An American’s Guide to Kiwi English | Tips on New Zealand Culture

You’ve booked your flights, watched every movie ever filmed in New Zealand, and you can’t wait to arrive.


But what language do they speak?

Okay, okay, you have done your research—they speak English and some speak Te Reo Māori. Maybe you even know “Kiwi” refers to New Zealanders and the national bird—NOT the fruit (my rant about that is here).


I was eighteen when I moved to New Zealand. However, I’ve lived between Kiwi and American English my whole life. My parents are from New Zealand—I was six when I discovered we had different accents. My brother explained what I heard as “Tennis Point” was actually them saying Tanner’s Point!


So how do you tackle these subtle (and obvious) differences? I’m not going to explain my lifetime of lessons, don’t worry! Just remember this phrase: Not wrong, just different. Kiwis have seen countless American movies and usually understand your lingo, but you are still in New Zealand. What’s “right” can be opposite to what you’re used to, so always be willing to learn.

To get you started, here’s a Kiwi-American’s guide to New Zealand English.


Words to describe food you know, and food you don’t.

Your flight lands, you get off the plane, and get through customs. Your next thought? I’m hungry. Sure, you’re amazed by the scenery and sights (a.k.a. sheep everywhere). But you’re ready for a meal. So here’s some common foods you’ll find in New Zealand.


Sausage sizzle — barbecue with sausage on a slice of bread, with fried onions

Meat pie or “pie”— a small, savoury pie similar to a pot pie

Tomato sauce — ketchup

Hāngī — earth oven that cooks with heated stones; the meal cooked in it (often roast lamb and vegetables)

Pavlova — a New Zealand meringue cake topped with fruit (don’t believe the Australians when they claim it)

Chocolate block — large, flat chocolate bar with lots of little pieces to break off

Kiwifruit — a green, tangy fruit, often called a “kiwi” by tourists

Words in one of New Zealand’s official languages: Te Reo Māori.

Te Reo Māori is an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand. Some people are fluent, but more often Te Reo words are scattered in everyday Kiwi speech. It’s daunting to tackle a new language, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and give it a go!


Kia ora — hello, greetings (pronounced k’yora)

Haere mai — welcome (the letter “r” is rolled in general)

Whānau — family (“wh” sounds like “f” and “-au” is “oh”; so this is fah-no)

Kai — food

Aroha — love and compassion

Tangata whenua — literally, “people of the land”

Manuhiri — visitor or guest

Marae — the open area in front of a Maori meeting house; also refers to whole complex

Pōwhiri — formal welcome ceremony


Words around the house.

So you’ve tried a meat pie, given some Māori words a go, and now you’ve arrived to where you’re staying. Your host is explaining something about the house—wait, what on earth did they say? Check this out to see if they used any of these words…


Car park — parking lot

Footpath — sidewalk

Chilly bin — cooler

Tea towel — dish towel

Rubbish bin (or just bin) — trash can

Clothes line — the most common New Zealand dryer, despite how much it rains!

Washing — laundry

Peg or clothes peg — clothes pin


Words spelled the same, but pronounced very differently.

So, you’ve made it through your first day. You know the Kiwi accent sounds different. But then you discover there’s a handful of words that sound VERY different from their American counterparts. So give these a try while you’re in New Zealand!


Garage — GARE-idge

Massage — MASS-sage

Weekend — wee-KEND

Avocado or avo— A-va-cahdo (as opposed to ah-va-cado)

Caramel — caramel (not carmel)

Herb — herb (not erb)

Tomato — toe-MAH-toe

Potato — poe-TAY-toe (just when you thought there was a rule, this is the same as the American accent!)


Words that are silent but deadly.

You’ve learned the words that sound different. But there’s another category—”silent but deadly”. They sound the same, but mean something completely different! Usually they’re harmless, but you’ll find some can be a little embarrassing to mix up!


Bench — kitchen counter (but also refers to a park bench)

Counter — little plastic pieces teachers use in math class (which is “maths” in NZ)

Diary — a weekly planner (e.g. “I have to check my diary to see if I can meet”)

Rubber — eraser (but also refers to the material)

Plunger — French press for coffee

Boot — the trunk of your car

Bonnet — the hood of your car

Full-stop — the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence; period refers to something else!


Words to use with your friends (or strangers that you want to be your friend).

Finally, you’ve mastered a dozen Kiwi English words. You’re ready to take on the whole country—but you don’t want to do it alone. Use this lingo with your friends, the cute barista at your cafe, or the stranger walking their dog down the street. You might just find that Kiwi English is no longer foreign—but now your normal life.


“The unfinished simile” (e.g. sweet as, hot as, fun as) — a way to emphasise a word or experience (This taco is spicy as) but you never say what it’s actually like!

Cheers — thanks, see you later, sounds good

Mean — awesome, sweet

Keen — interested, want to (I’m keen to go with you)

Crack-up — a person or situation that was hilarious (She’s a bit of a crack-up)

Yeah, nah — no, but occasionally means maybe

Nah, yeah — yes, or “I agree with your no

All good — good, no problem, you’re welcome

No worries — all good, no problem, hakuna matata


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