English, Maori, and Maori English in New Zealand


           Heather Ladd ©2007


A Brief History of New Zealand


i.  Exploration

New Zealand (NZ), also called Aotearoa (‘the land of the long white cloud’), is geographically comprised of two large islands—North Island and South Island—in the Southwest Pacific Ocean.  Polynesian tribes, the Tangata Whenua or  'People of the Land’,  began arriving in canoes from the mythical land of Hawaiki in about AD 1000. Maori New Zealanders are descendants of these original Polynesian settlers. The first European to sight NZ was Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer who discovered this land in December 1642 and named it Stateen Landt (later ‘Nieuw Zeeland’ and finally, the Anglicized ‘New Zealand’). Tasman’s initial contact with the Maori was not successful; three of his crewmen died in a clash with tribesmen in a spot that was subsequently named Murderers’ Bay (Gordon and Deverson 7). Despite this early contact, NZ was not destined to become a Dutch territory. In 1769, more than a hundred years later, James Cook, an English Lieutenant (later Captain) embarked on three South Pacific expeditions to this area of the world. Cook, a navigator and cartographer, mapped NZ and published his journals upon his return to Britain. Communication with the Maori was facilitated by the presence of translators who spoke the Polynesian language of Tahiti. It would be Britain that would eventually annex and colonize NZ, Cook making declarations on 15 November 1769 and 30 January 1770 in Mercury Bay and Queen Charlotte that “helped ensure that Britain would dominate New Zealand’s subsequent history.”[1]


ii.  Settlement and Conflict

In the 1790s, European whaling ships sailed through NZ waters and, by the 1800s and 1810s, European traders and missionaries were settling in the coastal regions of NZ. Samuel Marsden, a Sydney prison chaplain, preached NZ’s first sermon on Christmas Day 1814 (Turner 5). The Musket Wars – tribal wars in which Maori used European weapons – raged in the 1810s, 20s and 30s, and, by the time that peace was regained, at least 20,000 Maori had perished.[2] The founding document of NZ is the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed by British representatives and over 500 Maori chiefs in 1840 to establish British Sovereignty in this region. NZ was subsequently populated in three waves by British, Australian, and Scottish immigrants, much of the settlement of NZ being organized by the New Zealand Company. An influx of migrants to NZ occurred after gold was unearthed in 1861 in Otago, which is located in the South Island. The New Zealand Wars (hitherto called the Maori Wars or Land Wars) in the 1860s resulted in Maori land being confiscated in the New Zealand Settlements Act (1863). Colonial forces wanted more control of the predominately Maori North Island. By 1900, the Maori people had lost the majority of their lands. NZ became a dominion in 1907 and achieved more complete autonomy from Britain in 1947. NZ is now member of the Commonwealth of Nations, which mainly consists of former British colonies. 

Introduction: New Zealand English


i. History

New Zealand English (NZE), one of the younger varieties of English, is the product of this region’s particular colonial experience and history as an independent commonwealth nation. Immigration to NZ from Australia and different parts of Britain has had a significant bearing on the way NZE developed; this variety evidences the linguistic influences of both British English (BrE) and Australian English (AusE). Linguists reference the ‘melting pot’ theory when explaining how NZE emerged. Essentially, “a new dialect arises when speakers of various dialects of English are thrown together, as in these colonial situations” (Gordon et al 76). NZE or ‘New Zild’ is generally thought to have emerged in its present form as late as the 1940s. However, the process of linguistic change began earlier, spoken English in NZ having undergone great change in the nineteenth century.  New Zild – a very recent documentary on NZE, which aired on May 16, 2005 on NZ television – drew on the work of NZ linguists and put forth a theory about the origins of NZE:


It was in Arrowtown – heart of the 19th-century gold-fields – that our own distinctive accent was born […] the new accent was probably emerging everywhere – it just happened faster in the English-speaking crucible of the gold-fields. And it happened first among women and the poor.[3]


ii. Heterogeneity and New Zealand English

In NZ’s population, different varieties of NZE have emerged, and determinants like geography, ethnicity, education and general social standing have influenced linguistic variation within the country. Linguists interested in the impact of socio-economics on speech have loosely divided NZE accents into three groups—cultivated (the accent of privileged New Zealanders), general (middle-class) and broad (lower classes). In the introduction to The New Zealand Dictionary (1995), Elizabeth and Harry Orsman identify that another major classification of NZE accents is based on ethnicity: Maori (New Zealanders descended from the original Polynesian settlers) and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent).


Geography and Language


i. North Island and South Island

The internal geography of NZ, as in most nations, has had a profound impact upon language distribution and linguistic variation. There are several notable instances in which geography and language demographics are interrelated in NZ. The Maori population is most concentrated in the northern half of the North Island. Understandably, this region is linguistically distinct from the South Island, sometimes called the Mainland, and from Southland (the southernmost region of South Island) in particular (Bauer 42). South Island historically has been more Pakeha than North Island. Some words are pronounced differently in South Island; for example, departure from Maori pronunciation of place names is more common in the South Island than in the North, though more of South Island’s place names are English (Turner 197). Maori English/ Maori-accented English, a variety of NZE primarily spoken by men and women who identify themselves as ethnically Maori, is unsurprisingly much more prevalent in North Island. 

