New Zealand English: “not an accent; it is a disease.”

This is a post in the Language in the news series. See more.

“The New Zealand accent itself was responsible for ‘minor throat and nasal disorders’  (The Triad 10/8/1910: 37). In other words the New Zealand accent was so bad that it could make you ill.”

TriadThis quotation is from a lecture given in 2010 by Elizabeth Gordon, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Canterbury. In it we can see a view of the New Zealand accent which is not exactly positive. This is not a claim by Elizabeth Gordon, of course, but was made in 1910 in The Triad, a magazine published in New Zealand from 1892 to 1919 (see here).

When you see that the claim was made in 1910, perhaps it won’t seem quite so surprising. Surely things have changed now?

On 17th January 2013 – more than a century later – Lindsay Perigo, writing in Stuff Nation wrote:

“Theirs is not an accent; it is a disease.”

By ‘theirs’, at least according to the article, Perigo means the accent of New Zealand news readers.

He also says:

“An army of airheads has been let loose on the airwaves who have no business being anywhere near a microphone sounding the way they do. They don’t speak, they quack.”

“The newsreaders’ quacking, droning, grunting and mumbling are our worst form of noise pollution.”

These views clearly haven’t disappeared in the last 100 years. Perigo’s article highlights what linguists call ‘language myths’ – beliefs that are widely held but which have little foundation in linguistic fact.

In this post, I’ll comment on two language myths which very regularly appear in the media:

1. It’s just not proper English!

People believe that there is just one form of ‘proper English’, a ‘gold standard’ that everyone should use. In this view, any form of language which does not meet this standard is, by definition, inferior. People who do not use this ‘gold standard’ are seen as uneducated, not having learned how to ‘talk properly’. Perigo writes:

“The quacking epidemic spawned by TVNZ and TV3 is now a national plague and an international joke, an unseemly blight on a nation claiming to be civilised.”

“A New Zealand in which quacking is as universal as it’s threatening to become will intellectually bankrupt us. Its democracy will be a travesty of freedom as vapid voters who routinely quack inanities such as “Yeah, no, I’m like, oh my god, that’s so totally awesome” will thus mindlessly endorse the most unconscionable bribes offered by the most unscrupulous politicians.”

 “No, one is not demanding they speak like the Queen, but is it too much to ask that they sound like educated adults?”

But what counts as ‘proper English’? People often have very strong views about this, but it’s a question with a complex set of answers. Sometimes, a belief about what counts as ‘proper English’ will come from a ‘rule’ learned at school, such as ‘Do not split your infinitives’. This refers to phrases like ‘to quickly run’ or ‘to boldly go’, which many people argue are ‘grammatically incorrect’. The belief probably comes from the fact that in languages like Latin (which was used as a basis for grammar teaching in schools) it was impossible to split the infinitive because it was a single word. In English it’s a little different, since the infinitive form in the examples above is ‘to run’ and ‘to go’, which of course can be ‘split’. English is not Latin, so we shouldn’t really expect it to behave in the same way.

Sometimes ‘proper English’ is equated with ‘formal English’. For example, when we think about spoken language, we often think that the ‘best’ form of speech is the form that most closely resembles writing. So we might admire the delivery of a political speech because the speaker ‘talks properly’, but we should remember that this speech has been very carefully prepared, written down, edited, practised  and performed. This is not the case with the language most of us use most of the time, which is much more informal and prepared on the fly. Usually, spoken language is very different from written language, but in both we can change our style from a more formal to a more informal one. Lindsay Perigo comments negatively on the style of New Zealand news readers, but work by Professor Allan Bell (AUT) has shown that newsreaders in NZ have very good control over their language style and can subtly alter it depending on their perceived audience. Bell showed that the same newsreader, reading about the same news topic but on different radio stations, uses different amounts of t-flapping (e.g. pronouncing ‘better’ as ‘bedder’). He argued that news reporters were aware of their audience, and tailored their language to the people they imagined they were talking to. Far from being ‘sloppy’, these speakers have a very nuanced feel for how their language works.

