English is the main language of New Zealand, spoken by 97% of the population, and one of the country’s three official languages. Te Reo Māori, the language of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people, and New Zealand Sign Language, the language of New Zealand’s deaf community, are the other two official languages.
The New Zealand English dialect generally follows the spelling conventions and vocabulary choices of the (British) Commonwealth, but also contains many local slangs, often derived from the Māori, and is sufficiently distinctive to warrant its own Oxford Dictionary version. Word usage can also vary occasionally, which can be awkward for travellers. Many words that Americans find offensive or for which they have euphemisms are considered acceptable usage. For example, a New Zealand bathroom refers to a room that contains a bath, while other facilities that an American would call a bathroom or toilet are called a toilet (in many New Zealand homes, the toilet and bathroom are separate rooms). The American habit of “paginating” swear words in broadcasts is considered quaint and is rarely practised in local programmes. New Zealand broadcast media has an unusual tolerance for swear words when used in context.
New Zealanders say that a certain place is on the North Island or the South Island (e.g. “Auckland is on the North Island”), not on the North Island. However, this rule only applies to the two main islands; New Zealanders always say, for example, on Waiheke Island.
The letter Z is always pronounced as “zed”. Nothing will make you stand out more as an American tourist than the pronunciation of NZ as en-zee.
The New Zealand accent is somewhat nasalised, with flattened vowel sounds and vowel shifts. New Zealanders consider their accent to be distinctly different from that of Australians and are often easily offended when they are mistaken for Australians. New Zealand terminology and slang also differ from Australian usage. Americans find the New Zealand accent easy to understand, as do Australians and Britons. Some European dialects find it a little more difficult and Asians can find it quite hard to understand; however, New Zealanders are happy to repeat what they have just said if necessary.
Māori is spoken by both a minority of Māori and language learners (3.7% of New Zealand’s population in the 2013 census). Māori is offered as a language of study in many educational institutions in place of English. The Māori language is spoken by some, but not all, Māori and some non-Māori speakers, especially in the far north and east of the North Island. Most travellers would not need to learn Māori, as almost all native Māori speakers can also speak English. Nevertheless, the strong Māori influence on New Zealand place names means that knowing Māori pronunciation can be useful, and even most non-native speakers of New Zealand who do not speak Māori know how to pronounce Māori words. The biggest difficulty for non-New Zealanders is pronouncing Māori ‘f’ as in father, so for example Whakatane is pronounced fa-ka-ta-nee, not wa-ka-ta-nee.
New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) was granted official language status in 2005 and is the main language of the New Zealand Deaf community. About 0.5% of New Zealand’s population “speak” it. It is closely related to British Sign Language and Australian Sign Language, with which it shares 80% of the signs and the same two-handed hand alphabet. However, NZSL places more emphasis on facial expressions and mouthing words, reflecting the oralist teaching methods historically used in schools for the deaf (before 1979, deaf students were whipped into signing in the classroom). It also includes other unique signs relating to New Zealand, such as Māori words and place names.
New Zealand is a popular destination for migrants from around the world, particularly from Asia and the Pacific Islands, and you will often find areas and suburbs where immigrant communities speak their respective languages. The most common non-official languages spoken by New Zealand residents are Samoan (2.2%), Hindi (1.7%), Mandarin (1.3%), French (1.2%) and Cantonese (1.1%). Many New Zealanders learn a foreign language at school, but few master it beyond the basic level.
In general, New Zealand English expressions follow British English. However, New Zealand English has also borrowed a lot from Māori and there are a number of other expressions that are not common elsewhere or may confuse the visitor.
- Bach (pronounced “batch” as in bachelor) – holiday home; often on the beach and consisting of a fairly rudimentary dwelling. In the south of the South Island it is often called a “crèche”.
- Bring a plate – (see also; “Ladies a plate”) means that each participant in the event must bring a plate of food to share with the other guests. Today it is outdated and not used so often.
- BYO – Bring your own. If you give the name of a restaurant that does not have a liquor licence, you can bring your own wine to the meal, but often have to pay a small corkage fee.
- Clayton’s – To call something Clayton’s implies that the item is not functional or is a poor imitation of the original. Named after the non-alcoholic whisky that was briefly marketed in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the slogan “The drink you are having when you are not having a drink”. It is not used as much today.
