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I have read in a number of places that the NZ pronunciation of "women" must be rather peculiar. Quoting from just one such place:

For some years I've noted the tendency of Kiwis to pronounce "woman" and "women" identically (as "woman").

To which an Australian replies:

It appears there is a vowel shift going on in New Zealand (NZ) English [...] [T]he vowel in "women" which in Australian English is the same as the vowel in "hit", is often, in NZ, reduced to a schwa [...]. It makes the plural sound like our singular. I don't think the NZ pronunciation of the singular is the same as the NZ plural

A New Zealander begs to differ:

I've noticed this trend over the last few years also. To me as a kiwi it doesn't sound anything like a mispronounced plural -- it just sounds as if the speaker is using the one word for both singular and plural. [...] I see it as part of a much larger tendency to confuse singular and plurals. [Several examples follow.]

Who's right? Who's wrong? Wikipedia has this:

In New Zealand English the short i of KIT is a central vowel not phonologically distinct from schwa /ə/, the vowel in unstressed "the". It thus contrasts sharply with the [i] vowel heard in Australia. Recent acoustic studies featuring both Australian and New Zealand voices show that the accents were more similar before the Second World War and that the KIT vowel has undergone rapid centralisation in New Zealand English. Because of this difference in pronunciation, some New Zealanders claim that Australians say "feesh and cheeps" for fish and chips while some Australians counter that New Zealanders say "fush and chups".

So, there appears to be a vowel shift going on; but I'm not sure if there might be some truth to the people-just-stop-caring-about-certain-plurals argument as well.

I hope we have enough New Zealanders on board to shed some light on this.

  • Can you provide a guide to how to pronounce "women" and "woman" in NZ English? (I've done some searching for audio files or YouTube videos, but haven't found anything yet.)
  • Would you say that it's just the vowel shift, "a much larger tendency to confuse singular and plurals", or both?
  • How recent is this trend? (E.g., if you are a native speaker of NZ English, is your pronunciation of "women" different from that of your parents/grandparents?)
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This is just a shot in the dark, but another alternative is that there may be a phonemic variation that is unheard by non-native speakers, but which native speakers parse without difficulty. When I was studying Russian I could never hear the difference between consonants that were followed by the hard or soft signifiers (tvyordiznak, myakiznak) or the yerih. Supposedly one has to hear a language spoken before the age of six months to be able to encode all the phonemic variations for meaning. –  Robusto Dec 1 '10 at 15:48
I've observed something similar among South Africans. For example, to me it sounds like they pronounce "hit" somewhere between "hit" and "hut". –  Dennis Williamson Dec 1 '10 at 19:56
This is a great question, but we're probably going to need a Kiwi with knowledge of IPA to answer it, and those seem to be in short supply. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 1 '10 at 22:30
@JSBangs: If by IPA you mean India Pale Ale, I would venture to say that if we could find a Kiwi at all we could find one with that kind of knowledge. :) –  Robusto Dec 3 '10 at 1:10
@Robusto: when I learned Russian, I actually found the New Zealand fish vowel very helpful in getting my tongue around the yerih (ы). Not that they’re quite the same, but it seems to approximate the bacnkess ы closer than anything else I know in an English dialect. –  PLL Dec 13 '10 at 1:47

4 Answers 4

The most obvious giveaway of a New Zealand accent (as opposed to Australian) is pronouncing the "i" in "fish" further back, so it's almost a "u" ... for example, "fush and chups", which is not done anywhere else in the world. (in IPA, the ɪ moves almost halfway backwards to ʊ, so fish is pronounced fʊʃ instead of fɪʃ).

For the same reason a New Zealander might also move the first ɪ in women backwards to ʊ, pronouncing it wʊmɪn instead of wɪmɪn, thus barely distinguishable from the way they pronounce woman (wʊmən).

Australians and especially South Africans would notice this most, because they move their vowels the other way, saying "feesh" for "fish".

The theory that New Zealanders have lost interest in distinguishing between single and plural is ridiculous. Why would they only be doing this with one particular word? The phonetic explanation is vastly simpler and thus, according to Occam's razor, I'm sticking with it!

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So, per the original question, I assume you're in the "it's just a pronunciation thing" camp, rather than the "it's the same exact word" camp. I agree. –  bikeboy389 Dec 10 '10 at 14:23
Not saying that the phonetic explanation is not vastly simpler, but the whole point of that other theory (proposed by a New Zealander, no less) is that they are not doing it with one particular word, but rather with many: "there is the very successful PC movement in New Zealand over the last decade to enforce the use of singular Maori words for plurals in English (there are a surprising number of such words used in everyday English here)". –  RegDwigнt Dec 10 '10 at 17:56
Sorry, I don't know how to type the phonetic symbols here; but when an Aussie jokes that a NZer says "fush and chups", the vowel that they use is not the upside-down-omega used by Joel in his answer, but the upside-down-vee, as in "cup". –  user16269 Jan 31 '12 at 11:18

To take out a specific clause in your quotes:

[...] I see it as part of a much larger tendency to confuse singular and plurals. [...]

This seems to a common phenomenon internationally, using singular nouns in place of their plural equivalents. There are a few origins that spring to mind. Firstly, integration with speakers of languages that do not have separate plural words, Chinese for instance, (I note that many Maori words do not have separate forms). Secondly, in modern western youth culture, deliberate dumbing down to stand out, when used in that way it has a similar effect to the Patwa absence of tense in words.

Having said that, I believe the NZ use is a pronunciation issue.

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I am a New Zealander. The vast majority of New Zealanders pronounce "women" and "woman" differently. For a New Zealander, both vowels in "women" are schwas, but the first vowel in "woman" is a short U sound (the same sound as "good").

For a New Zealander to pronounce the two identically is due to poor education, or confusion over which form is required. For example, it may be unclear whether to speak of "Women's Lib" or "Woman's Lib". It's absolutely NOT a pronunciation issue.

Note that there's not just a single NZ accent. There are differences between urban and rural speak, and between educated and uneducated. There are additional variations in some areas of the South Island; for example, many people from the Deep South have a rhotic accent - very rare elsewhere in New Zealand.

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I'm living down south now in Dunedin, and I notice people here pronouncing women as woman ALL the time. I have asked several people how to spell the plural of woman, and they spell it woman, as such i'm inclined to believe that a lot of people simply do not realise that there is a difference. Perhaps this is bred out of laziness? Women does require a lot more effort to say.
On the other hand, or Island as the case may be, i used to live in Wellington, and there i don't really remember anyone having the woman/women problem...

Incidentally, in Dunedin I have heard a lot of people (men and women) referring to women as females, but never to men as males. It was even a newspaper headline: Man rapes female... Female what i'd like to know... Ugh.

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