Sometimes people think that ‘proper English’ means the English spoken by the upper classes, because they are educated. It’s better to think of it slightly differently. It is not the case that the upper classes speaker ‘proper English’ because they are more educated – it’s the other way around. Often the reason we think a dialect of English is ‘proper’ is because it is spoken by those in power, which usually means the upper classes. There is nothing about the dialect itself which makes it ‘better’ or ‘more correct’ than any other dialect, but we think it is prestigious because we know people in the upper classes use it. How did this come about? When what we now call ‘standard English’ was codified in writing, the dialect that was chosen was the dialect spoken in the south east of England. This dialect became the prestige dialect not because it had the best grammar or the most clearly spoken diction – but for social reasons. For one thing, it was the part of England where the power was based (in government, and at Cambridge and Oxford) so this made people think it was the ‘proper form’ of English. It also became the variety of English that made it into the bible and school textbooks, and this gave it more prestige.

Finally, sometimes people think that ‘proper English’ is something from a ‘golden age’. There was a time, people think, when speakers used language more correctly than people do today, that in days gone by people spoke more clearly than they do today, and that children, in particular, are illiterate compared to their peers of yesteryear.  Of course, this is not true. Every generation complains about the language of ‘the youth’, and has been doing for centuries. Despite the fact that levels of literacy has, in general, steadily risen over the years, people still believe that any deterioration they seen in language is down to the children. This brings me to the second language myth I want to comment on.

2. The young are to blame!

People who talk about a ‘gold standard’ often hark back to a ‘golden age’, where everything was better. “People were more intelligent in the golden age, they paid more attention, and were generally more careful about everything, including their language.” Anything that is different from that, in today’s not-so-golden age, is, by definition, worse. So, the language used by young people is seen as being somehow inferior to that of older people. We often hear that young people don’t know anything about grammar. A moment’s thought quickly reveals that this can’t be true. Without grammar, successful communication would be impossible. Young people may have aspects of their grammatical system which are different from their parents or grandparents, but just because they are different does not make them inferior.

To give an illustration, take the example ‘youse’. When I use this example in lectures, people in the audience cringe. They don’t like it. It’s “incorrect”, “sloppy”, and it “shows that people do not know the proper rules of English” they say.  But think about it for a second. Although many dialects of English do not have a separate plural form of ‘you’, so a sentence like ‘Can you hear me?’ could be directed at one person or many people, a number of dialects of English do have a plural form, such as ‘youse’, so that ‘Can you hear me?’ would directed at one person, and ‘Can youse hear me?’ would be directed at more than one person. This does not show that people who do this don’t know the grammatical rules. For one thing, people who use ‘you’ and ‘youse’ never get it “the wrong way round” – because the use of either one is governed by a grammar. It’s not ‘hit and ‘miss’ or ‘sloppy’, it is entirely rule-governed and systematic.

“But wait”, you might say! “Just because some dialects of English do it, doesn’t make it ‘proper’!” Right, but many other languages have a singular and plural form of the second person pronoun (e.g. French), and so make a distinction between the equivalent of ‘you’ and ‘youse’. Having a distinction is not viewed negatively in these languages.

“But wait”, you might say! “You said we should not expect English and Latin to behave in the same way, so just because this is OK in French doesn’t mean it’s OK in English!” Right, but, in fact, there used to be a distinction in English – e.g. during the Early Modern English period (15th-17th Century) – but it was eventually lost in some English dialects and and kept in others. People who say ‘you’ and ‘youse’ could claim to be harking back to a golden age, maintaining a distinction which was subsequently eroded by those ‘barbarians’ who started to speak Modern English.

But this isn’t the case – ‘youse’ is seen as the inferior form. Why? Because it is not used in the dialect of the upper classes, and is not codified as part of written English, so it has not gained the sort of prestige it would need to be seen positively.

So what features of Kiwi English are seen as inferior by Lindsay Perigo? There are lots, and I will just mention a few here. He writes:

“The locus of their emissions is not the mouth, but the nose”

This isn’t quite true. All speech – in any accent – starts in the lungs. It is true that the nose is involved when we make some sounds (e.g. the underlined sounds of ‘pan’, ‘ham’ and ‘sang’), but other sounds in New Zealand English, and in other accents of English, are produced with different parts of the mouth.

