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by Janet Holmes

Producing a Māori dictionary in 1844, William Williams was the first of a long line of New Zealand lexicographers. Other linguists have studied New Zealand English, te reo Māori, minority languages and sociolinguistic issues.

Linguistics in New Zealand

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.

Social dialects and sociolinguistics

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.


Vocabulary studies and applied linguistics

Vocabulary studies


New Zealand has produced a large number of lexicographers (dictionary-makers) for a small country.

New Zealand’s earliest lexicographer was William Williams, who produced the first English–Māori dictionary in 1844. His grandson, Herbert Williams, produced an enlarged edition in 1917 and was the major Māori-language linguist of his day.

Bo-Peep’s crook

Lexicographer Harry Orsman told the story of a British primary teacher who came to New Zealand and got her class to act out the story of Bo-Peep. At the end of the piece her script said, 'Bo-Peep takes crook and leaves’. She was completely unaware that ‘to take crook’ means to become sick in New Zealand English.

English-language expert Ian A. Gordon was a lexicographer and professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington. Many other lexicographers were former students of Gordon’s, including Harry Orsman, whose monumental Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997) represents a high point in New Zealand lexicography.

New Zealand lexicographers who worked overseas include Robert Burchfield, chief editor of the Oxford English dictionary between 1971 and 1984; Bill Ramson, editor of the Australian national dictionary; and Eric Partridge, who specialised in dictionaries of British slang.

Combining lexicography and deaf studies, another area of linguistics which developed at Victoria University, Graeme Kennedy produced the first comprehensive dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language in 1998. This multimedia, multilingual reference tool has since been made available online. When a user clicks on a sign, they see a video of a person using it in an utterance. It is an immensely valuable resource for the deaf community.

Vocabulary research

Vocabulary studies are closely related to dictionary-making, and New Zealand also has a strong reputation in this area. H. V. George, the iconoclastic director of the English Language Institute for many years, set the direction for vocabulary studies. He extensively applied vocabulary research to language teaching and learning. Paul Nation has continued to develop this research area, with diverse teaching, learning and testing materials.

Applied linguistics

In New Zealand, applied linguistics has its roots in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). Gradually, the scope of research in this area extended to theories of language learning and teaching, language testing and language policy. While courses in some aspects of applied linguistics were available at most New Zealand universities in 2014, Auckland and Victoria Universities offered the widest range, including postgraduate research options in applied linguistics.

English Language Institute

The English Language Institute (ELI) was established in 1961 at Victoria University on the initiative of professor of English Ian Gordon, who had an established reputation in English language as well as literature. It was initially funded separately by the Department of External Affairs to provide English proficiency courses for teachers from Asia. Under the leadership of Graeme Kennedy the ELI was gradually integrated into a Department of Applied Linguistics, which also provided a home for the New Zealand Dictionary Centre and a Deaf Studies Research Unit. In 1997 the establishment of a School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies brought linguistics into this fold as well.

Lasting new words

In 2013 the Waikato University linguist Andreea Calude was part of a team that came up with a list of new-generation words that were likely to survive into the future due to their constant use in social media. They included lol (laugh out loud); youse (plural version of you); totes (totally); soz (a shortened version of sorry); and yolo (you only live once).

In Auckland, applied linguistics was developed first by Jack Richards and then by Rod Ellis, both researchers with international reputations in language learning and teaching. Richards is also known for his research on English as an international language, while Ellis is a world authority on cognitive aspects of second-language acquisition and its applications to language teaching.

New Zealand linguists overseas

For a small country New Zealand has left a large imprint on the international linguistics scene. This proud record includes early lexicographer exports such as Eric Partridge, expert on English slang, and Robert Burchfield, the editor-in-chief of the Oxford English dictionary, along with language-teaching entrepreneurs such as Jack Richards, author of English-language teaching books which sold in their millions in Asia. It also includes sociolinguists like Bernard Spolsky, who has contributed significantly to language policy theory and practice, both in New Zealand and internationally.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Janet Holmes, 'Linguistics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Janet Holmes, published 22 October 2014