New Zealand vowels are becoming more centralised. Oh, really (yawn), who knew? Actually, this less-than-riveting piece of information explains quite a lot about the way our accent has shifted. The most noticeable change, and the one most often commented on, is that most Kiwis pronounce “i” (as in “it) as if it were “uh” (as in “the”). So you get the infamous “fush and chups” that Seedneesiders find so hilarious. In spoken English lightly pronounced, unaccented vowels revert to this neutral “uh” sound, the schwa. That is, with the exception of “i”. So while rugged will be pronounced as “ruggud”, rigid should be pronounced as “rijid”. Except here, where you’ll hear it rendered almost universally as “rijud” or even “rujud”. And it would seem that none of us is immune. Listen to our newsreaders. With the exception of those on National Radio, the “i” sound is as flat as a pancake. For some reason, the presence of “l” seems to drag our vowels to the centre even faster.
Thus Wellington becomes “Wullungtun”, and the Alps slide inexorably towards the “Elps”. I’m predicting it won’t be too long before we’re climbing the Southern Ulps. A lot of people put this centralisation down to laziness. Linguists will tell you that it’s just a development in our accent, neither good nor bad. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that because we all talk with our mouths half-closed, it’s easier to pronounce the central vowels, and the schwa is the easiest one of all. One of the first exercises I recommend when I’m voice coaching forces the teeth apart and provides a darn good work-out for the tongue, lips and facial muscles. Within a couple of weeks, diction is clearer and the vowels start to shift back to their original position with little effort. And laziness? No, I don’t think so. If we were just lazy why would we say “showen” and “knowen” when it’s much easier to say “shown” and “known”? We’re just sliding towards the centre, and unless there’s a massive outside influence that affects all our young people, I don’t think there’s any way to stop it. And it’s not all bad. At least people overseas will stop mistaking us for Australians!