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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

New Zealand English

New Zealand English

Like other national and regional forms of English, the New Zealand variety is most distinctive in its oral rather than in its written and printed realisations. New Zealanders, just as Australians, South Africans and so on, are recognised above all by their speech, by features of accent inevitably present in every spoken New Zealand utterance.

The written form of English around the world is more uniform (apart from spelling variants) than the spoken form and has changed little since standard written English was established by 15th- and 16th-century printers and subsequently enshrined in the earliest English grammars and dictionaries.

A New Zealand scientific paper, company report or love poem, for example, may well contain no linguistic markers at all of its New Zealand origin or authorship. This is because the grammar of English (especially formal English) in New Zealand, including spelling, is virtually indistinguishable from that of British English. Such differences as do exist are matters of relative frequency of certain forms and constructions—greater preference in New Zealand for singular verbs with collective nouns like 'committee', for example—and are revealed only by detailed sociolinguistic analysis.

Thus no separate grammar of New Zealand English has yet been written, since grammars of British English have hitherto been considered adequate to describe (and prescribe) New Zealand usage also. This state of affairs was for the greater part of this century encouraged by educators and authorities (such as Professor Arnold Wall) who were highly critical of any deviation in New Zealand from British English linguistic models.

Where New Zealand English in print does differ from its equivalent elsewhere the major indicators of that difference are lexical, not grammatical. Lexis or vocabulary is the other level besides accent at which New Zealand English is distinctive, in both words and meanings. There are many words found only in New Zealand English ('marae', 'morepork'), while other words ('mainland', 'mufti') have acquired individual meanings here which are either additional to or substitutions for those used in general English. New Zealand words and meanings may or may not have specific reference to New Zealand itself ('mānuka' versus 'mocker' = 'clothes', 'gear'). Also, many are shared with Australian English ('mob' (of sheep etc.), 'mullock'), largely as a consequence of the common colonial experience of the two countries.

Unlike accent features which pervade all spoken discourse, lexical features are occasional, sporadic, and very much a product of subject and purpose. If the writing in question deals with specifically New Zealand themes and topics, the use of New Zealandisms is natural enough. We will expect vocabulary drawn from te reo Māori in writing on Māori subjects, New Zealand agricultural terms in farming publications, words relating to our distinctive social institutions and practices in political journalism, and so on. Proper names also play a significant part in identifying writing that originates in this country.

Literary artists wishing to represent the unselfconscious, colloquial speech of New Zealanders in print must also rely largely on lexical features. Critics sometimes claim to detect New Zealand 'accents' in novels and other fiction, but with occasional exceptions (usually comic and satiric) what is reproduced on the page—indeed all that can satisfactorily be reproduced—is New Zealand vocabulary and idiom. Slang often acquires a printed form in this way. The accent may be projected onto the text by the reader, but it is rarely indicated overtly.

Most New Zealand words and usages, like most new elements in all vocabularies everywhere, are initially coined or borrowed in the spoken language and only subsequently set down in writing. The earliest examples of this process here are traceable to the first English speakers to visit Aotearoa and their encounters with an unfamiliar natural environment and indigenous culture. Words borrowed from Māori, various compounds for flora and fauna, etc., first acquire a printed form in the works associated with Cook's voyages. More appear in the early 19th-century accounts of Savage, Nicholas and all subsequent travellers and colonists whose observations about this faraway land were written down and set before a fascinated British readership.

This New Zealand vocabulary was not at first part of New Zealand English, since that did not yet exist. It circulated at first (ephemerally) in Britain, but its longer-term survival was to be as part of a written New Zealand English that eventually developed (alongside a spoken New Zealand English) in the decades following 1840. The rapid development of a range of printed materials for a steadily growing colonial readership and use gave New Zealandisms, old and new, a permanent home. Some terms had (and have) a limited lifespan, but no word once printed is ever lost from the language entirely, and shortlived expressions are often significant markers of a particular historical era ('swaggie', 'six o'clock swill', 'Rogernomics').

By the end of the 19th century, the English vocabulary in Australia and New Zealand had assumed a sufficiently different character from that in Britain or North America to prompt the first lexicographical accounts of its distinctive usages. The Australian Edward Morris's Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages (1898), using dated citations in the style of the Oxford English Dictionary, was the first work to record at least some of the Māori words and other New Zealand forms found in 18th- and 19th-century publications. Also in 1898, a supplement of 700 Australian and New Zealand words prepared by Joshua Lake was published in an Australasian edition of the massive Webster's International Dictionary. After this initial flourish, Australasian lexicography virtually ground to a halt for nearly two-thirds of the 20th century. Dictionaries compiled in England, especially those of the Oxford 'family' including the Concise and Pocket Oxfords (first editions 1911 and 1924 respectively) became standard reference works in New Zealand also, though they contained almost no Australasian usage. The educational climate in particular did not encourage recognition of linguistic difference in New Zealand, though at least one school dictionary in the 1930s had a short supplement of Australian and New Zealand vocabulary.

