Kiwi English – was American, then British, now American

English is a funny language. Take American and British English. Totally different spellings, word choices, phrasing and styles.

Cromwell's preserved historic district - once a road at the top of the town, now lapped by the waters of Lake Clyde.
Cromwell – Otago The historic district still with its ‘store’.

Yet we can all understand each other perfectly. Everybody knows what the word ‘twerk’ means, for instance, especially this week (I had to look it up, but hey…)

Here in New Zealand we use British English, but American English is creeping in, partly through teenagers who seem to absorb it off TV, partly through the way Microsoft Office default installs and auto-corrects to the US dictionary.

Well, when I say ‘creeping in’, I should say ‘creeping back in’.  In the mid-nineteenth century, frontier Americanisms were all the rage. When Samuel Butler spilled off the ship into Lyttleton in the 1850s he discovered local settlers spoke in an American-infused patois very different from what he was used to at Oxford.

The form of the language, he decided, was British English, but the words and spellings were not. Frontier New Zealand had its druggists – not chemists – people went to the ‘store’ – not the shop – and spellings followed – ‘honor’, ‘clamor’ and so on. All of which have been frozen for historians into documents and photographs.

As far as I can tell, it came from American whalers who had been working the New Zealand coasts for a generation by then. But the US frontier inspired in more ways than just language; the look and feel of any New Zealand settler towns with their clap-board fronted buildings and limed streets was exactly that of the US frontier, and businessmen looked across the Pacific for inspiration.

It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century, when New Zealand began a renewed love-affair with the mother country, that things began to change, and spellings became British English. Until recently, anyway. It’s interesting how times change.

Wright_Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand_200px,jpgVeering into mildly shameless plug territory, if you’re interested in more about New Zealand’s colonial age, my latest book, the Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, is available in good New Zealand bookstores and internationally from the publisher’s web-shop.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Note: My regular weekend ‘Sixty second writing tips’ and ‘Write It Now’ series return in a few weeks – all new, all shiny (etc). Watch this space.


13 thoughts on “Kiwi English – was American, then British, now American

  1. Seems there were quite a few of us looking up twerking this past week. I, too, was shocked it was in the OED! And then there is the Microsoft interpretation of American….

    As for your shameless plug, thank you. I am assuming it is the best link for international purchases. Wonderful post as always, Matthew.

    1. Thanks. Yes, the link is direct from the publisher’s shop. I’m not surprised the OED picked up ‘twerking’, though I am not sure it’s a good idea because a lot of these terms are transient. I have a post tomorrow about the whole ‘twerking’ adventure – we had something way more blatant happen in NZ at the same time, with a totally different public outcome, and it’s highlighted some interesting – if subtle – cultural differences around the world.

  2. The same thing is happening in SA. In schools, for example, we are not allowed to penalise students for using American spelling, and thanks to MTV and the rest of American media permeating our culture, US slang and expressions are becoming much more common. Kids are even starting to speak English with an American accent (which is better than the South African one, I suppose – I cringe every time Arnold Vosloo opens his mouth on screen).

    1. Well, it could be worse, we could all talk like Australians. 🙂 The Kiwi accent is a very flat one – ‘i’ becomes ‘u’, mainly. ‘Sux Fush and Chups’. Our Prime Minister (possibly unfortunately), is a master of it.

      1. You jest. During my brief stint in London I worked for a month surrounded by Aussies. By the end of the month I spoke Aussie fluently. It took me weeks to learn to speak proper English again.

        1. I must admit I put a lot of time into lampooning the Aussie accent, which has an awful lot to do with Cockney. The funny thing is, nobody much outside Australasia can tell the difference between Aussie and Kiwi, but it’s very distinct – more so than Canada and the US. Joking aside, it’s curious how each of our various colonial origins has captured a snapshot of how English, Dutch (and for the Canadians I guess French) etc was spoken at the time of settlement.

  3. I could not understand the English in England. They speak a completely different language. I plan to post about it soon.
    I always think you in the “down under” crowd as having a language all your own as well. 🙂

    1. Yeah, we do speak differently…:-) The funny thing is, to people outside Australasia, Aussies and Kiwis sound the same – but we can always tell the difference ourselves. The Aussies make ‘i’ sound like ‘e’, and ‘oo’ sound like ‘ew’, (‘seex feesh and a skewp of cheeps’) whereas Kiwis make the ‘i’ sound like ‘u’ and add ‘eh’ to the end of phrases, this last like Canadians, though for a different reason.’Sux fush and a scoop of chups, eh!’

        1. We have a lot of Maori that’s crept into New Zealand English (New Zild Inglish…) – my favourite is ‘tutu’, which means ‘to tinker with mischievously’. If something doesn’t work, typically the TV remote or similar, the usual question is, ‘did you tutu with it?’ I really must do a post on some of these, they’re a lot of fun.

  4. Shameless plugs are great for forgetful people. I’d love to get that book since we used to live there. I have swung toward writing in American English online because most of the people I am chatting with are American.

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