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New Zealand’s geography and culture have helped the locals develop a language all their own. Native Helen Cordery helps us tell our jandals from our gumboots with no worries.
Text by: Helen Cordery
Country: New Zealand

ew Zealand, despite its relatively young history, small population, and variety of influences, has a strong sense of identity and what it means to grow upKiwi’.

Straight off the bat we are born into a world where the sayings “no worries” and “she’ll be right” indicate an easy-going attitude that can be seen almost everywhere, from mothers giving birth then buying the weekly groceries just hours after, to children being sent to school barefoot and playing rugby in stubbies (short shorts) during winter. Here you are not bundled up and protected from the environment, but rather, you adapt to the land.

What do you call a man with no shin? Toe-Knee.

We kiwis pride ourselves on our relationship with nature, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why ‘Jaffas” (Aucklanders) are viewed with such derision away from the big smoke (city). Even the biggest cities, however, provide ample spaces to connect with nature.

Schools have rugby fields, tennis courts, and swimming pools much too large to simply do bellybusters in (bellyflop into the water), while school trips may involve anything from fishing to diving excursions. Growing up in rural Northland, I remember lunch as a time when we kids would climb trees and get any aggro (angry feelings) out of our systems with strong character-building games like Bullrush. And if we were good at school we got a chocolate fish, the best prize.

At school we also learnt about the culture of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. I distinctly remember learning different hakas, or dances, in primary school, and tapping out the Stick Game (traditional Maori children’s game with wooden sticks) to the tune of E Papa Waiari. Every music class would involve a rendition of Pokarekare Ana, and school assemblies would contain an obligatory Kapa Haka performance and lengthy Maori greetings.

Maori also peppers how we talk, because even though academics point out the many linguistic similarities we share with our antipodean cousins Australia and South Africa, many terms are unique to us. Heading out on foot? You are catching the “waiwai express” meaning the “walking express”. Showing visitors the sights or taking the long way round? You’re off on a “tiki tour”. It is also just as normal to say “whanau” to refer to your family and “ka pai” instead of “well done”.

Each progressing school year would involve the further study of the Treaty of Waitangi (the much- debated agreement between the Maori and the colonisers) and overnight stays in maraes (meeting houses). We learnt to cook and eat many, many hangis over the years, the word of which to this day still brings up strong memories of standing hungus, or hungry, by a pit as it was dug open, and then feasting on a plate chocka (full) with earthy-tasting kumara (sweet potato) and meat.

The beach is perhaps where kiwis really come alive, because the coastline is always present. A staple kai (food) of the Maori is kaimoana (seafood), and New Zealand’s abundant shoreline has meant that a morning scavenging for pipis (a type of endemic shellfish) or diving for kina (sea urchin), paua (abalone) or even crayfish is normal. As a child there was nothing more awesome than opening a freshly cooked bag of fish and chips while sitting on a beach with only my family, in front of crystal clear blue waters that occasionally would burst with the dorsal fins of dolphins. Holidays for us meant either using the sleepout (guest room) at a friend’s bach (holiday home) or setting up tents beachside for a week and cooking what we could on a camp stove.

It rains in New Zealand—a lot. The wops (country areas) are so green and filled with forest dense enough to force wetas (a type of endemic insect), Kauri trees, kiwis and kakapos (a type of endemic parrot) to evolve. From Auckland, the weather proceeds to get colder and more extreme the further you travel down, until you reach the glaciers of the South Island. There are four items central to any kiwi wardrobe: jandals (flip-flops) and togs (swimsuits) for summer, and gumboots (wellington rain boots) and swanndris (iconic patterned coat) for winter. Another item you can find on many residents is the pounamu necklace, made with sacred New Zealand greenstone, or a bone carving. These days Maori tattoos are also becoming commonplace across the population. More Maori are reconnecting with their heritage and following tradition, with the highest honour being displayed on their faces in the shape of the ta moko.

