Story: Linguistics

Page 2. Social dialects and sociolinguistics

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Social dialects and New Zealand English

As a relatively new variety of English with a colonial heritage, New Zealand English has provided a valuable sociolinguistic laboratory for those interested in reasons for language variation and change. Social dialectologists have researched how the ethnicity and gender of speakers and hearers are signalled in their speech, as well as documenting changes over time by collecting speech from people in different age groups. They have found that these factors are more important than social class in terms of differences between speakers (whereas in some other English-speaking countries, social class is a more important contributor to speech patterns).

Lost in translation

In 2012 Prime Minister John Key’s strong Kiwi accent led to a gaffe by the US State Department concerning New Zealand’s willingness to commit armed forces to a future international conflict. Key had said, ‘We welcome the opportunity to co-operate. In that context’, but it was interpreted as the opportunity to co-operate ‘in the next conflicts.’1

Regional variations and end-tag

There was tentative evidence in the early 2000s that New Zealand English might be developing regional varieties. Most New Zealanders are aware of the Southland ‘burr’, as it is colloquially labelled, which refers to the tendency to pronounce ‘r’ in words such as ‘car’ and ‘card’. Laurie and Winifred Bauer have identified differences in the vocabulary of New Zealand schoolchildren in three broadly distinguishable regions of New Zealand, and regional differences in the intonation of people from Taranaki have also been identified.

Another distinctive feature of New Zealand English is the pragmatic particle or end-tag ‘eh’, used in phrases such as ‘Cool game eh’ and ‘Great weather eh’. This tag was initially identified as a marker of Māori ethnic identity, but it has now spread throughout the population as a marker of social solidarity and informality.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes to New Zealand English have changed a good deal. Elizabeth Gordon documented the negative reactions of school inspectors to the developing New Zealand pronunciation in the early 20th century. More recent research suggests that New Zealanders have finally overcome their ‘colonial cringe’ and have begun to feel proud of their distinctive accent.

Kiwi guide

Responding to negative reactions to the English accent on its satellite navigation systems, in 2010 GPS company TomTom went out to find an authentic Kiwi voice. Victoria University linguist Paul Warren saw the move as symbolic of New Zealanders’ growing sense of identity. He advised against using a voice with too much rising intonation. This would sound as if it was always asking questions, creating ambiguity over whether to turn right or left.


Sociolinguistic research in New Zealand includes studies of language maintenance and shift among minority linguistic groups, such as speakers of Greek, Fijian Hindi and Chinese languages, as well as Samoan, Niuean and Cook Island communities. Language revival efforts in relation to Māori have also involved a sociolinguistic dimension.

Sociolinguists have also studied the language of the New Zealand media, including newspapers, radio and TV. The internationally respected researcher Allan Bell has been the leading figure in this area. The Wellington Language in the Workplace Project, established in 1996 by Janet Holmes, has documented New Zealand workplace discourse, from factories and building sites to board meetings in IT companies and international organisations. Recent developments are extending sociolinguistic research to include multi-modal discourse analysis.

Sociophonetics and psycholinguistics

More experimental approaches to studying language have also developed in New Zealand, with work in sociophonetics (which combines sociolinguistics and phonetics) and psycholinguistics (the study of the relationships between linguistic behaviour and psychological processes). The New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, directed by Jen Hay at Canterbury University, is a flagship for interdisciplinary research in these areas.

  1. ‘Today in politics,’ Stuff, 5 September 2012, (last accessed 18 February 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Janet Holmes, 'Linguistics - Social dialects and sociolinguistics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Janet Holmes, published 22 Oct 2014