Introduction to New Zealand English

Introduction to New Zealand English

The original inhabitants of New Zealand were the Māori who arrived by canoe over 1,000 years ago from the Eastern Pacific. In 1840, representatives of the British government and Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi which marks the beginning of European settlement in New Zealand.

The development of a new variety of English in New Zealand after 1840 is recent enough for us to be able to study how it happened. In the 1940s, recordings were made of old New Zealand-born people, some of whom were born as early as the 1850s. These recordings show that those born in the 1850s and 1860s had speech similar to their immigrant parents – they sound Scottish or Irish; however, for people born in the 1880s this was changing. Those who grew up in South Island towns sound similar to those born in North Island towns, irrespective of where their parents came from. We know that a distinctive New Zealand accent developed quickly and spread throughout the country over a period of 20-30 years.

At first, people said that New Zealand English was a transported version of London Cockney, but the main point of similarity seems to be that both varieties were very much disliked. Later, New Zealand English was said to have developed from Australian English; these varieties of English have strong similarities and there was constant interchange between the two countries with considerable borrowing of Australian vocabulary. However, fewer than 7% of the early settlers in New Zealand were born in Australia, and it seems unlikely that Australia was the main source for this new dialect.

A different explanation is that New Zealand English was developed within the country itself as the result of new dialect formation. When people come to a new country speaking different dialects, over time the dialectal variants will be levelled out so that a new variety emerges, particularly among children and the first generations born in the new country. When free compulsory education was introduced in 1877, children from different backgrounds came together at school; peer group pressure to assimilate could have contributed to the early formation of New Zealand English.

The form of New Zealand English was probably determined by patterns of settlement, with the dominant group having the main influence. In 1881 approximately 45% of the overseas-born came from England and the majority of these came from the South and the South East – areas in and around London. This could explain why New Zealand English is often considered a south-eastern variety of British English, though other dialect areas in the British Isles also contributed to the vocabulary. From Scotland, for example, comes the commonly heard wee for ‘little’: I’m feeling a wee bit sick; she has a wee boy.

Today New Zealand English is recognized as a distinct variety of English, but there is considerable variation across the country. In Southland, in the south of the South Island, there is a regional dialect influenced by the early Scottish settlers. People still pronounce /r/in words like bird, third, work, and person. Speakers are also more likely to maintain a distinction between w/hw in witch/which, and after needs and wants some Southlanders use a past participle: the baby needs fed; the cat wants stroked.

Another major variation is Māori English. Its most noticeable feature is its syllable-timed rhythm, using syllables of relatively equal length, unlike English which is stress-timed, with syllables differing markedly in length. In Auckland it is now common to hear Pacific Island New Zealand English which also has syllable timing.


Most of the vocabulary used in New Zealand is common to the English-speaking world with only about 5% being narrowly restricted to New Zealand English. True New Zealandisms include words which have their origin in New Zealand, such as:

  • Plunket, n.2 – the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, a volunteer agency (now also in receipt of government funding) formed in 1907 to provide antenatal and neonatal care in New Zealand; as a modifier, of or relating to society or the system of childcare advocated by it; esp. designating a person trained in or following this system, or a child reared according to its methods.

One of the things that makes the vocabulary of New Zealand English different from other varieties of English is its incorporation of words from Māori. The early settlers in New Zealand borrowed Māori names for unfamiliar things, especially flora and fauna and for natural and cultural features.

