Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Language Barrier

“That chap’s a bit of a dag. When he gets on the piss he loses the plot, then he’ll have your guts for garters.”

We came to New Zealand in part because they speak English here, so we thought there would be less of a language barrier than if we’d emigrated to Mongolia, for example, or rural Burundi. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Most of the time, we communicate with our Kiwi hosts just fine, having a laugh at each other’s endearing little accents.

Then, at other times, communication entirely breaks down.

Go to the market, for example, and shop for vegetables. You won’t find zucchini, chard or peppers, but you’ll get plenty of courgette, silverbeet, and capsicum. Ask for a yam and you’ll be handed a small, squat, starchy vegetable that resembles nothing so much as an overgrown maggot. And when you point at the yams, insisting on what you really want, they’ll look at you doubtfully and tell you it’s kumara.

New Zealand English is sprinkled with Maori words, which can surprise and flummox the unsuspecting visitor. When I first heard someone say Pakeha, I assumed he was a former British skinhead talking about pakis, and I’d backed up halfway to the door before he told me that Pakeha are white New Zealanders. “They are?” I asked. “But what does it mean?”

“White pig,” he clarified with a grin. “The Maori were cannibals, you know, and we looked good enough to eat when we got here.” This isn’t true, as it turns out. Pakeha doesn’t mean “white pig,” and it also doesn’t come from listening to whalers yelling “bugger ya!” when they got on the piss and lost the plot. The most serious treatments of the subject trace the word back to Paakehakeha, which were mystical beings from the sea. And that’s the definition I’m going with. I’d much rather be a mystical sea being than a long white pig.

Sometimes, all it takes is a slight accent difference , and I haven’t a clue what’s being said to me. Before Silas’ fifteen-month vaccinations, the nurse asked me if he’d had “whole eek.”

“Whole WHAT?” I asked.

“EEK,” she repeated, even louder. “The white and the yellow of the EEK.” Apparently, the vaccine was eek-based, and she wanted to make sure he’d had white of eek, with no allergic reactions, before she gave him the shot.

There are some words that you simply must learn in order to get by. The dag, for example, is a clump of shit dangling from a sheep’s ass. It’s also used to refer to a joker, or a bit of a hard case. A hard case is an eccentric person, somewhat different but likeable all the same. Someone who’s “different,” on the other hand, is eccentric in a bad way. Peter and I, as weird Americans who live on a boat, are hard case. Jeffrey Dahmer, as a psychopath who ate his victim’s flesh for breakfast, was different.

Sometimes, the confusion can be embarrassing. When Peter tore up the driveway after several days of rain, he rang up the neighbors to ask them what he should do about it. “I’ll come round in the morning,” our neighbor told him, “and give it a bit of a squiz.”

Peter hung up the phone. “Well, what did he say?” I asked. “Is he going to help?”

My husband looked pale. “I’m not sure,” he finally responded. “He’s either going to help me or pee on me, I’m not sure which.”

Then there’s the local humour, the references you couldn’t possibly understand unless you’d been living here for years. I was sipping tea with the girls from my antenatal group, when one of the toddlers got a bit rough with Silas. “Let’s hope he doesn’t do a Hopoate,” giggled Leslie, and everyone tittered appreciatively.

I sat there like a stunned mullet. “A what?”

“A Hopoate.” Sandra explained, and blushed. Apparently, in 2001, an Australian rugby player named John Hopoate got suspended from the game for disgraceful conduct. He’d developed a new technique for tackling his opponents, which involved jamming his fingers up their anuses. Besides being painful and extremely rude, the rugby authorities decided his conduct amounted to “unsportsmanlike interference.”

I eyeballed the offending toddler, who was pounding an inflatable ball on Silas’ head. I nearly spat the dummy. Then I picked up Silas and sat him safely on my lap. “Would you like to read a story with Mama?” I asked him. “Let’s give it a bit of a squiz.”


  1. We went to Scotland once and I felt the same way. Not to mention, they drive down paved deer trails at 90. That's not Kph but Mph.

    p.s. The condo has not sold yet. I might be waiting a while. I am on meds until then.

  2. Come on, I sailed there from CA and spent 18 months. The Kiwis are better than most...surely that's dawned on you. If not, come back to the good ol US of A for a reality check.

    However, important thing is...YOU have a writing talent. Hopefully it will provide some sort of living, if not, please don't let life wear you down. YOU ARE TALENTED... regardless of the rewards.

  3. The Kiwis are awesome. It's just that I need a translator here.