For the most part, there were no problems getting along linguistically with New Zealanders. After all, we do share the same tongue. Since the first European settlers came from Merrie Olde England only recently (in the nineteenth century), it stands to reason that the Kiwi tongue will be very much English in the pronunciation of words.
A lot can change in 100 years.
Was the dialect we were hearing a blend of British and Aussie English with some Maori words and phrases thrown in? Is there a distinct New Zealand accent that we could separate from English spoken anywhere else, even in Australia? The answer is yes.
It’s the vowels that distinguish the NZ speaker, I think. There is also a difference in how a Kiwi uses his tongue, but more on that later.
The influence of Maori is primarily in the names of plants and animals for which there are no English substitutes, and in the usage of some expressions. Many place names are also Maori.
What follows is not scientific by any means and would probably make a linguist cringe. Here goes.
The vowel that is most transformed in NZ English is “i.” What is pronounced as a short “i” comes out sounding closer to a synthesis between a short “i” and short “u.” Take the word “it.” It comes out sounding like “ut.” The phrase for which Kiwis are kidded (even ridiculed by Australians) is “fish and chips,” which emerges as something closer to “fush and chups,” though non-Kiwis tend to exaggerate the “u” sound.
Words ending in the sound “air,” as in “hair” or “there,” are pronounced like “ere,” as in “here.” So, “bear” and “beer” are homonyms in NZ.
Then, there is the inclination to pronounce words ending in “r” as “ah,” as in the word December, which is a very British holdover. Therefore, “bear” is not like “beer” as in American English, but sounds more like “beeah.” Furthermore, the second “e” in December emerges as a short “i” whose sound can only be made (by me, anyway) by pressing the edges of your tongue flatly along your upper teeth and pronouncing “cem” closer to “sim.” There are more tongue gymnastics involved, but I’m convinced that Kiwis employ a tight tongue when speaking, whereas Americans tend not to engage their tongues with their teeth as much (floppy tongue).
Words with a short “e” sound, like in “eggs” and “said,” come out like a short “i” with a tendency toward a long “e”: eegs and seed. Ask a Kiwi to pronounce the letters F, L, M, N, S and X, and you’re likely to hear eef, eel, eem, een, ees and eex.
Without question, the word that fascinates me most is the word “no,” or any word that ends in an “o” sound. Again, the principle of the tight tongue applies. Americans will pronounce the “o” with no teeth-tongue contact, shaping their lips like an “o.” Now, try clamping the lateral edges of your tongue along your upper teeth, forming a sort of barrel, then spread your lips slightly apart, and then say “no” while drawing the tip of your tongue upward into the barrel. If this is done properly, the word comes out sounding like “no-er-ey,” with no emphasis on the last two parts. It almost sounds like two, even three, barely detectable syllables. When I first heard Kiwis say “no,” I was amazed. I think some Brits pronounce it similarly, but nowhere with the same flair and exaggeration.
I noticed that I could fully understand older NZ’ers, whose dialect hadn’t evolved to the point where I was struggling to make sense of their utterances. Was there a generational drift in dialect, much as what’s happening here in America? Like, fer shur. Truth be told, there were some Kiwis whom we could not, for the life of us, entirely understand. And it would have been rude to say “excuse me” more than once.