  • hāngī, n. (first attested 1828) – a Māori earth-oven in which food is placed on heated stones; food cooked in such an oven.
  • kai, n. (1840) – food, victuals.
  • kauri, n. (1823) – a tall coniferous tree of New Zealand (Agathis or Dammara australis), which furnishes valuable timber and a resin known as kauri-gum.
  • kiwi, n. (1835) – any of several dark brown or grey tailless, flightless, nocturnal ratite birds of the genus Apteryx, of New Zealand forest and scrub, having a long bill and hairlike feathers.
  • mana, n. (1843) – power, authority, or prestige; spec. (in Polynesian and Melanesian religions) an impersonal supernatural power which can be associated with people or with objects and which can be transmitted or inherited.
  • Māori, n. (1828) – the Polynesian language of the original people of New Zealand; a member or descendant of this people.
  • Pākehā, n. (1817) – a person who does not identify as Māori; spec. a New Zealander of European descent.
  • rimu, n. (1820) – a tall evergreen tree of New Zealand, Dacrydium cupressinum (family Podocarpaceae), also called red pine.
  • totara, n. (1832) – a large New Zealand coniferous tree, Podocarpus Totara, producing light, durable, tough timber of a dark red colour, highly valued for building, piles, cabinet work, etc.
  • tūī, n. (1832) – a New Zealand bird, Prosthematodera novæ-zelandiæ.
  • weka, n. (1845) – The native name for the flightless rails Ocydromus australis and O. brachypterus of New Zealand.

After 1860 there was a change in the relationship between Māori and Pākehā and for a hundred years almost no words from Māori entered the New Zealand English vocabulary. This changed after 1970 with the Māori renaissance and recently many new Māori words have come into New Zealand English. For some of these borrowings there is no direct English equivalent, such as:

  • kaitiakitanga, n. (1987)– guardianship or management, esp. of the natural resources of a place or area; environmental stewardship considered as a duty and responsibility of the inhabitants of an area. Also: the exercise of this.
  • kaumātua, n. (1835) – in Māori contexts: an elder; an old person.

Other words have English synonyms, such as:

  • iwi, n. (1843) a Māori community or people.
  • waka, n. (1807) – a Māori canoe.

However, in such cases the Māori words are always preferred. The Māori name for New Zealand itself is Aotearoa (‘land of the long white cloud’) and it is now used widely, often in the compound form Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Many New Zealand words are shared with Australia. Terms which were first used in Australia quickly moved to New Zealand, particularly colloquial terms, farming terms, and words from convict slang, such as:

  • dinkum, adj. (1905) – honest, above board; true; fair, just.
  • muster, v. (1813) – to collect together, round up (cattle, sheep, etc.) for counting, shearing, drafting, branding, etc.; to round up stock from (a place).
  • old hand, n. (1826) – a former convict; (also) a convict with long experience of life in a penal colony.
  • skite, v.2 (1857) – to brag, to boast.
  • station, n. (1820) – an extensive area of grazing land; a large cattle or sheep farm.
  • swag, n. (1853) – the bundle of personal belongings carried by a traveller in the bush, a tramp, or a miner.

The early settlers often used existing English words but applied them to different referents in New Zealand. Beech trees in New Zealand are not like English beech trees; the New Zealand robin is unlike the British robin. The word bush has been extended in meaning to include native forest.

Contact with the United States of America was strengthened in the Second World War and this led to the introduction of new vocabulary. American usages such as kerosene, muffler, stove, and truck can be heard in New Zealand rather than British paraffin, silencer, cooker, and lorry


New Zealand English is marked by its pronunciation and vocabulary. While some claim that New Zealand English and British English are grammatically identical, differences can be identified which are not categorical but rather a matter of frequency of usage.

For example, it is unlikely you will often hear the modal verb shall in New Zealand English. The preference is for will. A hundred years ago New Zealand speakers used will to express future events or intentions:

  • We will have a picnic on Saturday.

Today it would be much more common to hear:

  • We’re going to have a picnic on Saturday.

Have was once used chiefly to express possession:

  • I have new shoes.

Today New Zealanders would say:

  • I’ve got new shoes.

Within New Zealand English there is grammatical variation involving non-standard features; that is, verbs are irregularly conjugated. This is not unique to New Zealand but is the same as mainstream non-standard English heard in other varieties of English. It is associated with lower class speakers and can carry strong social stigma; verb forms affected include:

  • I seen it.
  • I come here yesterday.
  • I done it.
  • I rung the bell.

Non-standard New Zealand English has a second person plural pronoun yous:

  • What are yous doing tonight?

This is likely to have come from areas with strong Irish migration, and is becoming increasingly common, especially in Māori English.


View the OED’s pronunciation model and key to pronunciation for New Zealand English.

View the OED's New Zealand English resources

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