One thing I always notice when I'm hearing Kiwis speaking English is the fact that almost every vowel turns into /ɪ/. Here's a video which illustrates the point (listen to them when they speak vowels).

Example words that video whose vowels I hear changed:

Has (sounds like 'his'), neck (nick), men (min), death (dith), centre (cintre), yanked (yinked), says (siz), said (sid), etc.

How did this vowel change come about? It doesn't even seem to exist in Australian English, and it seems rather unhelpful as I find this pronunciation makes many words harder to understand.

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    Questions of "why" in the field of language change are almost always unanswerable. You can show that certain changes have happened more commonly than others, and you can sometimes create ex post facto explanations in terms of functional load, but we can almost never tell why a particular change has or hasn't happened.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:17
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    I don't think it's the case that these vowels have actually merged, it's just that their targets have changed from the English varieties you're familiar with. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:17
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    Related (possible dupe?) english.stackexchange.com/questions/6016/… Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:26
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    culture, culture, man... bet you will feel another huge difference when it comes to Scottish accent :)
    – woodykiddy
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:44
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    Wikipedia says that in New Zealand English, sat -> set, set -> sit, sit -> sət. So these vowels are still all distinct, but they've shifted places, and sit has moved halfway to soot. I don't know whether anything's happened to soot, but since /ʊ/ and /uː/ can be merged before l's (i.e., pull and pool), I expect soot has moved somewhat, as well. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 17:07

4 Answers 4


They're not all like [ɪ]. They're just different from other dialects. The "vowel" section of the Wikipedia article about New Zealand English discusses how New Zealand vowels are different from other dialects.

Note, however, that /ɪ/ itself is pronunced [ʌ], that is, "sin" sounds almost like how I would say "sun".

As for why, nobody quite knows where sound changes originate. In many languages, including various times in the history of English, when one vowel changes, many others change as well, to redistribute them throughout the vowel space. Such groups of changes are known as chain shifts, the most famous being the Great Vowel Shift. This is clearly what has happened with short vowels New Zealand English. The description in the Wikipedia article says "The short-e /ɛ/ of YES has moved to fill in the space left by /ɪ/, and it is phonetically in the region of [ɪ]", implying this is a pull-chain—a shift of one vowel opens up room in the vowel space that other vowels move into.

I don't know if there are any studies that show the history of the New Zealand vowel shift, so I can't be sure the implication from Wikipedia is correct, as it is uncited, but it is certainly a plausible explanation.


I watched a video the other day in which the differences between Australian and Kiwis English were examined. It became clear soon that the Kiwis use very short vowels, for eg. saying pin that too with a very short and quick i, not exactly how we say pin either(think of it p AIR and n), for pen. Someone pointed out the usage of these short vowels could be a Scottish influence as they're known to have very short vowels too. It's possible, as we know how Cockney is perceptible in the Australian English.


I'm no expert but after living in NZ for 16 yrs I put it down to that I think New Zealanders don't pronounce vowels at all in most words, it's as if the vowel isn't there. Eg pronounce the word 'big' then think of how you'd pronounce it if it didn't have the 'i', that's how NZ'rs say it. Same for 'neck', 'death' and all the other words mentioned above. It sounds as though they're saying it with an 'i' but they're actually pronouncing it with no vowel at all.

  • Like the OP, I hear "neck" and "death" as "nick" and "dith" in NZ English, not 'n'ck" and "d'th". Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 20:32

Why? the answer is: Maori influence. The busted vowel sounds come from Maori pronunciation of English. Also South Africa shares the same busted "can" vowel, so that "can" sounds like "ken." Both NZers and South Africans pronounce "Africa" as "Efrica." Although a NZer can't hear it.

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    This is very interesting (re: Maori influence). Do you have any references?
    – JAM
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 2:20
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    Is that an opinion or personal perception? Any sources you can cite will be very helpful.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 11:37

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