Despite differences like these, “with one or two well-known exceptions such as the rhotic accent of parts of Southland… the English [in NZ] is more noted for its uniformity than for its regional dialects” (Bauer 41). Immigration to areas of NZ from particular regions of Britain has not generally resulted in regional variation in NZE. There are noteworthy exceptions to this general trend, however. Where Scottish settlers have most densely populated areas of NZ in Southland and Otago (southern region of the South Island adjacent to Southland), traces of the original linguistic variant remain (Bauer 41). Moreover, Auckland is an unusual city in relation to the rest of “monoglot” NZ, being home to a large population of Asian and Pacific Island Polynesian settlers who maintain contact with their homelands (Kuiper and Bell 12). 


New Zealand Language Demographics

According to the latest census taken by Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa in 2006, NZ has a population of 4.098 million. The 2006 census data indicates that 14.6% (565,329) of New Zealanders identify themselves as belonging to the Maori ethnic group. The language of the Maori, Te Reo Maori, is, after English, the language most frequently used by New Zealanders. It is spoken by 4.1% of the population and, 23.7% of Maori New Zealanders.  NZ is one of the most monolingual countries in the world, however. According to the 2006 census data, 80.5% of New Zealanders speak only one language. Nonetheless, Kuiper and Bell recognize other linguistic communities in NZ, namely the considerable Polynesian population in Auckland, which has become the largest Polynesian city in the world (Kuiper and Bell 14). Asian immigrants, who have been moving to NZ since the 1980s, and Pacific Island Polynesian settlers, who have been relocating to NZ since the 1950s, are “the only two groupings of immigrants [who] still speak their languages extensively out of the home domain” (Kuiper and Bell 12). The 2006 census indicates that there are 265,974 people in NZ who identify themselves as Pacific peoples and 354,552 who identify themselves as Asian (twice as many as in 1996).


Te Reo Maori: Decline and Revival


i. Initial Prestige

When Maoris outnumbered the early European settlers, Te Reo Maori possessed more prestige than in later colonial NZ society, and it was the language in which the missionaries taught until the 1850s (Bell 67). During this initial period of cultural contact, a number of settlers learnt the Maori language; hence, this was the time in which the most Maori words entered the English lexicon. The oral culture of Maori was transformed by the technology of writing, which was taught by the English and French missions. An orthography of Maori was created by the early 1800s and “by the 1840s there were proportionally more Maori literate in Maori than English people in New Zealand” (Benton 12).




ii. Decline

The Maori language began to decline as the population of European settlers dramatically increased and that of the Maori decreased due to regional conflicts (namely the Musket Wars) and infections diseases for which Maori had no immunity (i.e. measles). The Maori population fell from 86,000 in 1769 to 42,000 in 1896 (Belich 27). As a result of the declining native population, Maori was displaced by English, the language of the country’s colonial administrators. Bell notes that “in 1840 English was the minority language, but within a few decades it was the majority language and Maori was stigmatized” (67). Racist attitudes toward Maori culture and utilitarian arguments resulted in Te Reo Maori’s historical status as a “second class” language. The imperial language was actively promoted by Pakeha and some Maori, English being perceived as the language most useful in terms of the political and economic situation of colonial NZ. Hence, with English instruction beginning in native schools in 1867, by 1903 all use of Maori was officially discouraged, Maori children often being punished for using their mother tongue in the classroom (Bell 67). The decline in the use of spoken Maori was exacerbated in the late twentieth century as a large number of Maori, hitherto residing mainly in rural areas, began to relocate to urban centres, where individuals became disconnected from traditional Maori culture. 


ii. Revival

The late twentieth century saw Maori actively opposing their marginalized status and fighting against the decline of their language.  The 1960s were “a period of political and cultural protest” (Long and Ihimaera 3). Sit-ins, petitions, and protests by groups like the Ngā Tamatoa (the young warriors) resulted in Maori eventually being declared one of the three official langauges of NZ in an Act of Parliament in 1987 (the others being English and New Zealand Sign Language). In response to pressure by the Maori people, programs to maintain the Maori language, including pre-school immersion, began to be supported by the NZ government.  In 1982 the kohanga reo (‘language nest’) program, whereby Maori children were taught in Te Reo Maori and steeped in Maori culture, was inaugurated. Nonetheless, in the general population, there has been ambivalence regarding the teaching of the Maori language in NZ schools. Some Pakeha have been antagonistic towards Maori immersion because of the “prevailing myth that New Zealanders are one people and that Maori have an equal chance of success in mainstream education” (Hollins 58). Therefore “many Pakeha believe that the Maori language should be allowed to die its natural death… since English dominates social, economic, political and cultural life in New Zealand” (Hollings 58).  Though Maori can now be utilized in legal proceedings, Koenraad Kuiper and Allan Bell observe that “the indigenous language Maori is seldom spoken in general public communication, despite major revitalization initiatives since the 1980s” (12). Bell in “The Politics of English in New Zealand” cautions:


Maori is following the sad, common pattern of indigenous languages around the world…Languages do not die natural deaths. They do not fade away without outside influence. Languages are killed by other languages. In Aotearoa we face the possibility of linguicide of the Maori language by English (67). 



