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Travel Guide > Australia & Oceania > New Zealand

New Zealand Languages

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English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language are the official languages of New Zealand. English is universal, and is written with Commonwealth (British) spelling.

New Zealand English is one of the major varieties of English and is different enough from other forms to justify the publication of the Oxford New Zealand English dictionary.

Word usage may also differ occasionally, in potentially embarrassing ways for the traveller. Several words that Americans may consider offensive, or have euphemisms for, are considered acceptable usage.

For example: A New Zealand bathroom refers to a room containing a bath while the other facilities that an American might refer to as a bathroom or washroom are known as a toilet. The American habit of censoring swear words from broadcasts is considered quaint and rarely done in local programming. The New Zealand broadcasting media are unusually tolerant of swear words when used in context.

The New Zealand accent is somewhat nasalised with flattened vowel sounds and vowel shifting. New Zealanders consider their accent to be markedly different from the Australian one and are often mildly offended when mistaken for or confused with Australians. New Zealand terminology and slang are also different from Australian usage. Americans find New Zealand accents easy to understand, so do Australians and British. Some European dialects find it slightly harder and Asians may find it rather hard to understand; New Zealanders are quite happy however to repeat what they just said if necessary.

Maori is actively spoken by a minority of both Maori and language learners. Maori is available as a language to study in, instead of English, at many educational institutes. The Maori language is spoken by some, but not all, Maori and a few non-Maori, especially in the far north and east of the North Island. Many place names are in Maori and for the traveller some knowledge of Maori pronunciation is very useful.

New Zealand Sign language was given status in 2005 as an official language of the country.

Common expressions

Generally, New Zealand English expressions follows British English. However, New Zealand English has also borrowed much from Maori and there are a number of other phrases that are not commonly encountered elsewhere or may confuse the visitor.

  • Bach (pron. "batch") - Holiday home; often by the beach and comprised of fairly basic accommodation. In the South Island often called a crib.
  • Bring a plate - (see also; "Ladies a plate") means each attendant of the event should bring a plate of food to share with the other guests.
  • BYO - Bring Your Own. An addition to the name of a restaurant that may not have a liquor licence. Means that it is perfectly okay to bring your own wine to enjoy with your food, but they often charge a small corkage fee.
  • Clayton's - Describing something as a Clayton's means that the item lacks full functionality or is a poor imitation of the real thing. From the name of the unsuccessful non-alcoholic whisky that was briefly marketed during the late 1970s/early 1980s under the catch phrase The drink you're having when you are not having a drink.
  • Dairy - Convenience store; corner shop, one few outsiders understand though heavily used by locals and find problems when travelling overseas and are surprised when asking where the dairy is.
  • Entry by gold (or silver) coin (donation) - The admission charge to an event, exhibit, gallery or museum is by making a payment of a coin in the appropriate metal, often in the donation box at the door. The gold coins in NZ are the $1 and $2 coins, while silver are the 20c and 50c coins, and the 10c coin is copper. (See also "Koha" below).
  • Half Pie - Usually a job or task not performed to satisfaction (Maori Pai = good)
  • Jandals - Flip-flops to most of the world; Thongs to you Australians.
  • Kiwi - Slang for a New Zealander, named after an endangered flightless bird that lays the largest egg relative to body size and is the national emblem. This is not a derogatory term and some New Zealanders will happily refer to themselves as a 'Kiwi'.
  • Ladies a plate - At social functions, such as meetings, attendees are expected to bring a plate carrying ready-to-eat food. Typically the food is home baking by a member of each attending family or couple, not necessarily a "lady".
  • Glidetime - Flexible working hours, often worked by public servants. Under this system, workers can start and finish work at hours of their choosing between 7AM and 6PM, although they must work the core hours of 9.30AM to noon and 2PM to 3.30PM and average 40 hours per week. Also the name of a comedy play about such workers.
  • Social welfare - State operated organisations responsible for child protection services, income assistance and work placement for the unemployed.
  • Beneficiary - A person of working age who is receiving state welfare assistance payments known as income support or a benefit.
  • Superannuitants - Retired people in receipt of a state retirement pension known as New Zealand Superannuation - usually abbreviated to just "Super". This payment is paid to all citizens over 65 years old.

Slang expressions

You may get a strange look if you use Kiwi slang in New Zealand, but it may be used inadvertently to in conversation. If you don't understand just ask and most New Zealanders will explain.

  • "Gumboots" - A.K.A. Wellington Boots or Rain Boots
  • "Barby" - Short for barbeque
  • Bro - Short for brother but used by males to address other males.
  • Bush - Forest. Usually meaning a native forest as opposed to a pine forest.
  • Choice! - Cool, great.
  • Chur - Thanks or Choice.
  • Cool bananas! - "It's good." Hardly used. If it is, it's usually directly at young children.
  • G'day - Short for Good day. A greeting. Also used by the Australians.
  • Sweet as! - Cool, good thing, No problem. Often abbreviated to just 'sweet'.
  • mint - in tip top condition.
  • chicks - girls.
  • oi - hey.
  • Lindi - Lindauer Brut (popular wine in New Zealand)
  • pash - french kiss.

Maori words and expressions

  • Kia Ora - Hello, welcome, literally good health. Often used as an utterance of agreement, especially during speaking at a hui.
  • Haere Mai - A greeting to a person arriving, while Haere Ra is a salutation to one leaving.
  • Hui - A meeting or gathering to discuss and debate issues in traditional Maori fashion.
  • Iwi - A Maori tribe or people, sometimes known as a Waka (canoe), as some iwi are named after the ocean going canoes that brought their ancestors to New Zealand.
  • Koha - A Maori term for gifts or donations. Often an exchange of gifts takes place. (Sometimes the admission signs say, "Entry Koha", meaning gold coin or what you feel like donating.)
  • Kai - Food. Common with both Maori and European.
  • Marae - A traditional Maori meeting or gathering place. Also a community centre.
  • Pakeha - The Maori word for New Zealanders of European decent, generally thought to have arisen from a Maori story about white creatures called 'pakepakeha'. Some European New Zealanders do not refer to themselves as Pakeha, others see the name as part of their unique identity, whilst others find it offensive.
  • Powhiri - A Maori ceremonial welcome. Especially to a marae, but now also may take place at the start of a conference or similar large meeting in New Zealand.
  • Whanau - A Maori (extended) family. Kinfolk.
  • Wharenui - literally big house, is the meeting house on a marae. Used often in advertising to alliterate with friends such as 'friends and whanau'.
  • Wharekai - literally food house, is the dining room and/or kitchen on a marae.
  • Wharepaku - literally Small house or more tongue in cheek "Explode House", - Toilet

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