Story: Linguistics

Page 1. Linguistics in New Zealand

All images & media in this story

Linguistics is the study of human language and how people use it. What is the range of sounds which occur in human languages? How are words ordered in different languages? What meanings are expressed in different cultures? How do people express respect or friendliness in different languages? These are the kinds of questions that linguistics addresses.

Early linguist

The Supreme Court judge Henry Samuel Chapman was also an amateur linguist. In Dunedin in 1876 he published Specimens of fossilised words; or obsolete roots embedded in modern compounds; with some words with new meanings. This work was later recognised as a significant contribution to the study of linguistics.

Linguistics in universities

The discipline of linguistics proper began a bit like a cuckoo’s egg, without its own nest. It was initially nurtured by a range of other disciplines, such as English language, romance languages and anthropology.

Auckland University

At Auckland University, where linguistics first emerged as a distinct subject of study in the 1950s, courses were taught in the anthropology department under Ralph Piddington. Many of the earliest New Zealand linguists studied Polynesian languages, including Māori. Bruce Biggs is probably the best-known of these. He and Jim Hollyman founded the Linguistic Society of New Zealand, and its journal, Te Reo, in 1958. Both of these survived in the 2010s, with strong support from linguists throughout New Zealand.

Victoria University

At Victoria University of Wellington, linguistics developed from early roots in English language in the 1960s to the first fully fledged linguistics department in 1988. Many rich strands contributed to this development. English language continued as one of these, including lexicography. Sociolinguistics also developed, and was an area of expertise for which Victoria developed an international reputation.

Other universities

In due course, other universities also introduced linguistics courses. Linguistics was gradually established as a major subject of study at Massey (1988), Waikato (1992), Canterbury (1993) and Otago (1994).

Austronesian linguistics

Austronesian linguistics involves the study of languages as far flung as Malagasy (spoken in Madagascar), Hawaiian to the north, Malay in South-East Asia and Māori in New Zealand. Austronesian is one of the largest language families in the world, and New Zealand linguists were well placed to lead research into family relationships between the languages in the Malayo-Polynesian branch.

Auckland University linguists, led by Bruce Biggs, have made a substantial contribution in this area. Terry Crowley, trained in Australia, worked at the University of Waikato in the 1980s and 1990s, where he led linguistic research on some of the 110 languages of Vanuatu, a country of only 200,000 people. This research continues at Waikato, Massey and Victoria universities.

Learning from whakataukī

Linguist Hemi Whaanga and ecologist Priscilla Wehi received funding in 2012 to research whakataukī (traditional sayings) to further environmental management. For example, there were many whakataukī about the loss of the moa, a powerful metaphor for the loss of the Māori language. By examining the links between language and meaning in whakataukī, they hoped to gain insights into how to better manage cultural and biological diversity.

Te reo Māori

New Zealand linguists have, not surprisingly, led the world in the study of te reo Māori. Bruce Biggs’s PhD thesis, ‘The structure of New Zealand Maaori’, was completed at Bloomington, Indiana, in 1957. Subsequent research on te reo Māori was undertaken by Biggs’s students, including Pat Hohepa, Hirini Mead, Ranginui Walker, Richard Benton, Anne Salmond, Pita Sharples and Andy Pawley.

Working for the New Zealand Council of Educational Research in the 1970s, Richard Benton undertook the first New Zealand sociolinguistic survey of knowledge and use of the Māori language. The results indicated that only 70,000 fluent speakers of te reo Māori remained, about 5% of the Māori population at the time. Benton subsequently strongly advocated both Māori language immersion and bilingual education programmes as means of stemming the language loss which his survey had identified.

New Zealand English and accent

Research on the distinctive characteristics of New Zealand English and the New Zealand accent began as early as the 1960s, with major strides in the 1980s. An initial ambitious social dialect survey by Donn Bayard at the University of Otago was complemented by the Wellington Social Dialect Survey (also known as the Porirua Project) undertaken by Janet Holmes, Allan Bell and Mary Boyce in 1989–90. About the same time, two 1-million word corpora of New Zealand English were gathered, one written and one spoken.

At Canterbury University, Elizabeth Gordon and Margaret Maclagan began historical research on New Zealand English, focusing initially on evidence that the pronunciation of words like ‘bear’ and ‘beer’ were steadily merging in young people’s speech. With the discovery of material from the New Zealand National Broadcasting Service’s Mobile Unit collected between 1946 and 1948, an archive was established. The important Origins of New Zealand English Project began, with research which continued in the 2010s. New Zealand English is now an important focus of research by linguists throughout New Zealand, as well as internationally.

How to cite this page:

Janet Holmes, 'Linguistics - Linguistics in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Janet Holmes, published 22 Oct 2014