One or two substantial specialist accounts of the local vocabulary also appeared, for example 'A sheep station glossary' by L.G.D. Acland (1933, reprinted in The Early Canterbury Runs, 1951), and Andersen's 'Maori words incorporated into the English language' (Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1946). Eric Partridge also gave some space to New Zealand expressions in his Slang Today and Yesterday (3rd ed. 1950).

Colloquialism and slang were felt to be the main (and therefore somewhat disreputable) way in which New Zealand usage was distinctive from English elsewhere, a view evidently reflected in the title of Sidney Baker's New Zealand Slang: A Dictionary of Colloquialisms (1941). This valuable study of New Zealand words is neither a dictionary in the alphabetical manner, nor confined to slang and colloquialism.

Australasian supplements to British dictionaries reappeared in the 1960s, one appended to the local edition of the Collins Contemporary Dictionary (1965), and another (ed. Robert Burchfield) to the 5th edition of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1969). Attitudes were changing, and the weakening of ties with Britain was to have linguistic as well as other repercussions. New Zealand English became more 'respectable' and general English dictionaries catering for New Zealanders' needs became possible. The Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary, ed. Harry Orsman (1979, 2nd ed. 1989), was a landmark publication, the first work to integrate New Zealandisms with the main body of English words to create a general purpose New Zealand dictionary.

This was followed by a New Zealand edition of the New Collins Concise English Dictionary, and the Collins New Zealand Compact English Dictionary (both editions by Ian Gordon, 1982 and 1985), and by Burchfield's New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1986, 2nd ed. Deverson, 1997). In recent years New Zealand dictionaries have come thick and fast, including New Zealand adaptations of some Oxford school dictionaries, and popular collections of slang, notably those of David McGill (1988 and 1989).

A further lexicographical landmark was the first substantial publication consisting solely of New Zealand usage, Elizabeth and Harry Orsman's New Zealand Dictionary (1994, 2nd ed. 1995). This contains a concise selection of the rich materials assiduously compiled by Harry Orsman over more than 40 years. It has since been followed by Orsman's major work, the historical Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997), a work of almost 8,000 headwords supported by some 47,000 quotations drawn from a reading of over 4,000 printed sources. The dictionary itself, and the much larger body of material it derives from (less than a third of Orsman's total collection of citations is used), will provide an immensely valuable research base for future lexicographers and historians of New Zealand English. Without Orsman's efforts New Zealand lexicography would be a flimsy thing indeed (see his '"The Dictionary of New Zealand English": a beginning and (almost) an end', 1995).

Aside from lexicography, most of the published work on New Zealand English to date has centred on pronunciation rather than printed uses, but notable general accounts include J.A.W. Bennett's article, 'English as it is spoken in New Zealand' (1943), George Turner's The English Language in Australia and New Zealand (1966), and Laurie Bauer's chapter on 'English in New Zealand' in vol.5 of The Cambridge History of the English Language (1995).

Since the early 1980s there has been a rapid growth in teaching and research activity in the field of New Zealand English in the country's universities, particularly those of the four main centres. New Zealand English has become the subject of intense scrutiny in the context of a world wide surge of interest in all varieties of English. A periodical devoted exclusively to New Zealand English studies, the New Zealand English Journal (formerly Newsletter), published annually by the Department of English at the University of Canterbury since 1987, includes regular bibliographies of published work in the subject.

New Zealand is unusual among English-speaking countries in making its own form of the language a topic for study in schools; textbooks written by Elizabeth Gordon and Tony Deverson (New Zealand English, 1985, Finding a New Zealand Voice, 1989, New Zealand English and English in New Zealand, 1997) have provided resources for the teaching of New Zealand English in the senior secondary school curriculum.

Corpus studies are a further element in the New Zealand English research picture. Victoria University is home to the one-million-word Wellington Corpus of Written New Zealand English, completed in 1993 under the direction of Laurie Bauer, as well as a spoken corpus of the same size. The written corpus, based for the most part on the year 1986, offers a substantial and consolidated insight into contemporary New Zealand English in print. It is of inestimable value to those investigating the lexical and grammatical features of our variety of English as it nears the end of the 20th century.