Conservative pronunciation and spelling have both communicative and cultural value. We adhere to a linguistic contract on the common sounds and symbols we use to communicate, and these nuances indicate a rich history, among other things. But the same rules apply for a more liberal approach to language. Distinct forms of English literacy are required to communicate in parts of the English speaking world, and these forms clearly have a cultural value; they give the users an opportunity to express themselves beyond whatever baggage their inherited symbols and sounds carry.
Last week I was involved in a holiday programme with round about 10-12 year-olds. I’m no linguist and this sample is not formally indicative of the whole of which it is a part, but it was nonetheless worthwhile to confirm some of the suspicions I had about the changing face of New Zealand English through some informal observations.
(1) The notorious ə (schwa) sound in New Zealand English, in the oft imitated ‘fish and chips’, seems to me to be becoming ‘worse’ or further away from the ɪ in the received pronunciation. The closest sound I could find to represent this sound’s New Year’s resolution was the ʌ, which if you look at the vowel graph you will see makes sense as a natural progression from the standard and the schwa. Australia might be heading in the opposite direction.
(2) Recalling conversations with Italian friends speaking English, I was impressed with the clean i in their pronunciation of words like ‘me’ or ‘lean’. But New Zealand is joining Australia. We’ve turned to dirty diphthongs (two vowel sounds in one, dirty or no). We put less squeeze on this sound and pronounce it more casually. Kiwis I hear saying ‘me’ tend towards ‘may’ but not identically. My guess is it looks something like əɪ in the ipa but I can’t find a sound file to back it up.
(3) Finally two separate but related vowels appear to be naturally progressing further from their British foremothers. These are the ɛ in ‘bad’ and my favourite New Zealand e, shared with South Africa, in ‘bed’. If you listen carefully to your kiwi friends, you might find some taking an intermediary step between ɛ and e when pronouncing ‘bad’ and suchlike, possibly this, but I don’t have magic ears so I’m making the call based on where the sound is situated on Wikipedia’s graph. e, in an attempt to escape ɛ’s bold invasion of privacy has been moving closer towards the aforementioned i (I have suffered this straw-man when other people carelessly attempt to mock my accent), but as another intermediary sound, if there is one, contra Wikipedia, or alternatively towards the schwa. Don’t ask me.
Language changes. Don’t just embrace it but be yourself a destructive-creative force in the world of words! Die Sprache sprict!