Kiwi pronunciation: pigs and pegs, badges and barges

I like New Zealanders. I have met many of them over the last 40 years and can’t recall any that I didn’t like. Friends from work and school have landed up in New Zealand and are living good lives, from what I can see. I have spent many hours in conversation with Kiwis but still get caught out with their pronunciation, even after all these years.

It first happened back in the 1970s, when I was still a child. The man whose speech I misunderstood back then might not have forgiven me. Even now he might remember me (if he remembers me at all) as some London kid making fun of the way he spoke. My brother and sister have certainly never let me forget it. A neighbouring couple, both from New Zealand, had offered to take the three of us out for the day. It was the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of August 1976. We went to the Notting Hill Carnival. It was around lunch-time, very quiet, there wasn’t much worth seeing. The parades, the floats, the excitement: they were all for later in the afternoon. I heard the husband say “Shall we go and see the badges?” I liked badges, I collected them, and said “Yes, let’s go and see the badges”. He looked a bit cross, so did his wife, and my brother and sister whispered at me as if I’d said something wrong. “What? What?” I whispered back. I expected us to walk to a nearby stall selling badges, but we headed back to their car and drove away, towards the City. Half an hour later we were somewhere we’d never been before, near Tower Hill, and looking at some boats built in the style of 16th Century vessels, or barges. “Oh, BARGES,” I said out loud. The possibility that we might visit some historic boats was known to my siblings but not to me. If anyone had told me that we might be seeing barges I wouldn’t have heard the word “badges” instead.

That part of the afternoon was pretty dull too and we headed back towards the Carnival again. The news on the radio told us that there was big trouble going on – the Notting Hill Riot of 1976 was in full flow. I thought that we should go and take a look but nobody else did and we headed further west and home. (Joe Strummer was in Notting Hill that afternoon and wrote “White Riot” about the experience.)

Many years later, also near Tower Hill, a friend and his New Zealand-born wife invited me and a friend to dinner. His wife was walking in from the garden and said, “I stepped on a pig” (more accurately, “I stipped on a pig”), which I knew meant that she had stepped on a clothes-peg. It turned out that there had been a bit of a misunderstanding when she went to buy the pegs locally. She had asked at the supermarket if they sold “pigs” and was told that they sold ham and pork, but not actual pigs.

Driving my friend (a teacher) back after the meal she said that there had been a bigger misunderstanding at her school when one of her colleagues (from New Zealand) had gone to the Post Office to get sacks for the sack race at the school sports day. The Post Office workers heard her ask something like, “Do you have any sex? Could I have some sex please?” She did eventually get some (sacks that is), but probably modified her pronunciation thereafter.

And in the last two years, working on an IT project that involved far more contact with programmers than I’m used to, I spent quite a lot of time dealing with a programmer from New Zealand. He was always very helpful putting me in contact with other people I needed to deal with. Towards the end of my time there I was looking for someone who, it turned out, worked in the basement of the building next door. What I heard was, “You’ll find him in the pit”.
“The pit?” I asked, “Where’s that?”
“No, not pit, PIT”
“No, PIT. P-E-T.”
“Oh, PET” (some stupid bloody acronym I never knew the meaning of). I was right back to the badges and barges again.


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