Culture – Language


As an immigrant to New Zealand (I moved here nearly twenty years ago from the US) I have always been mindful of being respectful of the national culture.  Not that it’s been a huge challenge; after all, it is an English speaking, democratic country, and we share a common British heritage, which includes much of our food, education, entertainment and sport.

When I first moved here it was the slang more than the accents that proved challenging.  Kiwis have a way of shortening words and adding or “ie” to the end:  sandwich becomes ‘sammie’, breakfast becomes ‘brekkie’, even a national supermarket, New World can be referred to as ‘Newies’.  I don’t know why they do it and neither my Kiwi husband nor our Kiwi friends know why they do it either, but they like it.  At least now I know to take the ‘ie’ off the end of a word I don’t know to see if it turns into one I do.  It works most of the time.

Of course, there are the words that have different meanings in the different countries.  ‘Randy’ is a classic example:  in the US it’s a common shortened form of Randolph while in all British countries it means ‘horny’ (in a sexual sense, not like a rhinoceros).  We’ve only had one friend visit with that name and he very quickly modified his introduction to acknowledge the joke: ‘Hi, I’m Randy, and I mean that as my name and how I’m feeling.”  He was a big hit.

When friends and family first came over to visit one of our first language lessons beyond ‘rubbish’ (trash) and ‘togs’ (swimsuit) was to inform them in very grave tones that they were to never use the term ‘fanny pack’ to describe the small bag worn around their waist while travelling.  There was no way around explaining that it’s the equivalent of saying ‘vagina pack’ (well, there is one worse, but we won’t go there) and after a good laugh any potentially mortifying moments were spared.

One of my most embarrassing moments was during a discussion of the America’s Cup race back in 1999 with a couple of male friends.  I was observing how many Americans living in New Zealand were rooting for Dennis Connor’s team.  There was a moment’s silence, then Gary and John caught each other’s eye and started grinning.  Too late I remembered that ‘rooting’ in New Zealand means having sex.  I have lived and learned the hard way.

My US family and friends think I have a Kiwi accent but I think it’s more likely attributed to my regular use of ‘lovely’ and ‘no worries’ among other common phrases.  I’m often mistaken for a Canadian, but having lived in Alaska for ten years before moving here I think my accent has evolved into a medley of each of the places I have lived.

This is why I love studying languages, discovering not only where the roots of words come from but being a part of their evolution to reflect the lives of people who use them.  And why I’ll always check the local lingo before opening my mouth.


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