When moving to a new place one of the first (and often most confusing) things to do is to learn how to blend in and talk like a local. In college I spent a semester in Paris and, even though I knew French, didn’t utter a word for the first two weeks. By the end of my stay I was ordering complicated meats at the butcher and telling lechers on the Metro to piss off. It just takes time.
Our new town, Blenheim, has 30,000 inhabitants, many of whom grew up in the house they currently occupy. And their parents before them. Family farms are passed down for generations. Most people know something about any family upon hearing the surname. Newcomers, especially those with American accents, are noticed but welcomed and I came to meet other families who had moved to New Zealand from Australia, Canada, South Africa, The Netherlands, China, India, and the Pacific Islands. Certainly they all had an adventure acclimating.
Immediately, I learned from Mason’s new preschool to introduce myself as Mason’s mum. Certain words stand out with a major twang and mom is one of them. Trash is number two. Rubbish to the rescue! Some were not so easy. I am still not able to pronounce mate correctly. My accent screams impostor, and people just think I am calling them Mike. And I fail every single time at one of my favorite colloquialisms which is the Kiwi version of huh.
US Version: “Those clouds look like a bunch of balloons, huh?”
NZ Version: “Mate, those clouds look like balloons, ‘ey?”
It’s not a Canadian eh, but a soft, smooth, shortened version of hey that is just a lovely way to end any sentence. It can be a statement or a question, depending on inflection. If I didn’t catch what someone said, I could say hey? and get a repeat.
In Mason’s first few weeks at preschool, he honed the skill of Kiwi pronunciation. I knew about two months into it he had gone full Kiwi when he dropped the r sound at the end of there. Whenever I happened to talk to him on the phone I couldn’t even believe it was my kid. And he is forever correcting me. I tried in vain to ask him questions about a famous cyclist he learned about in school, Craig Harper, but I never pronounced Harper (Hah-pah) well enough to merit a response.
Some older boys taught Mason the proper use of ‘ey and he came home telling me, “girls’ books are dumb ‘ey?” About this time he learned the funnest Maori word, a prefix spelled whaka but pronounced fukkah. Boy, did this one get some wear.
He developed a nasty Peppa Pig addiction much to Tony’s disliking. The dad, George, is insufferably daft and the mum harasses him for it all day. Peppa is a giant know-it-all and her little brother is a dumb baby. A better title would be Peppa Princess or Peppa Pain-in-the-Arse. Anyway, the point is that Mason thinks her name is Pepper because he knows the word pepper and he knows it’s pronounced peppa in New Zealand. A phonetic nuance that makes me intensely happy but is lost on Tony. He’s too far in to see it from without. The same way he can’t hear the er when he says, “Amander and I”.
I could fill this entire blog with pronunciations, phrases, and expressions that tickle my funny bone. I might have to offer one on each post for entertainment. Let’s start with jeepers. Why in the world did this word die out in America? It’s fabulous. It is mostly uttered in a subdued tone and makes for a fun substitute for a casual expression like ‘oh my gosh’ or ‘wow’.
Jeepers is not to be bested by a huge favorite of mine, Far Out. Again, why did we ever give this word up? It further supports the theory that everything comes into fashion in New Zealand, but nothing ever goes out. The mullet, for example. It never left and is still going strong. One might say Far Out when learning someone has had the same mullet for 35 years. One might say it after tripping on the same step three times. One might say it upon seeing something disgusting. It can also be a lifesaver when one is in the wrong company and starts to utter “Fuuuuuuu…ar out.” Good save. That’s the beauty of Far Out – it can be popped in anywhere really, but by some magic it is never overused here. It is always perfectly well-spaced and well-timed. And the pronunciation is marvelous.
Apparently, this appreciation goes the other direction as well. One of Tony’s aunties had recently been to America and found scooch to be cute and useful. Scooch over New Zealand slang, there’s a new Yankee word in town!
I’ll save a few more to peppa in later. Ugh, in that case it would actually be pronounced pepper what with the succeeding vowel and all. Too late, I’m leaving it. There is actually an endless supply of these little linguistic tricks but none of them really ever help me out. As soon as my mouth opens, people say “where are you from?” or if they are real keen and try to guess first they always guess Canada, presumably in deference to their commonwealth cousin. So I blend in when I can and twang away quietly when I can’t. Only a few times have I looked up to realize I am twanging loudly and everyone is starting. Which is a great bit of travel advice for all Americans – twang quietly. And preferably not while wearing khaki pants that zip off into shorts.