I, Like Totally, Love Your Ixceent
Learning this new language is exhausting
Mr Grouch and I both left New Zealand over 20 years ago and have spent the past 15 years living in Sydney. I swore we would never leave. Some of my favourite people in the whole world live in Australia (shout out to my fellow winos and credit card blow outs). It seemed unfathomable to attempt to live anywhere but Bondi Beach with its golden sand beaches, azure waters, kale smoothies and lycra-clad influencer wannabes. I loved the warm climate, the health food fads, the fickle fashion trends, the high turnover of local bars and restaurants (at least there is always something new to try!), and the permanency of my beloved mecca of giant shopping malls.
So no-one was more surprised than me when certain life events lined up (growing kids; Mr Grouch’s intractable love of skiing through frost bite, climbing up wind swept mountains and appreciation of cold weather; an incident involving a deadly blue ringed Octopus; and – I cannot emphasis this enough – a general lack of savings) that left Auckland seeming like a better place for our little family to be.
We finally moved back here this year, with COVID hot on our heels, and into our new home just a week before the national lockdown began.
One of the most obvious adjustments to moving back here has got to be hearing the Kiwi accent (pronounced ‘ixceent’) everywhere again. If you aren’t familiar with it, let me explain. We hardly open our mouths and if a pesky vowel appears in a word, we completely ignore it and simply let our sounds slide downwards, like the leftovers of words, dripping slowly out the side of our half-open mouths. Just when you think we have finished saying our sloppy sentence, we will top it off by rising our intonation as though we were asking a puzzling question. (?) My Dad, a semi-retired Prof of Linguistics, will be quick to remind us here that this inflection is called a high rising terminal or uptalk, but whatever it is labelled, it is a sure fire way to get your listener to doubt whatever has been said. While not exactly elegant, it is a little bit (‘lutter butt’) endearing and wholly disarming.
In my experience, Australians love this vantage point and are quick to draw attention to a ‘New Zild’ accent and poke fun. Our uptalk is met with their downlook and a sidesneer. I’ve personally known work meetings to be interrupted for a whole table to slap their suited-up thighs with glee and wipe tears away. And try saying something tremendously serious for a change, it will still be met with that same faint smirk you thought was reserved for how witty and clever you were (most likely not) being.
At a dinner some years ago, a slightly inebriated and very loud guest imitated my speech for the party, and it was gut churning – Mr Bean learning Polish while eating something mushy, like an extra ripe banana. My ears were bleeding. I went home and promised myself I was going Full Royal from then on, and adopting the poshest plumiest accent known to the Queen. “Hugh Bonneville, dingle for the first footman, I’ll take my peppercorn pâté in the sitting room.”
When home schooling through the lockdown here, my 7 year old and his class were tasked with using a national spelling app. Normally these educational games employ a honey-soaked male voice with a slightly mechanical robotic twang or a chirpy cartoonish one like Peppa Pig. Not this one. Kiwis have a uniquely pragmatic approach to life, they like doing things themselves and they love saving money (yet neither holds true for me), so this particular app developer had seemingly asked a close female relative of ousted MP Simon Bridges (think chewed vowels galore) to record the words for free. My son, with his Sydney eastern suburbs dialect, would descend in a teary rage after each spelling lesson I forced him to do. The sounds were almost indecipherable to his uninitiated ears. Click on the word ‘pier’, the app would say, for the word ‘pair’. “Beep. That’s incorrect. Beep. That’s incorrect”. Yeah, you’re telling me.
So, after so much time living overseas, it really is something wonderful to no longer be mortally embarrassed about what one sounds like. “Yeees? Um genna eat moi fush und chups on the car, wuf moi fungers?” Fist pumps!
Stay tuned for my next instalment with more of my flawed observations of NZ life.