‘Everything different and yet the same’.
This is how Brits often describe their experience of New Zealand. When it comes to the English language, I’d put it the other way round – everything the same, and yet different. We speak the same language, but with different accents, intonations, expressions and vocabulary. These differences have led me to make various bloopers over the years, and given me (and those I’m talking to) a lot of laughs.
The first time I landed at Auckland airport, the immigration officer carefully checked my passport, then finally declared it was “sweet as.” She did not elaborate on that thing that my passport was as sweet as. But I just took it as a good sign, and smiled gratefully. This was the first of many experiences of being told that my possessions, responses or actions were ‘sweet as’ or ‘good as’. Apparently there was no need to mention the object of comparison, be it gold, sugar, honey or whatever. I soon picked up the habit.
In fact, I came to learn that New Zealand English has many words and expressions conveying positivity. Those reserved for fantastic news, such as an All Blacks win, include “box of fluffy ducks” or sometimes “box of birds.” I’m not sure where these originated, but clearly the possession of a box of ‘fluffies’ was regarded as a very, very good thing at one time.
I have not encountered nearly as many negative phrases, which is perhaps a reflection of the optimistic, enthusiastic, can-do attitude of New Zealanders that led me to fall in love with them – and their stunning country.
The ‘create your own verb’ kit
One of the really useful features of New Zealand English is that you can create your own verbs. I discovered this when chatting to an old lady I met in Hokitika. She was telling me proudly that her grandson had succeeded in getting his first job, “shiffing.”
“Did you say shiffing?”
“Yes, shiffing. It’s what he’s always wanted to do. He’s stoked.”
Feeling more confused than ever, but not wanting to admit it, I decided to try and collect a few more clues. Could it be a farming term – something to do with sheafs of wheat, perhaps? I asked her where her grandson was doing his shiffing, or sheafing.
“Only in the best restaurant in Christchurch!” she beamed. The penny dropped. Her grandson was working as a chef – ‘chef-ing.’ With relief, I congratulated her and said she must be really looking forward to tasting his food.
“Heck no, I couldn’t afford it. It’s expensive as.”
That was my first experience of the verb creation kit. If the verb you need doesn’t exist, you can just take a noun, add ‘ing’ and create it. Bingo! (Okay, for the linguists among you, strictly speaking it’s a present participle, a specific form of a verb).
So later on, when I met some students who told me they would be ‘flatting’ together next year, I knew exactly what they meant. They would be sharing a flat. How much easier it is to say ‘flatting’ – so much less of a mouthful, don’t you think? I love that economy of effort.
The flat white
The year was 1997, when fancy coffees – lattes and so on – were first taking the world by storm. After 2 weeks of travelling around New Zealand, I’d discovered how much I loved flat white coffee.
One early morning in Te Anau, I was waiting for the bus that would take me to Milford Sound. Realising that I had about 20 minutes to spare, I decided to pop into a local cafe for a takeaway coffee to help wake me up for the day.
“G’day, what can I get you?”
“I’d like a flat white please.”
The girl looked mystified. “A flat white?”
“Yes please, it’s my favourite at this time of day. Gets me moving!” I was doing my best to sound cheerful and chatty, even though I’m not a morning person.
“Er…. what kind, any particular label?”
This confused me. I had never been asked the question before, and I didn’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable about New Zealand coffee brands to be able to answer it.
“Oh, anything. I like them all. Whatever you usually serve.”
Looking more doubtful than ever, and a little suspicious even, she shrugged and disappeared behind the counter. After a couple of minutes, she emerged – with a glass of still white wine.
It seemed that fancy coffees had not yet caught on in Te Anau.
Some years later, I was passing through Auckland and decided to look for a guest house rather than stay in a hotel. I found one in a beautiful villa located in Parnell. One of the swankier suburbs of Auckland, Parnell has an attractive central village and a distinctive modern cathedral. It’s also close to the central city and therefore very convenient, with plenty of buses.
My host, Jill, was a lovely bubbly lady who was very hospitable, and – as things turned out – a very good cook. She asked if I would like dinner on the night of my arrival. I thought it would be lovely not to have to look for a place to eat after my travels, so I said yes please.
Jill set a table for me in her elegant dining room, and brought in my starter – a delicious-looking dressed salad, beautifully served on gorgeous designer dinnerware.
“Can o’ beer?” she asked brightly.
I was a little surprised, as this offer seemed somewhat at odds with the stylish upmarket setting. But maybe this was the Kiwi way – they were, after all, very down-to-earth people who liked a beer now and then.
“No thank you, I don’t drink beer” I said, as graciously as I could. I felt bad turning her down, as though it were somehow impolite, but I genuinely don’t like beer and never drink it. Jill looked puzzled, then dissolved in fits of laughter.
“No, no. CAMEMBERT! Not a can of beer. Would you like camembert with your salad!” She pronounced it ‘camembeer’, which had caused my confusion.
Kiwis tend to pronounce words containing the ‘air’ sound as ‘ear’. So, for example, ‘Air New Zealand’ often sounds like ‘Ear New Zealand’. Sometimes it’s not immediately evident whether a New Zealander has something to share, or something to shear, because both those cases sound exactly the same. Most of the time, context provides you with the answer as to which one is meant. But occasionally, misunderstandings occur.
Over time, I’ve become more attuned to the accent and its regional variations. Having grown up in the UK, I often wonder how Kiwis cope with British regional accents, which are much more varied and, in my opinion, a lot stronger than any New Zealand accent I’ve come across. I bet they could tell a few good tales of misunderstanding in the other direction!
Take ridicule on the chin
Anybody who has ever learned a new language knows that you have to put your ego aside – and face the fact that you are going to make a complete ass of yourself now and again. It goes with the territory, and you just have to laugh along. I remember a time, during my student days in Spain, when I asked my landlady if she could lend me a hole to fix my T shirt. She looked at me blankly. After all, my T shirt already HAD a hole.
The word I’d used was ‘agujero’. The word I SHOULD have used was ‘aguja’ – sewing needle. Oops.
I must admit, I didn’t expect to be making bloopers in my own native tongue. But it just goes to show how wonderfully diverse the English language is.
If you love languages as much as I do, you might enjoy my post on language learning holidays.
This fabulous image of NZ6087 was taken by fellow aviation enthusiast Magnus Nixon. We don’t get many wide-bodied jets in Wellington so the visit of this Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in May 2020 was very exciting. You can see more of Magnus’s work here on Instagram.
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