New Zealand English in the World

Gordon and Deverson remark that “during the twentieth century NZE has evolved from a non-standard colonial form of the language, very new and much maligned, into a legitimate and maturing national variety of English” (107). This process occurred earlier in Australia, and, hence, by the end of the twentieth century, NZE took centre stage both inside and outside NZ. Extensive work on English in NZ, particularly by Kiwi scholars, has resulted in the study of NZE being recognized as a complex and important sociolinguistic field by the international academic community. Since the 1960s linguists have probed the complexities of linguistic diversity within NZ and exhaustively catalogued the differences between NZE and Received Pronunciation (Britain’s acrolect or prestige dialect), Australian English, and North American English. In “ ‘No-one Sounds like Us?: A Comparison of New Zealand and Other Southern Hemisphere Englishes”, for example, W.Scott Alan and Donna Starks highlight the linguistic similarities between the English spoken in three former British colonies: New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, Their study concluded that there is “clear evidence for a southern hemisphere English” (83). The local prestige of RP and the proximity of Australia have obviously spurred the dialect comparisons that have been made by scholars.


i.  NZE and British English


a. Phonology

It has been noted by linguists that NZE is actually closer to RP, the prestige model of British English, than the English of neighbouring Australia. The cultivated NZ accent is the closest to RP, while the broad NZ accent displays the most variation from RP. Though the phonology of NZE differs in many ways from RP, similarities between the two varieties abound. The correspondence between NZE and British dialects from the south-east of English is understandable considering the immigration patterns in NZ history. Immigration from the south-east of England was vigorous, as 46.7% of the NZ Company settlers from 1839-50 were from London and the south-east of England (Gordon et al. 249).  Another period of intense immigration from England occurred during the 1870s and consequently, the NZ population doubled from 1870-1880. It has been determined that “the number of sound changes which had the effect of increasing the south-east-of-England appearance of NZE appear to intensify greatly at precisely this period of the 1870s’ wave of immigration from England” (Gordon et al. 249).


b. Lexicon

 The NZ lexicon also bears evidence of a direct British influence. New Zealanders use many of the same lexemes as the British, including autumn, fortnight, footpath and chemist, as opposed to American equivalents--fall, two weeks, sidewalk, and drugstore (Gordon and Deverson 115). As well, some lexemes in NZE are actually British words that are now considered archaic. These words, arriving in NZ in the nineteenth century with immigration from Britain, continue to be used in NZ while they disappeared from the vocabulary of British men and women. The New Zealandism larrikin, a “high spirited young person, usually male, whose behaviour occasionally—but not always—verges on social irresponsibility” exemplifies this phenomenon (Cryer 124). This word, used in some parts of Britain in the nineteenth-century, is still heard in NZ, though it eventually petered out in the mother country. Many contrasts between NZE and BrE can be attributed to ‘dialect survival’, the adoption into general Australasian use of words from various non-standard regional dialects in Britain” (Orsman and Orsman xxiii).


i. NZE and Australian English

Alternately, linguists and laypeople alike have stressed the similarities between AusE and NZE. NZE has even been jokingly referred to as “Australian Lite.”  Until NZE was considered as more than simply “English transported” or a form of AusE, “New Zealand was lumped together with AusE in descriptions which were essentially based on AusE only” (Hundt 5).  Hundt notes that it was not until the 1994 edition of Trudgill and Hannah’s International English that the label AusNZEng was dropped from the text. 


a. Phonology.

Gordon in “The Development of Spoken English in New Zealand” observes that “a broad NZ accent is still linked to Australian speech” (25). Studies (i.e. several conducted by Bayard) have shown that travelling New Zealanders are often erroneously identified as Australians. Moreover, Australian speakers are frequently misidentified as NZ accents by New Zealanders themselves.  These findings are not overly surprising, considering the phonological similarities between NZE and AusE. These similarities can be attributed to Australia’s direct influence on NZE or to the common origins of NZE and AusE. Gordon goes so far as to assert that NZE is “in its origins […] a dialect of Australian English” (21). The Australian accent, which emerged in the first couple of decades of the nineteenth century, is older than that of NZ. As the influence of the Australian accent on the NZ accent is an accepted fact, the origins of the former variety of English must be considered. Many of the convicts in the prison settlement of Australia were from the London area, and more specifically the East End of London. It is through the indirect influence of the Australian accent that Cockney English – a dialect used by working class Londoners – influenced NZE.  New Zealanders and Australians sounded even more similar in the nineteenth century, when New Zealanders spoke in what could be termed the  “Australasian accent” (Orsman and Orsman x). 


b. Lexicon

There is significant overlap in the lexis of NZE and AusE. Words used in both Australia and NZ are sometimes termed “Australasians.” As Australia was colonized earlier than NZ, “the majority of Australasian terms were current in Australia first, spreading from the older to the younger colony in the nineteenth century especially, when Australian influence was at its height” (Gordon and Deverson 57). The “Australian connection” can be observed in the colloquialisms and in specific farming lexemes and other vocational terms (Orsman and Orsman xxi). Some Australasians that came to NZ from Australia include dinkum (real, genuine) and skite (brag, boast). Lately, this process has been reversed, with words and phrases like “boots and all” travelling to Australia from NZ. These transmissions are logical considering that NZ’s history is closely tied to that of neighbouring former British colony, Australia. Strong economic and social ties have confirmed tangible linguistic ties. It has been noted that “the base or foundation of New Zealand English is the English brought to this country from or via Australia in the early 1800s by the first traders and settlers in the far north” (Gordon and Deverson 29).


