Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


New Zealand

Mark Williams

Although politically progressive, Jacinda Ardern has consistently used the language of conservative, rural New Zealand throughout the COVID-19 crisis. She often does so through sport, not surprisingly given her own small town background and her husband’s job hosting a popular television series on fishing. Notably, Ardern announced the government’s decision to move to a full lockdown using the slogan, ‘Go hard, go early’, a phrase redolent of All Black coaches encouraging maximum physicality when scrums bind, and a nice counter-balance to her continual reminding of New Zealanders throughout the crisis to practise kindness.

Ardern’s technique of drawing together traditional and progressive audiences has a surprising literary antecedent in New Zealand. In 1991 the poet, Bill Manhire, argued in an essay, ‘Dirty Silence: Impure Sounds in New Zealand Poetry’, that the linguistic device, code-switching, had become a defining feature of New Zealand poetry.[1] Instead of seeking to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’, kiwi poets, Manhire observed, preferred to ‘dirty’ it by bringing together conflicting languages and social registers. He cited the gloriously impure mixture of Māori, Irish, and Hebrew that closes a story by Hone Tuwhare: ‘Kia ora begorrah! Amen’.[2]

Whether or not Ardern has read Manhire’s essay, in addressing the nation throughout the current crisis she has adapted to her political purposes the technique Manhire celebrates. Ardern’s speeches are constructed to bring together different kinds of New Zealand English—formal and colloquial, Māori and English, rural and urban. She isn’t writing poems to the nation, but she does draw on quirks of local language use that are also worked into poetic practice to reach a broad and inclusive audience.

In a recent press conference addressing the virus Ardern used a concealed version of code-switching in the memorable phrase, ‘Be strong, but be kind’. ‘Be kind’ has become her mantra, and owes nothing to the language of rugby or the traditional hard man values of rural New Zealand. It is a quality embedded in her Mormon upbringing. ‘Be strong’ translates a Māori phrase, kia kaha, that has common and cross-cultural usage in Aotearoa-New Zealand. It is associated with the heroism of the Māori Battalion in World War II, and with that of Christchurch’s response after the earthquakes and mosque shootings. Ardern’s trick is to evoke the positive associations of strength in the face of tragedy, bringing together in a sentence phrases that connect often antagonistic communities: rugby followers and urban intellectuals, Māori and Pākehā.

Ardern recently announced her decision not to end the lockdown early with another stock rugby phrase, quoting her Minister of Sport: ‘we can’t squander a strong half-time lead’. This is not, in itself, code-switching and certainly not poetry. But it is part of a conversation among the dialects within New Zealand’s political and poetic discourses. As the language of the everyday invades that of the educated in Manhire’s poems, so populist language is made to converse with the language of political enlightenment as Ardern talks the nation through the crisis.

Ardern has been widely commended for her handling of the crisis, which has resulted in very few deaths. Important also is the high level of national assent she has achieved, in spite of arguments about when to ease the lockdown. By mixing conflicting linguistic elements and discrete audiences in her public language while respecting the differences they represent, Ardern has helped the country avoid, thus far, the more severe expressions of divisiveness observed elsewhere.

[1] In ‘Dirty Silence: Aspects of Language and Literature in New Zealand, eds., Graham McGregor and Mark Williams (Oxford UP, 1991), 144-57.
[2] Ibid, 151.

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