That is how I find myself accidentally pronouncing “Thank you” after being assisted with the self checkout at the grocery store. It wasn’t an intentional imitation; it’s just easy to slip into it with certain words after being around the Kiwi accent so much. Not Australian, and not British, but slightly reminiscent of both, the dipping and rising (and often profanity laced) sound of Kiwi conversation has quickly become one of my favorite soundtracks of my time here. However, that doesn’t mean my untrained American ear is always able to understand what they’re saying, even though we’re both technically speaking English. Between slang and a softer pronunciation of consonants, there have been a few key times when I've missed something.
For instance, some friends and I were going into a club for some live music and the bouncer said something that I didn’t understand. Foolishly, instead of asking him to repeat himself, I just went with the smiling and nodding slowly while saying “yeaahhhh” option. He smiled kindly and handed back my ID, so I thought I got away with it. But after getting inside I asked a friend what the bouncer had asked and she said that they often inquire if you’ve had anything to drink that night. I hadn’t, so if that’s what he asked, my soberness must have shone through my inaccurate “yeaahhhh” response. They usually won’t let you into a club if they think you’ve had too much to drink. (I heard of another person who wasn’t allowed in simply because she tried to make too much conversation with the bouncer, and her chattiness was mistaken for inebriation.) Either way, the lesson is, ask if you’re not sure what someone said, as they’re usually totally happy to repeat themselves.
Similarly, I've found that knowing certain common words/slang helps me feel more cued in and is a rewarding and easy way to be more integrated in the culture. Here are some common NZ words/phrases I’ve encountered so far:
- Kia ora (separate words but almost pronounced as one: key-ORA): a te reo Māori (Māori language) word iconic to NZ that can be used in many contexts. I’ve mostly heard it used as a warm greeting or as an expression of thanks, and it has also been the main email opening I’ve seen here. It’s important to note that while the Māori language was in danger of disappearing, thanks to a lot of advocacy and community based efforts all over New Zealand, it’s becoming more common and normalized. Often you’ll see it on signs or on websites right next to the English, similarly to how Spanish sometimes appears next to English in the US. Also, more and more place names are being officially changed to the Māori name, and Māori words are often sprinkled into conversation or advertisements. With that in mind, and as a sign of respect to the original language and culture of the land, if you’re in Aotearoa it’s a great idea to have at least a basic understanding of how to pronounce Māori words, as well as a few memorized te reo Māori words/phrases. I’ve included a few words here, but there are great websites and Māori language advocates online and on social media that can provide more guidance. Below are a few suggestions of where to look.
- A basic pronunciation guide (with audio): https://www.reomaori.co.nz/pronunciation Even though it can feel intimidating at first, basic Māori pronunciation is actually quite intuitive to learn because the majority of it is written phonetically–exactly the way it’s pronounced. So once you get the hang of the few exceptions (like “wh” making a “f” sound), it’s very accessible.
- Anton Matthews is a well known advocate for normalizing te reo Māori and he even developed an extensive course that you can purchase online. My IES Abroad cohort was fortunate enough to meet him when we had dinner at his restaurant (a place called Fush with the best fish and chips in Christchurch) and he generously gave us access to his online course for free. He also posts great videos/reels on the Fush Instagram page (@fushshorebro) that easily and enjoyably teach you one Māori word or phrase at a time. I highly recommend checking out his work, even if it’s just watching a few of his Instagram videos!
- Aotearoa: Usually translated to “land of the long white cloud,” this is the Māori word for New Zealand. There are some really inspiring political efforts that have been gaining momentum to officially replace New Zealand’s name with this original Māori name.
- She’ll be right: it will work out/don’t worry about it (“I forgot to pack our towels for this beach trip” “Eh, we can dry off in the sun, she’ll be right”)
- Waka: te reo Māori for canoe (It’s easier to travel along the coast in a waka than going through the dense bush on land.)
- Tramping: hiking/backpacking! (The UC Tramping Club’s first overnight trip of the year had over 70 participants.)
- JAFA: Acronym for Just Another F***ing Aucklander. Despite (because of?) being the most populous city in New Zealand, Auckland is not very popular here. The stereotype is that Aucklanders typically think they're better than everyone else. I’ve also had multiple Kiwis tell me to “not waste time” visiting Auckland, even students who are from there. Apparently the rivalry/dislike is all in good fun, but it’s surprising how unanimous it is. (Although that could just be because I’m on the South Island.)
- Kai: te reo Māori for food (Come by later for some kai, drinks, and music!)
- Sweet-as: can be used in a lot of contexts, but is typically a laid-back expression of agreement or approval or “no worries” (“Hey I made pasta if you want it” “Ah sweet-as, I’ll definitely grab some”)
- Putting “as” on the ends of adjectives in general: serves to emphasize the word (That tramping route was steep-as! And the wind was cold-as the whole time!)
- Ngā mihi: te reo Māori for thank you, often used as an email closing (Ngā mihi for your patience.)
- Cheers/chur: an acknowledgement, almost a replacement for thank you. I’ve been trying to use this more because people seem to respond to it and appreciate it more than me saying thank you, which might be considered overly formal (*when handed your bags of groceries at the checkout* “Cheers.” “Cheers!”)
- Whānau: te reo Māori that can be literally translated as “family,” but that I’ve also heard used to describe any group of people you share close ties with (Over dinner, me and the whānau share how our days went.)
- Togs: swimming suit (Make sure you throw in your togs on this trip because we might be hitting the beach.)
- Jandals: flip flops (I bought some cheap-as jandals at Kmart and the strap already broke.)
- Dairy: small convenience store. I’ve mostly seen them in neighborhoods, almost like what you would find at a gas station, but without the gas part (On the way we can swing by the dairy and grab some snacks.)
That was a lot of words but still far from all the unique slang used here. If you want to learn a few more pieces, https://www.newzealand.com/nz/new-zealand-slang/ covers heaps.
In the meantime, ngā mihi for reading, and this week I hope you can spend time with your whānau and eat some good kai!
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Anna Marie Riner
Kia ora! My name is Anna Marie, and I am a creative, outdoorsy individual from the Black Hills in South Dakota. This semester, I'm excited to be crossing the globe to New Zealand for some studying, tramping (hiking), eating, birding, interning, exploring and much more.