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Language — or rather text — played a key role in the recent high-profile departure of the president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay. The simple story is that Gay was found to have plagiarised other scholars’ work on multiple… Read More
We’ve had a New Zealand visitor with us for the last few months, which has provided a great opportunity to revel in regional linguistic differences. In the UK, our main exposure to dialectal variation is through interactions with US media and culture. So, although I was familiar with the different accent in New Zealand English, I was much less aware of a whole array of vocabulary differences.
Perhaps the most obvious feature was our guest’s tendency to end sentences with ‘eh’, an utterance roughly equivalent to UK ‘right?’ or ‘isn’t it?’. This is what is described as a sentence-final particle, words or phrases that occur at the end of a sentence and do not really carry any meaning but are primarily used to mark the end of the utterance. Although there’s potentially an invitation for the other person in the conversation to dive in and offer enthusiastic agreement (or disagreement), this isn’t necessary or even common. If anything, my sense is that the New Zealand ‘eh’ is even less of an invitation to respond than its UK equivalents. This hunch is supported by a 1994 study by Miriam Meyerhoff, suggesting that this word does not generally function as a clarification device. (There is also apparently a heated debate over the correct spelling, but that is a whole other story.)
Before the arrival of our Kiwi house guest, I had come across the word ‘smoko’ referring to a cigarette (or ciggy) break but I had never heard it used for a work break in which no nicotine products are consumed. Again, this turns out not to be a linguistic quirk peculiar to our visitor, but is indicative of a broader application of this term among young New Zealanders to refer to any work break, even if all you consume is a cup of tea.
And while we are on the topic of idiolects (an individual’s use of language), for a long while I assumed that our guest’s liberal use of the word ‘wee’– meaning small and applied to anything and everything from naps and snacks to trips and walks —was most likely a one-off personal habit mysteriously acquired from the Scottish. Then I came across a second New Zealander being interviewed on a podcast and she did the same thing. Sure enough, a quick online search revealed this is another widespread Kiwi-ism.
Mealtime conversations are now studded with utterances like ‘sweet as’, a generic term indicating approval, or describing something in glowing terms, or a stand-alone expression to say: ‘that’s fine with me’. Then there is ‘stoked’ to show excitement or happiness. But my absolute favourite new lexical item is undoubtedly the ‘wop-wops’ meaning remote countryside, or as we would put it far less poetically in the UK ‘the back of beyond’.
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