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How do New Zealanders refer to themselves?

Members of New Zealand society use various terms to refer to themselves. Interestingly, a great majority of these terms originate from Te Reo Māori and are therefore loanwords into New Zealand English. Alongside the English term New Zealander, which roughly denotes a person from New Zealand, we find three other common (Māori loan)words: Kiwi, Pākehā, and Māori.

Picture credit Active Adventures
Because the Kiwi bird is held as an iconic feature of New Zealand culture (it is indeed the bird not the fruit!), following the First World War, it has also come to denote the people of New Zealand (other terms prior to this one included En Zed(der)s, Fernleaves, or Maorilanders (see source). These days, New Zealanders of a European origin are termed Pākehā, and Māori New Zealanders are referred to as Māori (the earlier term native was commonly used in the past but is no longer in common use for this meaning today; usually it occurs in expressions such as "native plant/bird" or "native bush").


A recent study which consulted newspaper articles (over a period of twenty years from 1993-2013) and excerpts of spoken New Zealand English (recorded around 1998) has tracked the frequency of occurrence of these three words (Kiwi, Pākehā, and Māori) in order to better understand their meaning and use. Although all three words denote a certain type of person, when we look at how they are found in real-life interactions, they suddenly seem very differently to one another. This highlights one of the benefits of consulting real data and actual linguistic exchanges (a method termed "corpus linguistics"), instead of relying exclusively on intuition and dictionaries.

Māori is used to talk about Māori language (for example, discussing plans to revitalise the language, or to set up schools in Te Reo Māori), Māori culture, Māori people (including specific needs, health issues, family, and sports), law, politics and Māori television.

Pākehā is nowhere near as common and only comes up in a restricted range of topics, and unexpectedly almost all of which relate to a Māori context.

And most frequently of all, Kiwi shows up in a whole lot of places, typically having positive connotations as a marker of national identity, and often in the recurrent and much beloved topic of competition between Australia and New Zealand (particularly in speech). In this latter case, Kiwi is an affectionate term for a New Zealander, like for instance in the example: "[...] fundamental about the Kiwi character, you'll see the rest of the world before you see Australia". (WSC, DPP308).

Overall, it turns out that over the last twenty years, the word Kiwi has been increasingly used and is becoming more frequent in New Zealand English, whereas both Pākehā and Māori are decreasing.


Figure: Frequencies of use per million words in the newspaper articles consulted

Given that Kiwi is a more general term which can be used by both Māori and Pākehā to refer to their belonging to New Zealand, the frequencies suggest that New Zealanders are seeing themselves as (or at the very least talking about themselves as though) they are one and the same people, putting aside their ethnic differences, and becoming a more unified nation.

Source: Onysko, A. & Calude, A. (2014). Comparing the usage of Māori loans in spoken and written New Zealand English: A case study of Māori, Pākeha, and Kiwi. In Zenner, Eline and Gitte Kristiansen (eds.). New Perspectives on Lexical Borrowing. pp. 45-72. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.

Maintained by Andreea S. Calude (University of Waikato, NZ). Last updated June 2017.