NZ #12: sɒːmɔa

By: | Post date: January 7, 2010 | Comments: No Comments
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I came to New Zealand not knowing much about the place, and I still don’t. What I pick up, unavoidably, I refract through my Australian understanding of the world.

To that understanding, New Zealand is not Ulan Bataar or Abidjan: it’s not completely foreign, and much is familiar. There are surprises, but they are scattered.

One surprise was that the Samoa tsunami was a very big deal here: it featured large in the overviews of the year’s news. I’d already forgotten it had happened.

Samoan is the third most spoken language in New Zealand; in Australia, the third spot was Greek, yielding now to Arabic. The large Samoan community here, which is starting to make its mark on the New Zealand film industry, is reason enough for New Zealanders to care what happens in Samoa. But Samoa is not on the Mediterranean: it’s in the Pacific, like New Zealand is.

And New Zealand seems to recognise that it is in Polynesia, in Maori land and next door to Samoan land. The British did their damnedest to transform the land into a New Britain (or, since that name was taken, a New Ulster and a New Munster): they imported mallard ducks and deer and black swans. But not all of it has stuck. Its first cities have British names and British features, reaching parody levels in Christchurch and Dunedin. But most of the towns have Maori names, and they are pronounced like they have Maori names.

Which is another noteworthy difference with Australia. If an Australian town has a name of indigenous origin, and a lot less do than in New Zealand, the name will get put through the Australian English vowel mangler. There’s an outer Melbourne suburb called Yallambie, its second <a> honked and drawled the way New Zealanders like to make fun of on Australian Gladiators ads: [jəɫæ̃̃ːmbiː]. That name started out indigenous, but noone has any particular motivating to pronounce it like it is.

Not so here. The Pakeha pronounce initial [ŋ] where they have to. Listening to the weather forecast is like flicking between TV1 and Maori TV: the Maori placenames are pronounced with a respect for their source phonology unwonted in English. Especially the /a/ in long vowels and diphthongs: its a back, rounded [ɒ] that doesn’t belong in New Zealand English, but does belong in New Zealand. It’s the vowel of Māori and Tauranga and Aotearoa, and it’s certainly not what an Australian would do with the vowel.

For what an Australian would do with the vowel, see [jəɫæ̃̃ːmbiː]. And remember, we do NOT sound like the dregs of the London sewerage system. (The business with the [æ̃̃ː] is actually a class marker in Australia, which is why it’s possible to make fun of it. Not *seemly* to, but possible to.)

It’s armchair sociolinguistics of the worst kind to read much into phonetic loans (or for that matter nasalised front vowels). But armchair sociolinguistics is a fun sport, and I think it means something that New Zealanders of European heritage reproduce indigenous vowels more than Australians of European heritage do. It tells you that the indigenous language hasn’t been eradicated, for a start. New Zealand still hears Maori spoken by 5% of its population.

And Samoan by 3%, and that brings me back to the Samoan tsunami. In Australia, when the Samoan tsunami was mentioned, it was [səməʉən], its vowels suitably flattened for Australian consumption. Here, the newscasters use the same vowel as for Māoriː it’s [sɒːmɔan], its vowels reverently replicated into English.

More reverent than Maori, which after all has its own phonology to follow, and has different things to prove. Maori has no /s/, so the country is called Hāmoa there.

Maori TV, I’ve got to say, has been pretty good about its language purism. There is a Maori language body to coin new words, or at least sanction phonological assimilation of English loan words, and the language used sounds like it’s falling into line. The only codeswitch I’ve heard so far on the Maori news was consultant. This was in the piece of the fact finding mission to Hāmoa, and the consultants were the people suspected of pocketing much of the relief money for the tsunami. I can see why Maori wouldn’t deign coin a native equivalent.

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