A Survival Guide to New Zealand English

A Survival Guide to New Zealand English

It comes as no surprise that there are some stark differences between NZ, British, American, South African and all the other ‘Englishes’ of the anglophone world, and most of these differences reside in colloquial language or slang.

I recently returned to New Zealand after 15 years abroad which included time spent in English speaking countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, both rich in their own colloquial language. As a returning Kiwi, I found myself having to rediscover my own local lingo, and if you are planning to travel to NZ as an immigrant, student or backpacker, you will have to do the same.

The familiar kiwi way of speaking, the language of the people in everyday situations, is so embedded into the culture that you won’t be able to ignore it, so the sooner you are introduced to it, the better:

Hello sir, how do you do?

Greeting someone in NZ English is like posting a message on Twitter. Why use a full sentence when 2-3 words will do? Here are some phrases you hear on a regular basis.

  • Up to bro !? - What have you been up to, my friend?

  • Yea, nah, good aye - I'm well, thank you

  • Later cuz - See you later (mate, bro, friend)

When you are feeling peckish..

The food & beverage sector not only has a huge chunk of local vocabulary, but also phrases that are truly kiwiana. Here's a couple.

  • Fancy a feed? - Are you hungry?

  • Phew, I'm chocka! - I am full

Asking questions and deciphering responses

Question forms and their matching responses are difficult to pair. What might seem as completely off topic or just plain stupid can actually be the perfect approach for asking and answering questions in NZ.

  • Oh no, I forgot my togs! - Oh no, I forgot my swimsuit!
You're all good, she'll be right - It's OK, no problem - everything is going to be OK. Note: Always she, never he.

  • Can you handle the jandal? - Can you handle the situation? Course, it's a piece of piss! - Yes, easily!

  • Wanna hit up the dairy? - Would you like to go to the corner store?
Keen! - Yes, of course!

Translating idioms and figures of speech

Wherever you travel on this planet, local idiomatic expressions generally give you a snapshot of the culture. So, check out a few of these expressions below to give you some insight into the mindset of Aotearoa’s inhabitants.

  • She looks like mutton dressed as lamb - She is dressed far too young for her old age

  • Let's knock the bastard off - OK, let's do this thing and finish the job at hand. Note: Citation from Sir Ed Hillary

  • He was busting a gut and then carked it - He was making an intense effort and then died.

  • Hard case! - That's really funny!

Do I really need to do use this language?

Now, regardless of your familiarity with NZ English, you should try to use it appropriately. That means to use the right variety of language, in the right situations, with the right people! Using colloquial language but understanding it literally can be a faux pas. We don't tell every older person that they are a dressed as a mutton, nor do we address our preferred supplier Up to, bro! when we are holding annual negotiations for contract renewals. It just isn't cricket (It’s not appropriate).

If you’re going to be living or staying in NZ for any length of time, rather than spending your precious study time trying to master the past perfect or memorising phrasal verbs, it might be more valuable to get to know some expressions to impress the locals with. Or as the great Henry David Thoreau once said:

"It's too late to be studying Hebrew; it's more important to understand even the slang of today"

January 12, 2018
Mi vida antes del Covid- 19 (IMPERFECTO) A-2
Profile Picture
Alejandra Santiago
August 7, 2020
Profile Picture
Abby H
August 7, 2020
The Origins of popular English Idioms
Profile Picture
Jen Mc Monagle
August 7, 2020