The Influence of Te Reo Maori:

Variations between NZE and BrE are the product of not only the influence of Australia and the physical separation of New Zealanders from English speakers in Great Britain but from contact with speakers of Te Reo Maori. The new environment of NZ necessitated the processes of word-formation and word-borrowing. Consequently, most of the differences between BrE and NZE are lexical. Through the process of language borrowing, Teo Reo Maori influenced the formation of NZE, contributing in marked ways to its distinctive lexicon. NZE, studied most intensely by linguists in recent decades, is replete with words taken from Te Reo Maori’s lexicon. This process has not ended as it has been observed that the use of Maori lexemes, especially in the North Island, is on the rise.  John Macalister’s A Dictionary of Maori Words in New Zealand English catalogues the Maori-derived words that are unique to this geographic region.  Some of these words include native birds: (kākāpō; kea; kiwi; kōkako; moa; pūkeko; takahē; tūī; weka); plants: (kahikatea; kānuka; kauri; kūmara; mānuka; mataī; matakoura (known as “matagouri”); rimu; toetoe; tōtara; and tutu) and fish: (Tarakihi; Hapuku)[4]. Of the 0.9% of NZE that consists of Maori words, many of these are the place names. Wanganui (previously Whanganui from Maori whanga ‘harbour’ and nui ‘large’) is the largest city with a Maori name.  Other cities with Maori names include Timaru, Takapuna, Rotorua and Whangarei. Maori names are generally used for smaller places, and Turner notes that “Maori names are always thought appropriate to lakes, rivers and natural scenery generally” (Turner 195). Though many Maori proper names were anglicised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, efforts have been made in the last few decades to pronounce these words correctly to demonstrate a greater respect for the Maori people and their language.


The Phonology and Grammar of New Zealand English


i. Phonology


a. Vowels

In NZE, the DRESS, KIT and TRAP vowels have been raised (AusE has raised all short front vowels). For example, the DRESS vowel (short e) has been raised, making ‘dress’ sound like ‘driss.’ It is helpful to consider the vowel sounds of NZE in relation to those of other national varieties of English. Some notable examples are: the ‘I’ in NZE, like in South African English, is flattened. As well, vowels in NZE by and large sound ‘more clipped’ than in Australian English. Though the similarities and differences between NZE and AusE and NZE and SAfE have been considered, NZE is most often compared against RP. Linguists have noted that vowels in NZE are generally pronounced higher in the mouth than in British English. The ‘long a’ (i.e. card) is a front vowel in NZE and a back vowel (produced in the back of the mouth) in RP. The diphthongs in bait, bit, boy, boat and bout are vocalized with a higher or more close vowel position, making ‘bait’ sound like ‘bite’.  It has been reiterated in many sources that a vowel shift has taken place in NZE, distinguishing this variety in a fairly systematic way from Britain’s acrolect. When one vowel sound shifts the others followed. ‘Pan’ is pronounced like ‘pen’ in and ‘pen’ therefore sounds like ‘pin’. Consequently, ‘pin’ is pronounced ‘pun’. The most popular example of this is ‘fish and chips,’ which to non-New Zealanders, sounds like ‘fush and chups.’[5]  The air/ear merger (New Zealanders’ ‘air’ sounds like ‘ear’) is a linguistic phonemonon that has been studied by many linguists, including Janet Holmes. Holmes in “Three Chairs for New Zealand English: The Ear/Air Merger” suggests that the ear/air merger has developed in the last forty years. To people ‘from away,’ as New Zealanders would say, bare/ beer, shear/share and chair/cheer are homonyms, creating some cause for confusion in certain situations. Despite this /eə/ and /Iə/ merger, New Zealanders obviously do not have problems understanding their compatriots.


b. Consonants

 The consonant system of NZE is phonologically identical to RP, though there are of course some exceptions (i.e. the consonant ‘l’ is pronounced differently in NZE, as the ‘l’ sound in a world like ‘milk’ is frequently replaced with a ‘w’ sound).  Another significant trend in NZE is the increasing use of t-glottling, the use of a glottal stop, as opposed to /t/ in words like might, lot, and hit. According to Holmes, young New Zealanders are using more glottal stops for final /t/ than older people.  As well, young women appear to be leading the spread of T-glottaling in NZE (16). 


ii. Grammar

The difficult question as to whether NZE possesses its own grammar, distinct from that of other Englishes, has been raised by Marianne Hundt, who published New Zealand English Grammar Fact or Fiction?: A Corpus-Based Study in Morphosyntactic Variation in 1998.  Hundt concludes that there are marked differences between the grammar used in Australasia and that in Britain and the United States, as NZE and AusE use more irregular verb forms. Nonetheless, she is obliged to conclude:

On the whole, the present study has only produced meagre evidence on differences between NZE and AusE. This suggests that the two Tasmanian cousins differ in terms of accent and vocabulary but are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to grammar. In view of the fairly recent struggles towards a separate linguistic identity in New Zealand this result may be rather unpopular (139).


