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Speak Like a Local

From the moment you begin your New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as you'll learn in the airport) adventure, you'll confront the mélange of Māori words, Briticisms, and uniquely Kiwi phrases that make the language vibrant … but perhaps a bit hard for American ears to navigate.

New Zealand is a bilingual nation, as reflected in its national anthem. Although Māori isn't conversational language, a basic knowledge of Māori is essential for understanding phrases, the meaning of place names, as well as the pronunciation of certain words or place names. For a crash course in the best way to pronounce New Zealand place names, the best thing to do is watch the weather report on the news.

Talking Kiwi is not as daunting as Māori pronunciations for those with the English language under their belt. New Zealander's tend to use the Queen's English, colored up with their unique brand of abbreviated slang. Most Kiwi turns-of-phrase are easy to unravel—a carpark is a parking lot, for example. Others, like dairy (a convenience or corner store), can be confused with American terminology. Only occasionally will you find yourself at a complete loss (with words like jandal, for example—Kiwi for flip-flop), and even then New Zealanders will be happy to set you right. Below are common Māori and Kiwi phrases that you'll likely hear throughout the country.

Māori Pronunciation

Knowing how to pronounce Māori words can be important while traveling around New Zealand. Even if you have a natural facility for picking up languages, you'll find many Māori words to be quite baffling. The West Coast town of Punakaiki (pronounced poon-ah-kye-kee) is relatively straightforward, but when you get to places such as Whakatane, the going gets tricky—the opening wh is pronounced like an f, and the accent is placed on the last syllable: "fa-ca-tawn-e." Sometimes it is the mere length of words that makes them difficult, as in the case of Waitakaruru (why-ta-ka-ru-ru) or Whakarewarewa (fa-ca-re-wa-re-wa). You'll notice that the ends of both of these have repeats—of "ru" and "rewa," which is something to look out for to make longer words more manageable. In other instances, a relatively straightforward name like Taupo can sound completely different than you expected (Toe-paw). Town names like Waikanea (why-can-eye) you'll just have to repeat to yourself a few times before saying them without pause.

The Māori r is rolled so that it sounds a little like a d. Thus the Northland town of Whangarei is pronounced "fang-ah-day," and the word Māori is pronounced "mah-aw-dee," or sometimes "mo-dee," with the o sounding like it does in the word mold, and a rolled r. A macron indicates a lengthened vowel. In general, a is pronounced ah as in "car"; e is said as the ea in "weather." O is pronounced like "awe," rather than oh, and u sounds like the u of "June." Ng, meanwhile, has a soft, blunted sound, as the ng in "singing." All of this is a little too complicated for those who still choose not to bother with Māori pronunciations. So in some places, if you say you've just driven over from "fahng-ah-ma-ta," the reply might be: "You mean 'wang-ah-ma-tuh'." You can pronounce these words either way, but more and more people these days are pronouncing Māori words correctly.

Māori Glossary

Common Māori Words

Aotearoa: Land of the long white cloud (New Zealand's Māori name)

Haere mai: Welcome, come here

Haere rā: Farewell, good-bye

Haka: "dance," implies history, life-force, rhythm, words and meaning of the haka, made internationally famous by the All Blacks, who perform it before each match

Hāngi: Earth oven, food from an earth oven, also used to describe a feast

Hongi: Press noses in greeting

Hui: Gathering

Iwi: People, tribe

Ka pai: Good, excellent

Kai: Food, eat, dine

Karakia: Ritual chant, prayer, religious service

Kaumātua: Elder

Kia ora: Hello, thank you

Koha: Customary gift, donation

Kūmara: Sweet potato

Mana: Influence, prestige, power

Marae: Traditional gathering place, sacred ground

Moko: Tattoo

Pā: Fortified village

Pākehā: Non-Māori, European, Caucasian

Pounamu: Greenstone

Rangatira: Chief, person of rank

Reo: Language

Tāne: Man

Tangata whenua: People of the land, local people

Taonga: Treasure

Tapu: Sacred, under religious restriction, taboo

Wahine: Woman

Waiata: Sing, song

Waka: Canoe

Whakapapa: Genealogy, cultural identity

Whānau: Family

Kiwi Glossary

Common Kiwi Words

Across the ditch: Over the Tasman Sea in Australia (Australians are called Aussies)

Bach: Vacation house (pronounced batch)

Fanny: Woman's privates (considered obscene)

Footie: Rugby football

Gutted: Very upset

Kiwi: a native, brown flightless bird, the people of New Zealand, or the furry fruit

Nappie: Diaper

Pissed: Drunk

Sealed road: Paved road

Shout: Buy a round of drinks

Sticking plaster or plaster: Adhesive bandage

Stuffed up: Made a mistake

Sweet as: All good

Ta: Thanks

Torch: Flashlight

Tramping: Hiking

Whinge: To whine

When Dining Out

For most visitors, dining out is usually the cause for most lost-in-translation moments, as Kiwis tend to follow British terminology. Here are a few tips:

Aubergine: Eggplant

Capsicum: Bell pepper

Courgette: Zucchini

Cuppa: Cup of tea or coffee

Entrée: Appetizer

Flat white: Coffee with milk (equivalent to a café au lait)

Lemonade: Lemon-flavored soda (like Sprite or 7-Up)

Lollies: Candy

Mains: Main course

Pavlova: A meringue cake

Serviette: Napkin

Tea: Dinner (also the beverage)

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