That, I found, stopped them in their tracks :-)]

    • Actually Rex my bete noir is “How’s your day been”? My usual reply is to say: “Still vainly fighting the old ennui” or “Not bad so far – except all these paranoid people keep following me around”. Both are sure fire show stoppers, not least because in the first case I usually have to explain what ennui is, and then that I’m quoting a Cole Porter lyric (from I Get a Kick Out of You). The second one is more often that not met with a blank stare. This is further proof of Brian’s adage that New Zealanders don’t have a sense of irony

      • A few years ago we left the hospital after learning my wife had cancer. Yes, you guessed it – the first place we stopped my wife was asked “how’s your day been?”. She replied honestly, and to give the guy his due, he took it in his stride. It’s yet another of those ‘fillers’ which some people seem to need in their lives.

    • My reply to, “Enjoy” is, “Ve haff vays off making you enjoy.”
      Probably racist or some other kind of ist but wotthehell.

    • @ Rex Wilderstrom

      Someone once told me when confronted with “have a nice day” he responds with “nah… I have other plans.”

      Still plucking up the courage to use it.

  8. But New Zealanders are effing loud, apparently?

    I don’t buy this humility explanation that you keep pushing in here, Brian. There is no humility in a loud badly performed haka, or a pub crawl.

    This humility demanded of sports stars and celebrities is a symptom of a national condition of narcissism. I mentioned this previously. We demand humility from our sports stars because we live vicariously through their achievements, and their humility is then viewed as our own (false as it happens) humility.

    I also wouldn’t have thought the average Kiwi is notably more taciturn, or less articulate, than other nationalities. Umming and arring is common to the English speaking world. I can hear it in many nationalities while watching the tv.

    • Hakas and pub crawls where you are either performing a national ritual before a crowd or pub crawls where you are heavily intoxicated don’t really seem to tell us anything about the humility or lack of it of the average Kiwi.

      Your second paragraph seems to support rather than challenge my thesis.

  9. if humility is the “quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”, then the performance of the haka, a loud attention seeking exercise, or a pub crawl, especially when performed in a foreign country, often by non-Maori, does indeed indicate a lack of humility. The point of the act is to direct attention on to the performers, or as we say in sociology, to provide “narcissistic supply”. This is classic text book narcissistic behaviour. If a culture is dominated by references to ones own humility, then I would argue that it is very likely that the opposite is true!

    • I’m afraid I find the proposition that the haka in any way defines this country’s culture preposterous. It is part of that culture certainly, and a part that many people both here and abroad associate with New Zealand, but that is a very different matter from defining our culture. Heaven help us if it did.

      And with that I’ll now leave the field to you.

  10. You asked a while ago why NZers were so effing loud. I think the answer partly explains the chewing gum with which so many fill their speech. People hate silence. A pause is anathema so it must be filled with um, er and like. These are the same people who cannot walk down the street without being wired for sound.

    Wherevere you go your ears are assaulted either by verbal chewing gum or musical blancmange. Travel Air NZ and you immediately experience what I mean with the appalling in flight announcements imitating chalk on a blackboard, interspersed with equally appalling ‘music’.

    The expression ‘silence is golden’ means nothing anymore.

  11. The humility in NZ culture is false.

    Another example to illustrate the statement was when John Key brought back titular titles. The scramble from awardees to get their NZ awards “upgraded” was unseemly. I believe Sir Peter Gluckman commented on the extra buzz generated upon entering a room as a ‘Sir’, particularly in America, where they are apparently very impressed by knights and dames. The ordinary NZ awards just didn’t make the grade in terms of attention grabbing. A narcissist of course seeks out attention. It is called “narcissistic supply” as mentioned previously.

    The only one who did not rush with unseemly haste to get his upgrade was Witi Ihimaera, who was, of course, vilified by the feral bullying mob for his opposition to the move. No surprises there!!!

    • Just by way of ‘for the record’ when Sirs were reintroduced those who had an equivalent gong were offered the chance to convert to a Sir or Dame. Most fell over themselves to do so but there were seven stand outs. Interestingly, six were writers and the seventh was a potter. On his instruction I drafted letters for Jim Anderton to sign at the time congratulating them on their adult response. I personally think that John Key did this because he knew that he would probably get one in due course himself and so he was setting up a situation in which he could. It’s the same sort of lower middle class vulgarity which seems to motivate a great deal of his behaviour. Bernard Shaw when offered a knighthood turned it down on the grounds that he had long since conferred it on himself.

      • 11.1.1

        You don’t think it’s possibly a bit rich sneering at people who have knighthoods and in the next breath pontificating from a position of assumed superiority about the “lower middle class vulgarity” of others?


          No Random Punter I don’t. John Key’s tragedy was to grow up in suburban Christchurch which has one of two effects on people. The first is to make then reject the lower middle class craving for respectability which is central to that social status and to go and live in Wellington where you can be whoever you want, no-one cares which school you went to, and you can breath freely and creatively. The other is to grow up desperate to belong, to become totally conformist and to spend your lifetime trying to be a material success and sucking up to ‘important’ people, something best done in Auckland. How do I know this? Because I grew up in suburban Christchurch (a decade before John Key) and I have lived in Wellington since 1969 when I managed to escape.


            Spoken like a Wellingtonian which has more self-important people per square inch of CBD than the rest of the country has per square metre.

            You can’t suck up to important people in Auckland. It’s too big, too diverse and nobody cares.

            And having grown up in suburban Christchurch around your time I now live in a village full of people from all over the world as well as those rooted there for many generations, none of whom are particularly conventional nor contemptuous of their origins.

            • Have you not noticed the inverted commas around ‘important’ Alan?


                Yes, hence my “self-important” – admittedly a shift in subjective/inflated perspective from your viewer to the viewed.

                • In my estimation there are no important people in New Zealand. We are too small and distant to make any sort of impact on anything. Although we like to boast that we ‘box above our weight’ and that’s occasionally true, when you are featherweight to begin with that isn’t saying much

  12. My pet peeve is people using alternate (adj) when they mean alternative. And now I’ve just taken the washing out of the machine and found I left a tissue in a pocket. Grrrr.

  13. I’ve reached the stage in life where I can allow myself to revel in parts of myself which I used to keep hidden – for fear of getting my head shot off if poked over the parapet. Thus when/if someone says to me, for instance, “River, you’ve got a big ego!” My reply of “Yes!” usually totally shuts them up.

  14. I detest the expression “For free!”

  15. I also detest the use of apostrophes in simple plural’s. (?)

  16. While I was researching something on the ‘net, I came across this gem which is loosely connected to the subject under discussion. The name has been removed to protect the guilty.

    “Mr . . . . . English. Still remember today some of his quotes. Got me throught School Cert English and that was a feet for all my teachers!!!”

  17. 17

    Jasper the Friendly Host

    It’s a fact: being forced to defer to the Maori language; their feral cultural practices (haka), will forever keep us a little backward when it comes to spoken-English.

  18. I can tolerate Key’s speech failings (just).Its the corruption and lies that I find hard to the cabinet club farce

  19. I have a slightly different take on the ‘like’ word. I quite agree it is freely used by younger peeps and has probably taken root wherever american television is available. But I am especially interested in its use as a qualifier, which distances the user from their own experience. “I was, like, really annoying this old irish guy”, I see it as a form of self mediation and a by product of the many forms of instant mediation , Facebook, youtube etc.we have at our immediate, disposal.