 “Their “yeah-no,” “you-know,” “like, like,” “awesome,” “cool,” “wodevva,” and so on are the bane of coherent conversation”

Linguists call these discourse features, because they’re not really related to pronunciation but to other aspects of the linguistic system. I can understand why people might get annoyed with ‘yeah-no’ – it seems contradictory. But speakers use language with a purpose. Harry Summerfield, a student on my LING310 New Zealand English course last year, examined ‘yeah-no’ in the University of Canterbury’s large database of New Zealand speech. We have recordings in the Linguistics Department of people born from the mid 1851 to the mid 1980s, so it’s possible to track how New Zealand English has developed over time. ‘Yeah-no’ has increased over time, but it serves a communicative purpose, as it’s often used to mean something like “yes I agree with you, and the answer is no”. So speakers are not being ‘sloppy’, here, but are doing something quite systematic.

People find the use of ‘like’ irritating in other varieties of English, too, not just New Zealand, and I’ve commented on that before (here). We know that ‘like’, too, is used in a very systematic way. Katie Drager, who did her PhD at Canterbury and is now assistant professor in sociolinguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, showed that New Zealand English speakers have distinct uses for ‘like’ and that they pronounce each type of ‘like’ slightly differently (so that e.g. “He was like ‘yeah’ and she was like ‘no’” would have a different pronunciation from “And, like, it was raining”). Again, this shows that this is a highly structured use of language, and not at all related to sloppiness.

“Their mangled vowels and muddied consonants make swine sound educated.”

The vowel system of New Zealand English is probably its most well-known feature. People often comment on words like “fish and chips”, and Perigo mentions the ““the sucks o’clock news”. Far from being “mangled”, though, the vowel system of New Zealand English is the result of a set of very systematic changes in the linguistic system. I won’t go into detail here (if you’re interested, come and take my LING101 linguistics course at Canterbury!), but basically we see the vowel in ‘pan’ change into the vowel in ‘pen’, and this made the vowel in ‘pen’ shift out of the way and become more like the vowel in ‘pin’, so that a contrast between ‘pan’ and ‘pen’ was maintained. But when ‘pen’ started to sound like ‘pin’, the vowel in ‘pin’ shifted, again to maintain contrast, and this final change is why ‘fish fishchipsand chips’ is sometimes written ‘fush and chups’. This set of changes – which linguists call a vowel shift – has been very important in linguistics as it shows us how languages change. One this is for certain, the vowel system of New Zealand English is not mangled, but is a very clearly structured system.


So does any of this matter?

I’ve spent some time (and used more words than I’d intended before I started!) writing about the views Lindsay Perigo puts forward. I’ve said they are based on language myths and not linguistic fact. But that doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t take views like these seriously. Perigo writes:

 “What does it matter, the barbarians’ cheerleaders will ask, as long as we get the gist of what they’re saying?”

This is not what I mean. I wouldn’t argue that standard English – the English that people see as ‘proper’ – doesn’t matter. But what is important is that we see it as a style – a linguistic repertoire which is more important in some social circumstances than in others. It is not more important because it is better, more complex or more educated than any other variety of English. But we must realise that society’s beliefs about it are strong – as Perigo demonstrates.

Also important, though, is that we should be very careful not to let our beliefs about language (based on myths, remember) impact upon our judgements about speakers. The Kiwi accent, or any other accent, is not a simple and straight-forward indication of a speaker’s intelligence or level of education. Understanding this becomes easier when we really understand how language works, and when we realise that every dialect is highly systematic and complex, and, in particular, that no dialect is ‘sloppier’ than any other.


About uclinguistics

Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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3 Responses to New Zealand English: “not an accent; it is a disease.”

  1. Pingback: It’s OK to be “posh”, but not too “posh”? More language myths | Linguistics @ Canterbury

  2. Pingback: The Timaru Herald listens to linguists… | Linguistics @ Canterbury

  3. Pingback: Welcome to the UC Open day | Linguistics @ Canterbury

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