Awkwardly Respectful Pronunciation (of non-English Words)

Aotearoa. The ‘Land of the Long Flat Vowel’. Universally famous for our monotone, deadpan accent. Flat, front-of-the-mouth mangling of syllables, consonants, and the dropping of the letter ‘R’ at the end of words. Just listen to our Prime Minister, John Key, the next time he bungles the word ‘Opportunity’ (he does it rather a lot, but in case you were wondering, it sounds like ‘Opchoontee’).

Odd then, that almost every Kiwi makes such a commendable effort to pronounce words perfectly in every other language, with particular sensitivity to Maori and Pacific Island languages, even if sometimes it makes them sound like a bit of a dick.

This is particularly the case with weather presenters, and can be observed nightly during our Frequent Weather Reports.

Our earnest attempts to display the utmost respect for the languages of all cultures except English, can be observed during conversation. Watch carefully for a sign, in the middle of an otherwise flatly intoned sentence, of the slightest pause, as the person carefully rehearses the unfamiliar phrase in their head. R’s, previously absent, now roll uncomfortably off the tounge. The lips purse, and atrophied tounge muscles cramp into place, creating little used shapes and sounds. Vowels go all rubbery. Wh’s become F’s (Whakatane). C’s become Th’s (Barcelona). And X’s become S’s (Xin Xin).

The overall effect frankly makes it hard to concentrate on the rest of the sentence. Fortunately, Kiwis tend to stop short of gesticulating their arms like a Frenchman, tempered by their inherent instinct not to look ‘like a bloody poof’.

But don’t be alarmed by this awkward struggle with unfamiliar sounds. It is not a cause for concern that the New Zealander you are talking to has just pulled a face muscle. Rather, it brings them the glowing sense of self-satisfaction that can only be achieved through knowing that they are more respectful and knowledgeable of foreign or indigenous cultures, and therefore less racist, than everyone else.

About the only thing that brings a greater feeling of inner peace, is correcting other people – particularly tourists – of their pronunciation mistakes. As in; “..actually, it’s pronounced Whangarei, not, Wang-Garry.”