Early Attitudes Towards NZE


Around the time of World War One, in which NZ soldiers were nicknamed ‘Kiwis,’ it became clear that NZE was moving further away from British English. This trend was a matter of concern to many New Zealanders, perhaps because they were still devouring British cultural productions and maintained economic and political ties to ‘the Homeland’. According to a study done as late as in 1947, “New Zealand literature was hardly being read at all among these New Zealand children” (Turner 68). RP was regarded as the linguistic model for New Zealanders until the break in NZ’s economic dependency on Britain in the early 1970s. Britain joining the European Common Market (now the EU) occasioned this breach. The forces of linguistic standardization in NZ were perhaps most energetic in the early twentieth century. In 1912 the Cohen Commission was established to investigate NZ education. NZE was referred to in report that came out of the commission as “this objectionable colonial dialect” (qtd in Gordon and Deverson 24). School inspectors found the NZ accent an unwelcome deviation from British English. Phonetic exercises were suggested to combat particular features of the NZ accent, upon which a moral judgement fell. Cohen harshly asserted that “the degradation of the spoken English in the Dominion is due mainly to carelessness, laziness, and slovenliness” (qtd in Gordon and Abell 27).


The Codification of NZE


i. Dismissive Studies of NZE

A distinctly pro-British sentiment among cultural commentators can be discerned during this period. Nonetheless, the conservative individuals objecting to NZE and simultaneously identifying particular lexical departures from RP actually put into motion the codification process. Professor Arnold Wall in New Zealand English: How it Should be Spoken (1938) earnestly criticized the ways in which NZE diverged from RP.  This book, conservative but definitely not anomalous, was explicitly “designed for use by residents in New Zealand who wish to speak ‘good’ English or ‘standard’ English as spoken by the ‘best’ people in the Old Land” (qtd in Gordon 21). He was careful to explain to his readers that his book was not a celebration of deviance and “not intended for those who wish to develop a new dialect of English for this country” (qtd in Gordon 21). Wall’s agenda, like that of other pundits during this time, was to check the ‘debasement’ of English by drawing attention to the “faults” of NZE. Rather ironically, work on how NZE was “wrong” inevitably advanced the project of determining how NZE was “unique,” and hence, valuable.


ii.  Serious Efforts at Codification

More objective studies followed Arnold Wall’s publications, as there was a growing interest (seen in Sidney Baker’s 1941 New Zealand Slang) in the important work of codifying NZE. Tony Deverson summarizes the efforts made in the late twentieth century to codify the NZE lexis. Deverson distinguishes between two types of lexicographical projects centred on NZE. He notes that “there have been a number of so-called ‘inclusive’ or general purpose dictionaries of NZE (Orsman 1979, 1989; Burchfield 1986b; Deverson; et al) in which the specifically local and wider international vocabularies are integrated in a single alphabetical list” (Deverson 25). The problem with these types of dictionaries is that they do not identify the lexemes that are unique to NZE.  More recently, there have been dictionaries that have focused on cataloguing a specifically Kiwi vocabulary. Notable examples of “the so-called ‘exclusive’ dictionary of New Zealandisms” include H.W. Orsman’s The Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles, which includes over 6,000 headwords.  There have also been several less scholarly collections of New Zealand’s colourful idioms or ‘Kiwisms’. Some of these include Lynn E. Grant and Gaylene A. Devlin’s In Other Words: A Dictionary of Expressions Used in New Zealand, Max Cryer’s Curious Kiwi Words, and David McGill’s Up the Boohai Shooting Pukakas: A Dictionary of Kiwi Slang.  More specific projects involving the codification of NZE have been undertaken in the last decade. John Macalister recently published A Dictionary of Maori Words in New Zealand English. In this he collects the numerous lexemes (oftentimes the names of flora and fauna of NZ) derived from the language of the Maori and used by the predominantly monolingistic English population. More general projects involving the codification of NZE as a homogeneous variety have subsequently led to endeavours to track the variations within NZE. For example, linguists have begun compiling the characteristics of the mode of English spoken by the Maori population in NZ.


Maori English


i. Maori English?

The influence of the Maori language on standard NZE is discernible, albeit somewhat superficial (as the impact of the language of the colonized on the language of the colonizers tends to be). Te Reo Maori more noticeably permeates the variety of NZE spoken by the Maori population, however. Maori English, for instance, borrows more lexemes from Te Reo Maori than NZE as a whole. Linguists like Allan Bell and Janet Holmes come to the conclusion that “Maori English is less likely to be identified through features unique to it than through more or less frequent occurrence of features shared with Pakeha English” (Bell and Holmes 8). A heated debate has arisen as to the existence of Maori English as an actual variety of English, as opposed to a style of English—possessing only superficial lexical, phonological and syntactical differences. Though some linguists (an early example is Mitcalf in 1967) maintain that Maori English is a valid distinction, the opposing argument is that socioeconomic factors—rather than ethnicity—mainly determine the kind of NZE spoken (i.e. the broad NZ accent can often not be distinguished from the Maori accent). Yet there are some linguists who take both ethnicity and class into consideration, establishing that there are two varieties of Maori English: Maori I (or standard Maori English) spoken by middle-class Maori people and Maori II (Vernacular Maori English) spoken by Maori people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Richards first made this distinction in 1970). Nonetheless, some linguists point out that not all Maori speak Maori English and this variety is heard from some Pakeha speakers who live and work in close contact with Maori people. Though the label ‘Maori English’ has been debated in recent years by linguists in the larger field of NZE (Holmes and Bell 5), there is a consensus among linguists that more work has to be done on this variety of English. 


