Sneer­ing way to assert cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity


A re­cent edi­tion of my favourite mag­a­zine, Bri­tain’s The Spec­ta­tor, in­cluded a travel ar­ti­cle in which the writer had made a brief stopover at Auck­land.

She de­scribed New Zealand as ‘‘ut­terly dra­co­nian’’ about what peo­ple are al­lowed to bring into the coun­try. ‘‘I dis­em­barked to dire warn­ings of crip­pling fines for smug­gling in food, seeds, plants or pets. It’s a brave trav­eller who wan­ders in with a for­got­ten ba­nana skin in their bag.’’

She went on: ‘‘To my hor­ror, I was pounced on im­me­di­ately. A guard grabbed my hand­bag, drag­ging it off my shoul­der. ‘D’you hev food of eny kind in your beg?’ she de­manded. ‘Boris [her bouncy bea­gle] thinks you hev’.

‘‘My bag was wrenched from my grasp, emp­tied out on to a ta­ble, and given a thor­ough snuf­fle by Boris.’’

I sus­pect a bit of jour­nal­is­tic ex­ag­ger­a­tion here. Granted, our border pro­tec­tion peo­ple some­times lack a bit of fi­nesse. This is a haz­ard of their oc­cu­pa­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally. Cus­toms and im­mi­gra­tion peo­ple ev­ery­where have a way of mak­ing in­no­cent trav­ellers feel guilty, or at the very least un­der sus­pi­cion.

But what par­tic­u­larly struck me was the writer’s mock­ing of the New Zealand ac­cent.

Be­fore I go any fur­ther, I should make a dis­clo­sure. I cringe at the way many of my fel­low New Zealan­ders speak.

The New Zealand ac­cent is chang­ing, and not in a pleas­ing way. I reckon the time will come when peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion will strug­gle to un­der­stand what mil­len­ni­als are say­ing.

Younger staff in cafes and shops are of­ten in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. They speak a di­alect recog­nis­able only by their con­tem­po­raries.

On a re­cent Air New Zealand flight I winced at the stran­gled pro­nun­ci­a­tion and grotesque, singsongy vo­cal cadence of the 30-some­thing woman mak­ing the in-flight an­nounce­ments. Our na­tional air­line leaves no stone un­turned in its ef­forts to re­cruit cabin crew who speak atro­ciously.

But here’s the thing. As a New Zealan­der, it’s my right – a right of cit­i­zen­ship, you might say – to com­ment crit­i­cally on the way we speak. But when peo­ple of other na­tion­al­i­ties make dis­parag­ing re­marks about the New Zealand ac­cent, that’s a dif­fer­ent story. I al­ways feel my hack­les rise.

Why? Be­cause it’s the sneerer’s way of as­sert­ing cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity.

It’s the eas­i­est thing in the world to make fun of the way other na­tion­al­i­ties speak, but it re­veals more about the mocker than the mocked.

The Brits still carry a lot of im­pe­rial bag­gage, and some can’t help re­veal­ing their dis­dain for cul­tures that they once gov­erned, and which they still con­sider a bit prim­i­tive – like us, for ex­am­ple.

The United States-based TV host John Oliver is an­other Pom who en­joys mak­ing fun of the New Zealand ac­cent. The irony that has es­caped both Oliver and the Spec­ta­tor writer is that their own coun­try is home to a won­drous as­sort­ment of bizarre re­gional ac­cents and di­alects, some of them al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to out­siders.

This il­lus­trates two truths about ac­cents. The first is that most hu­man be­ings can’t help the way they speak, any more than Oliver can help look­ing and sound­ing like a dork.

Ac­cents are mark­ers of re­gional ori­gin, so­cial class and ed­u­ca­tion. They are part of a life­long cul­tural con­di­tion­ing that starts at birth and over which most peo­ple have lit­tle con­trol.

The other truth is that most na­tional and re­gional ac­cents sound funny to out­siders and are there­fore ripe for mock­ery.

This is just as true of a farm­hand from the English West Coun­try – or, for that mat­ter, a Ge­ordie from Eng­land’s North-east or an Old Eto­nian with mar­bles in his mouth – as it is of a biose­cu­rity of­fi­cer at Auck­land Air­port.

The Bri­tish are not the only na­tion­al­ity who de­rive amuse­ment from the way New Zealan­ders speak. Aus­tralians do it too.

A re­cent ex­am­ple was when the now-dis­graced former Aus­tralian deputy prime min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce was re­vealed as hav­ing dual cit­i­zen­ship of Aus­tralia and New Zealand. This was the cue for much glee­ful satir­i­cal com­ment on Aus­tralian TV shows in which Joyce mys­te­ri­ously ac­quired what was pre­sum­ably meant to sound like a New Zealand ac­cent.

Sigh. Aus­tralian jokes about the Kiwi ac­cent are as te­dious, pre­dictable and in­fan­tile as the tired old ones about sheep. But who’s to say that our ac­cent sounds any more ridicu­lous to an out­sider than the Aus­tralian one?

Done with­out mal­ice, mimicry of other ac­cents can be funny. The late Peter Sell­ers made a ca­reer out of im­i­tat­ing Hin­dus and French­men – some­thing he would never get away with to­day. But the way the New Zealand ac­cent was de­scribed in the Spec­ta­tor ar­ti­cle had noth­ing to do with hu­mour.

It was a sneer­ing put­down of a crude colo­nial – one, more­over, who had the im­per­ti­nence to sub­ject the jour­nal­ist to the in­con­ve­nience and hu­mil­i­a­tion of a bag check. How dare she.

It’s a sign of in­se­cu­rity when one na­tion­al­ity tries to build it­self up by putting oth­ers down. The sooner peo­ple re­alise this, the sooner the dis­parag­ing jokes about na­tional ac­cents will dry up.

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