Growing up kiwi also meant going out into the bush. Many New Zealanders are blessed with gardens big enough to get lost in (unless you live in Auckland) with a tree large enough to hang a swing from and certainly enough space to pitch a tent in during summer. While many of my friends had a pool or a river to wade in, we also made do with running through a sprinkler or sliding down a slippery tarpaulin we’d place on a hill. We’d make huts, and kind dads would help with building tree-houses for our games. Sometimes we’d strip flax bushes to make kete bags and piupiu skirts. At my place we always went fishing in the creek for ginormous eels and trout that we’d marvel at in a bucket before plopping back in the water.

Much of New Zealand is rural farmland. Milking the cows before any hint of sunshine, learning to drive on a tractor and riding horses bareback as a child were all part and parcel of what it meant to grow up in much of the nation. Farm life made for steep learning experiences, something my expat friend Lucy Young remembers with fondness, “Dad would slit an old sheep’s throat and let it bleed into the creek for us … it made for great eeling! But looking back … yes, it was quite full on!”

It is this kind of environment that has allowed New Zealanders to develop the kind of mentality that everything will be “sweet as” and an adventurous nature that has seen them make their mark in all corners of the globe. Donna Davies, a New Zealander living in South America, explains that growing up in New Zealand meant a level playing field for men, women and people of all religious, sexual, and cultural identities.

“We call a spade a spade, we value the environment and we are resourceful problem solvers —we know that a #8 wire can solve anything! One time my jandal broke while in Vietnam so I fixed it with some random wire I found. I’d have preferred to go barefoot, but the Mekong Delta was no place for that!”

Today the rest of the world is looking at New Zealand with interest, thanks to its relatively safe towns, clean natural spaces, and quality educational options. My childhood hero, Jason Gunn, only pops up on telly occasionally, while most kiwi kids are growing up with no idea who Goodnight Kiwi was or the joys of choosing 5 cent lollies in the dairy on the way home from school. Even Mr. Whippy no longer makes a regular appearance on our streets anymore. But some things do remain: the annual A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) Show, the hidden delights to be found in op shops, sausage sizzles outside The Warehouse, the squeezy sauce bottle in the shape of a tomato, the flat white coffee and the humble feijoa tree, still to be found ravaged by schoolchildren everywhere.

Some Kiwi Expressions

Aye – used at the end of sentences to make a question, or can be used in sentences without meaning
Bags/shotgun – “calling” for something
Dunny/longdrop – outside toilet
Flat out/flat stick – to be busy
Knackered – tired
Mean as – really good
Missus – wife/girlfriend
Oi – hey
Sleepout – granny flat/additional room added on/caravan in the yard
To scull – to drink fast
Telly – television
To piss down – to rain
Wops – country/rural areas
“Yeah nah” – no, kind of
as – adding ‘as’ at the end of anything adds emphasis and exaggeration (big as/sweet as)


English, With a Twist

New Zealand is a relatively young country with a unique geography and culture. Although it has had many varied influences, it has a strong sense of identity that is reflected in its language. For starters, we don't call ourselves New Zealanders, but rather 'Kiwis'. We have an easy-going attitude that is reflected in our expressions "no worries" and "she'll be right".

Kiwis are very proud of their relationship with nature. Schools have rugby fields, tennis courts, and large swimming pools, and school trips may involve anything from fishing to diving excursions. Children climb trees during lunch and build their character with games such as Bullrush. At school we also learn about the culture of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.

Maori also influences how we talk. We use the word whanau instead of "family" and ka pai to say "well done". We eat a lot of kaimoana (seafood) such as kina (sea urchin) and paua (abalone). As children we make huts and strip flax bushes to make kete bags and piupiu skirts.

Most Kiwis wear the pounamu necklace made from sacred New Zealand greenstone or a bone carving. Maori tattoos are also becoming popular. There are four other items that are central to any kiwi wardrobe: jandals (flip-flops) and togs (swimsuits) for summer, and gumboots (wellington rain boots) and swanndris (iconic patterned coat) for winter.

Don't be surprised if you feel a bit lost when you first arrive in New Zealand, with a little bit of practice you'll soon be drinking flat white coffee with the locals and attending sausage sizzles outside The Warehouse.



Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

English, with a twist



Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Intermediate: Phrasal Verb: Come Off

Advanced: Farther and Further


Kiwi English

Summary Vocabulary

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