ii. Attitudes Towards Maori English

In the same way that Te Reo Maori and NZE were censured in nineteenth and early twentieth-century classrooms, Maori English also has a history of being disparaged and discouraged. Maori English” began as a pejorative term, used in the 1960s and early 1970s to describe the ‘incorrect’ brand of English being used by Maori New Zealanders. It was initially seen as a style of English that prevented Maori children from thriving in the educational system and Maori adults from securing economic prosperity. In 1971, Maori English was referred to by a Department of Education handbook for primary school teachers as “a very restricted form of the English language” (qtd in Gordon and Deverson 144). Yet, as vernacular Englishes became an important topic of debate both in and outside of NZ, attitudes towards Maori English began to soften and more sensitivity was officially shown towards ME speakers. By 1994, a very different viewpoint was expressed by NZ institutions. Teachers were reminded that “Maori-accented English is part of its speakers’ identity and must be treated with respect” (qtd in Gordon and Deverson 144). However, you still encounter views of Maori English as “bad English.”

iii. Characteristics of Maori English


a.  Phonology

NZE, like RP, is classified as non-rhotic. Nonetheless, linguists have noted that “the situation in NZE is complicated as both linking and intrusive /r/ are variable features” (Allan and Starks 55). For example, the post vocalic /r/ is more often found in Maori English than Pakeha English. W. Scott Allan and Donna Starks in “No One Sounds Like Us?” note other features of Maori English, including the deapsiration of /t/. In one study it was found that “the Maori contributors use the unaspirated [t] more than seven times as often as the Pakeha,” plausibly explained by the fact that “the Maori language is traditionally characterised by unaspirated stops” (Holmes. ‘Using Maori.’ 95). Also observed is /z/ devoicing or the merger of /z/ with /s/ (57). A totally devoiced variant [s] is used almost four times as much by Maori as by Pakeha. More generally, Maori English has a more forward pronunciation of back vowels.


b.  Rhythm

Rhythm has been important in determining the existence of the dialect of Maori English. Bauer for instance, observed in 1995 that Maori English is more syllable-timed—the rhythm units are syllables—than other forms of NZE, though NZE in general is more syllable-timed than RP (Warren and Britain 151).  Maori school children were found by Benton to use a full vowel rather than a reduced vowel, creating what he described as “a jerky rhythm.” Essentially, “the unstressed syllables are not skipped over as is normal in English Speech” (Benton 15). On “home gardens,” for example, the children would place the primary stress on secondarily stressed syllables.  One possible explanation for this can be found by examining Te Reo Maori, which has been acknowledged as a mora-timed language, a mora being a unit of time similar to a short syllable. Consequently, it “might be expected to exhibit a timing pattern that is more like syllable—than stress-timing, with less variation in syllable length” (Warren and Britain 50-1).


 c. The High Rising Terminal

Elizabeth and Harry Orsman in their introduction to The New Zealand Dictionary note the HRT as a feature of NZE. The “High Rising Terminal” (HRT), is the use of a rising intonation in sentences that are statements. To outsiders these phrases sound like questions. Scott Allan, in a paper entitled “The Rise of New Zealand Intonation,” examines in great detail this feature of NZE, “the rising intonation at the end of a declarative clause” (Holmes and Bell 8). Allan’s subjects are all female, and all from the same age group and socio-economic background. However, he draws from the two main ethnic groups in NZ—Maori and Pakeha. His results can be read as evidence for the existence of Maori English. Allan determines that “Maori women use HRTs more frequently than their Pakeha counterparts by a factor of 1.8, i.e. if a Pakeha uses 10 HRTs then her Maori counterpart  is likely to use 18” (119).  Its function is primarily interactive, serving to casually engage the listener’s interest and establish “conversational solidarity” (Warren and Brittain 167). The HRT works like an  eh? in Canadian English.  HRT is part of the ‘creation of involvement,’ a co-operative process of communication found in oral cultures. This aspect of informal discourse, observed among Maori men and women, is common among other Pacific cultures. Paul Warren and David Britain indicate that this linguistic characteristic is reflective of the Maori worldview, as “such societies appear to share a more socio-centric perception of self than most Western cultures with greater emphasis placed on interpersonal rather than individualistic constructions of personality and identity” (166).


v. Functions of Maori English

Jenette King in “Talking Bro: Maori English in the University Setting” expands our understanding of the functions of Maori English. She catalogues these functions into four groups: “whanaungatanga (creating family), awhi (group support), and manaaki tangata (hospitality) as well as cultural identity” (King 22). As an examination of HRT has shown, “Maori New Zealanders use English in ways that are compatible with Maori values, and in some cases reinforce ethnic boundaries” (110-111). The conversation strategies used by Maori subjects are different from those of their Pakeha counterparts. The results of a study done by Maria Subbe (1998) show that Maori subjects provided less conversational feedback (about 1/3 less) than Pakeha (Holmes 101). Unlike in western culture, “silence is interpreted positively, speakers are allowed to continue uninterrupted until they have finished… attentive silence is an important way of signalling listener interest in many contexts” (101-2). Janet Holmes in “Using Maori English in New Zealand” rightfully concludes that Maori English can be compared to “other varieties of English which express the ethnic identity of a minority group.” (92).


