Monthly Archives: February 2015

Illegal “Meads” and Other Linguistic Lessons from “Almighty Johnson’s”

A show I’ve been enjoying in recent month’s is the New Zealand import Almighty Johnson’s, the saga of family whose members acquire the powers and behaviors of a Nordic god when he or she reaches 21. Hey…it could happen.

FYI – My fellow Americans who missed Seasons 1-2 on SyFy may be able to catch up on all 3 seasons on Netflix or the DVD Box set. You should be warned that these modern Nordic gods frolic and act just as they did in the sagas.

Linguistic Lessons

Here in central PA, I’m not overly exposed to New Zealand English as it is spoken in New Zealand, so this show has been an education on some facets of New Zealand English I thought I would share.

“Shoot Through”

If you decide to pick your things, take off for the hills and abandon family responsibilities, you are going to “shoot through”. This happens when the Johnson’s mother shoots through to become a tree after her eldest son turns 21. This almost happens again when surfer grandpa Johnson (with immortality) impregnates his 20-something girlfriend.


I normally associate the longer ta ta “good bye” with upper crust English, but in New Zealand, it’s been shortened to Ta! and is used by everyone.

Everyone says “Fuck!”

In this U.S. expect to hear lots of bleeps and dead silences as EVERYONE uses the F-bomb multiple times per episode. Wow. This is all the more remarkable to me because the show started at 8:30 PM in New Zealand. WT*?

This show actually flips U.S. censorship conventions on its head – there is lots of cursing and tons of description and PG-13 depictions of sex, but very little actual blood. I have to say I enjoy this more than seeing blood at 8:30 PM.

The Most Important Lesson: The Vowel Shifts

U.S. linguists discuss the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, but the front vowels are shifting drastically in New Zealand English (similar to what is happening in Australia).

I first noticed it when I heard family /fæməli/ as fame-ily [feməli], but most front vowels are shifting up one position in many speakers (sometimes more if there’s a nasal following). A great shifter is actress Rachel Nash (Ingrid). When she proclaimed that she once sold illegal illeagal meds /mɛdz/, I first thought she meant illegal meads [midz]. She and most others also pronounces the character name Axl /æksəl/. as Exl [ɛksəl]. There’s also very ubiquitous /ɛ/ to /e/ shift so that dress /drɛs/ can sound like drace [dres].

Other vowels and diphthongs are affected. Axl pronounces grown [groʊn] as the more split [grɐʉn]. This article from the New Zealand Encyclopedia provides some details.

While this information isn’t new to New Zealanders, I would have to say it’s new to Americans, even American linguists. Like the Northern Cities shift, the New Zealand shift presents neophyte American ears some interesting phonological challenges.