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How to say: New Zealand place names

13:27 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

An occasional guide to the words and names in the news from Jo Kim of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

Following the disastrous oil spill in the Astrolabe Reef (ASS-truh-lab, -a as in "tap", stressed syllables in upper case) last month, several New Zealand place names have featured heavily in the news of late. Some of these place names are Maori, such as Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, the city and the town in the Bay of Plenty respectively.

Our recommendation for Tauranga is an established anglicisation, TOW-rong-uh (-ow as in "now", -ng as in "sing" (not "finger"), -uh as "a" in "sofa"). We also recommend mong-uh-NOO-i (-o as in "top", -ng as in "sing", -oo as in "boot") for Maunganui. These are the pronunciations also used by Radio New Zealand's English language broadcasters.

The established anglicisations of these place names raise interesting questions about the relationship between the Maori and New Zealand English sound systems. There are a multitude of English accents in the English speaking world, and native and non-native speakers alike may have noted some features of New Zealand English pronunciation when they encounter this accent in real life or in the media. (The unit's concentrated exposure to New Zealand English is from watching Flight of the Conchords, which we watched for endless hours in our leisure time - in the pursuit of pure linguistic research, of course.)

Some of the most striking features are the relatively raised vowels (relative in comparison to Southern Standard British English, although perhaps not as much in comparison to General Australian English) and the "rotation" of certain vowels. Accents of English 3: Beyond the British Isles (Wells, 1982) gives a classic example of this - the quality of the "-i as in 'sit'" vowel in New Zealand English. In New Zealand, the "sit" vowel has become a central vowel and may sound much closer to the "-uh as 'a' in 'sofa'". Another example is the quality of the "-e as in 'bed'" vowel and the "-a as in 'bad'", which speakers of other English accents may hear as the word "bid" and "bed" respectively. Another noticeable characteristic of New Zealand English is the fronting of the back open vowel, the "-aa as in 'father'".

This last point may, in some part, explain the anglicisations of the Maori place names above. The Maori "a" is classically described as being a very low and back vowel, relatively closer to my own British English quality of "-aa as in 'father'" than a New Zealand English speaker's pronunciation of the same vowel. You can hear the Maori pronunciations (from Te Karere Maori News) of Tauranga here and Maunganui here.

To keep the backness and openess of the vowel, New Zealand English speakers may be mapping the Maori "a" onto their most back and open vowel, the "-o as in top" vowel, hence the "rong" and "mong" anglicisations.

To download the BBC Pronunciation Unit's guide to text spelling, click here.

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