Moving Towards Acceptance: NZE, Maori, and Maori English


i. NZE in the Media

Running parallel to the “complaint tradition,” the vocal condemnation of the NZ accent, were concerted attempts in the media to convey information in English that was as close as possible to RP.  This foreshadows the way condemnatory views of Maori English as an incorrect, disagreeable mode of speech barred its presence in the media. The pro-British agenda regarding the standardization of pronunciation was spearheaded on “both functional and aesthetic grounds” (Gordon and Deverson 169). NZE, according to some cultural commentators, had a displeasing sound and could leave listeners confused (i.e. fares/fears are rising: the diphthong added to ‘fares’ makes it a homonym of ‘fears’). A preoccupation with using RP English in audio media is evidenced by The Pronunciation Guides for New Zealand Announcers. The editions from 1961, 1969, and 1982 are based on Daniel Jones’ Pronouncing Dictionary of RP (Deverson and Gordon 171). The changing content of NZ media serves as evidence of a movement towards acceptance of different ways of speaking and writing in NZ. Though thirty years ago radio announcers were RP-speaking, NZ voices are now consistently heard on NZ television and radio programmes. But most of the programmes are still from North America, Britain, or Australia however. Donn Bayard notes that only 19% of programmes on TVNZ are locally made, 20% of these being repeats (322). Thus in recent years, concerns have been voiced regarding the potential rise and influence of a second acrolect—North American English—on NZE. As early as 1982 Bell asked the question: "will New Zealand English fall 'out of the British frying pan into the American fire'?" (qtd in Bayard 323).


ii. Maori in the Media

The changing relationship between English and Maori is reflected in the progressively more manifest place of Maori in broadcasting and the arts. Greater acceptance of NZE was followed by the heightened prominence of Te Reo Maori and Maori English in the media. By the mid 1960s, the Maori language was being treated with greater respect on Pakeha programs. Though, in the past, Maori names were frequently mispronounced, by the mid 1960s, broadcasting authorities mandated a correct pronunciation of Maori names. Notably, Radio Aotearoa was established in 1977, and, in 1980, a Maori television production unit was set up. In a report published by Te Puni Kokir Ministry of Maori Development, “The Health of the Maori Language in the Broadcasting Sector,” radio stations broadcast a total of 61, 000 hours in Maori in 2002. As well, 73% of Maori listen to Maori radio stations, which are required to broadcast at least 4 hours a day in Maori. There are many genres of Maori programs—news, sports, drama, etc. Thus, the report concludes that “Maori radio and television are seen as important mediums for increasing Maori language knowledge and use.”[6] 


ii. Maori, Maori English and the Arts

Forms of high culture also began to highlight the Maori’s presence, hitherto less visible, in NZ society. The first wave of the “renaissance” of Maori verse occurred in the late 1960s. During this period, a concerted effort was being made by Maori and Pakeha scholars to transcribe and translate the traditional Maori songs and poems that make up the oral tradition of Maori literature. Jane McRae notes that “from the 1960s a new lease on life was given to the publishing of Maori language texts through the work of scholars in the Maori Studies departments of New Zealand universities” (17).  In the arts, a Maori and South Pacific Arts Council was established in 1978 (Ihimaera and Long 3). In terms of language and literature, something important was happening in Maori writing: bilingual texts. Maori authors were increasingly indulging in code-mixing, the “blending English with another language,” and were being read by both Maori and Pakeha readers (Jenkins 15). Powhiri Wharemarama in “Margin or Centre? ‘Let me Tell you! In the Land of my Ancestors I am the Centre’: Indigenous Writing in Aotearoa” discusses the significance of code-mixing:


More often than not, Maori words and phrases, often without translations for monolingual Anglophones, are used, and stand for the latent presence of Maori culture. The reader is then forced into an active engagement with another culture in which these words/term have meaning. (155).


As “the inclusion of Maori language emphasizes the coexistence of that language with English, as a living language,” this kind of literature presented a new ideal for language ecology in NZ, one in which different languages and dialects could enhance

rather than warring to supplant each other (Wharemarama 155).        






            Through the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, New Zealanders have grown to see their unique variety of English with fervent interest and increasing respect. NZE has indeed become an integral aspect of national identity, distinguishing Kiwis—both Pakeha and Maori—from their Australian neighbours and from English speakers throughout the world. G.W. Turner explains that “New Zealanders, like Canadians, define themselves negatively, explaining in England that they are not Australians and in Australia trying not to feel rather English” (Turner 21). Despite NZE’s debt to both BrE and AusE, New Zealanders—as linguists have proven—do not speak like anyone else. Language is vital to self-identification within New Zealand as well. NZE’s movement from derision to acceptance has been repeated with Te Reo Maori and with Maori English. Though the Maori language experienced a substantial decline in the nineteenth century and in first half of the twentieth century, educators, linguists and writers have contributed to Te Reo Maori’s renewal. Maori’s formal recognition by the NZ government was accompanied by programs that aimed to increase the number of Maori speakers and by a more prominent place in the arts and in the media. You can now listen to the news in Maori, read bilingual government documents, and peruse one of several anthologies of Maori verse; you can even download a program to spell-check your Maori prose. While Maori culture is enjoying greater visibility in NZ and the rest of the world, presented in films like Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), Te Reo Maori and Maori English are also receiving more attention in academic circles. Like NZE and Te Reo Maori, Maori English, is undergoing the process of becoming recognized as a valid linguistic variation and acknowledged as an important element of Maori ethnic identity.




