- Dairy – convenience store, corner shop; few foreigners understand it, although it is well used by locals who encounter problems when travelling abroad and are surprised when they ask where the dairy is. The term dates from before supermarkets sold mainly dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, etc.). Today, many dairies are owned and operated by Indian immigrants.
- Admission by gold (or silver) coin (donation) – Admission to an event, exhibition, gallery or museum is by paying a coin of the appropriate metal, often in the donation box at the door. In New Zealand, gold coins are the $1 and $2 coins, while silver coins are the 20 and 50 cent coins, and the dime is made of copper. (See also “Koha” below).
- Glidetime – Flexible working hours often practised in the public sector. Under this system, workers can start and finish work at the times of their choice, from 7am to 6pm, although they have to work the basic hours of 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 3:30pm, and work an average of 40 hours a week. We don’t hear about that so much today.
- Half cake or half pay – Usually a job or task that is not done satisfactorily (see Māori pay = good).
- Jandals (= Spanish saNDALS) – “flip-flops” for most of the world; “thongs” for Australians; “slops” for South Africans.
- Kiwi – A nickname for a New Zealander or an adjective for something New Zealand, named after an endangered flightless bird that is one of the country’s national emblems. It is not a pejorative term.
- Lollies – sweets; candies; sweets.
- Togs – swimming costume, swim trunks, swimming costume; clothes you wear when you go swimming.
- Tramping – Hiking.
You may be looked at funny if you use Kiwi slang in New Zealand, but it can be used inadvertently in conversation. If you don’t understand it, just ask and most New Zealanders will explain it to you.
- on the other side of the trench – Australia. The trench refers to the Tasman Sea, which separates New Zealand and Australia (see the pond between North America and Europe).
- Barbie – abbreviation for barbecue
- Bro (rhymes with “snow”) – abbreviation for bro, a form of personal address like mate, buddy or bud.
- Bush – forest. Usually means indigenous forest as opposed to plantation forest.
- Chicks – Girls.
- The selection! – Cool, great.
- Wellington boots – also known as Wellington boots or rain boots
- as new – in perfect condition.
- Partner – any other person, male or female. Can be used alone to express a range of different emotions, depending on the birth. A short “mate” combined with a slight lift of the head and eyebrows can be seen as a greeting, while a longer “maaaaaate” combined with a pinch of the head and a narrowing of the eyes can be seen as a reprimand.
- nibbling – broken, damaged, unusable. It only became popular after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake (which essentially swallowed half the city).
- Oi – hey. Can be understood as a warning or joke, comes from punk usage.
- That’s very nice! – Cool, good thing, no problem. Often abbreviated to “sweet”.
- Wop-wops – isolated rural area; in the middle of nowhere.
Māori words and phrases
- Kia ora – Hello, welcome, literally well. Often used as an expression of approval, especially in a one-day speech.
- Haere mai – A greeting to a person arriving, while haere ra is a greeting to a person leaving.
- Hui – A meeting or gathering to discuss and debate issues in the traditional Māori way.
- Iwi – A Māori tribe or people, sometimes referred to as waka (canoe) because some Iwi are named after the sea canoes their ancestors brought to New Zealand.
- Koha – Māori term referring to gifts or donations. Often there is a gift exchange (sometimes the entrance signs say “Entry Koha”, meaning gold coin or whatever you would like to give).
- Kai – Food. Together for Māori and Europeans.
- Mana – is defined in English as authority, control, influence, prestige or power. It is also an honour.
- Marae – A traditional Māori meeting or gathering place. Also a community centre.
- Pakeha – The Māori word for New Zealanders who are not of Māori descent. The origin of the term is disputed; one theory is that it comes from a Māori story about spirit beings called “pakepakeha”. Some New Zealanders do not refer to themselves as “pakeha” because they find it offensive; others, however, consider the name part of their unique identity.
- Paua – The abalone for the rest of the English-speaking world.
- Powhiri – A welcoming ceremony of the Māori. Especially in a marae, but now also at the start of a conference or similar large meeting in New Zealand.
- Whanau – An (extended) Māori family. Kinship. Often used in advertising for illiterate people with friends, e.g. “friends and whanau”.
- Wharenui (literally big house) is the meeting house on a marae.
- Wharekai (literally eating house) is the dining room and/or kitchen of a marae.
- Wharepaku (literally small house) – toilets
- Just in case, Tāne is the place for the men’s toilet, Wāhine is the place for the women’s toilet.