Kiwi English and Chain Shifts

Last weekend I rewatched Thor: Ragnarok (aka the best Marvel movie out there) and I realized that I don’t just love this movie because it’s the perfect blend of funny, anti-colonialist, and action-packed but also because it includes some fantastic Kiwi accents with Rachel House as Topaz and of course Taika Waititi himself as Korg. New Zealand English accents sadly are not featured in many mainstream movies of the Northern hemisphere so they’re relatively unknown accents. But they are some of the most fun and beautiful accents (in my opinion) and deserve more recognition.

There’s a lot going on in New Zealand English phonology but in this short post I will only discuss three vowels that are very distinct in Kiwi English due to a fascinating phonological change called a chain shift. A chain shift refers to a series of sound changes that are connected to each other, i.e. when one vowel moves to a new position, another vowel is pushed or pulled away from its original place too. Chain shifts can include many different vowels – in one of the most famous chain shifts, the so-called Great Vowel Shift, pretty much every vowel in Middle English changed drastically. The chain shift I want to discuss here affected three vowels in New Zealand: TRAP, DRESS, and FLEECE.

Here’s what happened to these three vowels in New Zealand English within the last century :

New Zealand English Chain Shift of front vowels (TRAP, DRESS, and KIT).

This gif shows a so-called vowel trapezium which is a tool linguists use to depict approximate positions of vowels within our mouth. The trapezium represents your oral space, from the front of your mouth (=left side of the trapezium) to the back of your mouth (=far right side of the trapezium), as well as your hard palate (=top line) and the very bottom of your mouth (=bottom line). Where we put a vowel in this trapezium will show the tongue’s position, i.e. how high up or low your tongue is for that vowel but also how far back or how front in your mouth. New Zealand accents started out with a similar vowel trapezium to that of modern-day Received Pronunciation (RP) for the TRAP, DRESS and KIT vowels (depicted in brown in the above gif). That means that these tree vowels sounded similar to this:

TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels in RP

The first vowel that changed was the one in words like TRAP. This vowel started out being pronounced with quite an open jaw and the tongue resting comfortably in the front of the mouth behind the lower teeth. It then was gradually pronounced with a higher tongue position until it reached a very similar tongue position to DRESS vowels. Because of that, a word like bat in a New Zealand English accent sounds like bet to the American or British listener. You can hear Taika Waititi’s raised TRAP vowels as Korg in the above video in words like that, actually, gladiator, pamphlets or hammer.

You can imagine that TRAP vowels being pronounced so similarly to DRESS vowels can lead to quite some confusion. If bat sounds like bet, how do we know which word the speaker means? To create a clear distinction again, DRESS vowels moved out of the way, approaching the tongue height of KIT vowels. A New Zealand English speaker’s bet now sounds like an American or British English speaker’s bit or sometimes even beet. We can hear this tongue raising for DRESS vowels in Korg’s speech in words like yeah, friend, revolution, sense, perishes, let, weapons, or dead.

With this second vowel raising, DRESS vowels became too similar to KIT vowels and again to avoid misunderstandings, KIT vowels moved away from their original position. This time, however, the tongue was already very high up in the mouth, so there was really nowhere to go towards the top. So instead, the tongue retreated and moved towards the center of the mouth. This way, KIT vowels ended up being pronounced with a very relaxed tongue and now sound very similar to a schwa, i.e. the most relaxed sound your face can make which is a sound similar to the American hesitation sound ‘uh’ . Pronouncing KIT vowels so centrally is arguably the most famous Kiwi English feature, perfectly exemplified by the words fish and chips sounding more like fush and chups. You can also find these centralized and relaxed KIT vowels in Korg’s speech, for example in the words this, it, insect, scissors, interested, or is.

With all this moving around, the TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels underwent the following journey in New Zealand English:

The evolution of TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels in New Zealand English

Now that you know about these 3 distinctive vowels in Kiwi English, I’m sure you can find some more examples in the speech of everybody’s favorite prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the following video!