List of Works Cited




Belich, James. Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, from Polynesian

Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Auckland: Penguin Press, 1996.


Bell, Allan and Janet Holmes (eds.) New Zealand Ways of Speaking English.

Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1990.


Gordon, Elizabeth, Lyle Campell, Jennifer Hay, et al. (eds) New Zealand

English: Its Origins and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 2004.


Gordon, Elizabeth and Tony Deverson New Zealand English and English in New

Zealand. Auckland: New House Publishers Ltd, 1998.


Hundt, Marianne. New Zealand English Grammar Fact or Fiction?: A Corpus-Based

Study in Morphosyntactic Variation. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 1998


Ihimaera, Witi Tame and D.S. Long. Into the World of Light: An Anthology of Maori

Writing. Auckland: Heinemann, 1982. Auckland, New Zealand : Heinemann, 1982.


McGregor, Graham and Mark Williams (eds.).  Dirty Silence: Aspects of

Language and Literature in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Orsman, Elizabeth and Harry Orsman. The New Zealand Dictionary. Auckland: New

House Publishers Ltd, 1995.



Turner, G.W. The English Language in Australia and New Zealand. London: Longmans,




Chapters and Articles


Allan, W. Scott and Donna Starks. “ ‘No-one sounds like us?’: A comparison of New

Zealand and other southern hemisphere Englishes. New Zealand English.  (eds. Kuiper, Koenraad and Allan Bell).Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000. 53-82.


Bayard, Donn. “The Cultural Cringe Revisited: Changes Through Time in Kiwi Attitudes

Towards Accents. ” New Zealand English. Wellington: Victoria University Press,



Bell, Allan. “The Politics of English in New Zealand.” Dirty Silence: Aspects of

Language  and Literature in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press,



Bauer, Laurie. “The Dialectical Origins of New Zealand English”


Benton, Richard. “The History and Development of the Maori Language.” Dirty Silence:

Aspects of Language  and Literature in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford

University Press, 1991.19-28.


Gordon, Elizabeth. “The Development of Spoken English in New Zealand.”  Dirty

Silence: Aspects of Language and Literature in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford

University Press, 1991.


Gordon, Elizabeth and Marcia Abell. “ ‘This objectionable colonial dialect’: historical

and contemporary attidudes to New Zealand Speech.” New Zealand Ways of Speaking English. (Bell, Allan and Janet Holmes eds.) Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1990.


Hollings, Michael. “The Politics of Education in Maori.” Dirty Silence: Aspects of

Language and Literature in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Holmes, Janet. “Three Chairs for New Zealand English: The Ear/Air Merger” English

Today: The International Review of the English Language, vol. 11, no. 3 [43], Summer (1995). 14-18.


Holmes, Janet. “Using Maori English in New Zealand.”  Int’l J. Soc. Lang. 172 (2005)



King, Jeanette. “Talking Bro: Maori English in the University Setting”. Te Reo: Journal

of the Linguistic Society of New Zealand, vol. 42, (1999) 20-38.


Kuiper, Koenraad and Allan Bell. “New Zealand and New Zealand English.” New

Zealand English. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000.


McRae, Jane. “Maori Literature: A Survey”. The Oxford History of New

Zealand Literature (ed. Terry Sturm). Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1998.


Warren, Paul and David Britain. “Intonation and Prosody in New Zealand English.” New

Zealand English. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000. 146-172.


Wharemarama, Powhiri.  Margin or Centre? ‘Let me Tell you! In the Land of my

Ancestors I am the Centre’: Indigenous Writing in Aotearoa” English Postcoloniality : Literatures from Around the World. (Ed. Radhika Mohanram). Portsmouth:  Greenwood Press, 1996.




Welch, Denis. “Watch your language.” New Zealand Listener. May 21-27 2005 Vol 198.    No3393 http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3393/features/4034/watch_your_language.html. December 12, 2006.

“The Health of the Maori Language in the Broadcasting  Sector.” The Health of the Maori Language in the Broadcasting  Sector.”  www.tpt.govt.nz/publications/docs/broadcasting_2004.pdf.  December 12, 2006.

Answers.com.Māori influence on New Zealand English.” http://www.answers.com/topic/m-ori-influence-on-new-zealand-english. December 10,2006.

Statistics New Zealand Tatauranga Aotearoa. http://www.stats.govt.nz/census/2006-census-data/default.htm. December 12, 2006.

“Nineteenth-Century Wars.” New Zealand’s History Online nga korero nehe a ipurangi o Aotearoa. www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/19centurywars. December 10, 2006.


[1] http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/european-explorers

[2] www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/19centurywars

[3] http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3393/features/4034/watch_your_language.html

[4] http://www.answers.com/topic/m-ori-influence-on-new-zealand-english

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_English#Front_vowels_and_the_flattened_.27i.27

[6] www.tpt.govt.nz/publications/docs/broadcasting_2004.pdf