Research Projects

All Blacks vs.

Choice stuff

Social dialect research on New Zealand English (NZE) dates from the pioneering work of Donn Bayard (1987) who collected data from 144 informants, mainly from the Otago and Southland area. Although his data consisted of written language read aloud (reading lists and reading passages), he clearly demonstrated a correlation between a speaker’s social background and the "broadness" of their accent. He analysed a very large number of linguistic variables including both sounds and vocabulary. He collected information, for example, on people’s pronunciation of four sounds labelled the "four terrible diphthongs" by school inspectors, and clearly associated with a broad NZE accent (namely the sounds in GO OUT MY GATE). He also studied the extent of merging of the diphthongs in the words EAR and AIR, and the distinctive NZ pronunciation of the short front vowels in PIT, PET and PAT. All subsequent surveys have included analyses of some or all of these features of NZE (which can be listened to on the Sounds page of this website). He also examined people’s lexical preferences for words with British origins, such as torch or pictures, vs words with American origins, such as flashlight and movie. See his book Kiwitalk (Bayard 1995) for a detailed description of this research.

The next large scale social dialect project was undertaken in Wellington, or more precisely in the city of Porirua (20 miles from Wellington city). At Victoria University of Wellington, Janet Holmes, Allan Bell and Mary Boyce (1991) used four young interviewers to collect data from 75 contributers who represented a carefully pre-determined range of age groups and social groups, as well as including both female and male, Maori and Pakeha participants. This survey used an interview schedule devised to elicit a range of styles from very careful to more conversational speech. The linguistic variables reported in the initial analyses included the traditional ING variable (heard in words like swimming and running) which has been studied in all social dialect surveys of English throughout the world, as well as more distinctively NZ features such as the EAR/AIR merger and the pragmatic particle eh used in phrases such as good movie eh! The analysis of the latter feature was taken further by Miriam Meyerhoff (1992, 1994), who showed that it was more frequent in the speech of young, Maori contributers, especially Maori men. When David Britain subsequently analysed another distinctive feature of NZE, the High Rising Terminal, he too found this was more frequent in the speech of young Maori New Zealanders, though it was also a feature of young Pakeha women’s speech (Britain 1992).

Victoria University of Wellington is also the home of two one million word corpora, the Wellington Written and Spoken Corpora of NZE, which have provided material for more recent social dialect research, including studies of Maori English (Holmes 1997b), the role of women in leading language change in NZE eg in relation to pronunciations such as glottal final (t) in words like pit and voiced intervocalic (t) in words like better (Holmes 1997b), and the distribution of pragmatic particles such as you know, you see, and I think (Stubbe and Holmes 1995).

In Christchurch social dialect research focussed initially on longitudinal study of the EAR/AIR merger. Elizabeth Gordon and Margaret Maclagan have undertaken 5 yearly interviews with Christchurch teenagers to track the development of this merger and especially the wide variation in the different starting points at different periods. The contribution of women to NZ vowel change has been another focus of interest (Maclagan and Gordon 1996, Woods 1997). More recently, the Canterbury social dialectologists have built a more comprehensive database of current New Zealand speech through data collection undertaken by students in their New Zealand English undergraduate course. This database provides valuable material for comparing with the Archival material which is held at Canterbury University from the NZ Broadcasting Archives and which forms the basis of the extensive Origins of NZE Project based at Canterbury University.

In Auckland, Allan Bell undertook a groundbreaking study in the 1970s on distinctive stylistic features of NZ newsreaders, and in particular on the ways in which they adapted their speech to the audience they were addressing on different radio stations (Bell 1982, 1990). More recently Margaret Batterham (1996, 2000) undertook a social dialect survey collecting data from 140 informants, focussing her analysis particularly on the short front vowels and the EAR/AIR merger. Her analysis suggests that there is an underlying pattern which relates these two phenomenon.

Social dialectology in New Zealand has developed in many directions over the last 20 years. It is probably true to say that all current work on NZE takes account of at least some social factors from a range of sources of social variation, including gender, age, and ethnicity, as well as education and occupation. Research on NZE is well represented in leading international sociolinguistics journals such as Language in Society and the Journal of Sociolinguistics. The journals World Englishes and English World-Wide have sometimes been dominated by research on NZE. The content of the scholarly journal Te Reo (journal of the Linguistic Society of New Zealand) over the last twenty years, and the more recent New Zealand English Journal (formerly NZE Newsletter), aimed at a wider audience, provide further evidence of the pervasive influence of social dialect approaches to the study of NZE. And there is now a good range of books on NZE from the very accessible Bayard (1995) and Gordon and Deverson (1998), to the more scholarly Bell and Holmes (1990) and Bell and Kuiper (2000). New Zealand English is clearly a popular topic, and these sources all support the claim that sociolinguistic approaches are favoured by most current researchers of this variety.


Batterham, Margaret 1996."There is another type here?" Some front vowel variables in New Zealand English. PhD thesis. Bundoora, Victoria: La Trobe University.

Batterham, Margaret. 2000. The apparent merger of the front centring diphthongs – EAR and AIR – in New Zealand. In Allan Bell & Koenraad Kuiper (eds) New Zealand English. Wellington : Victoria University of Wellington. 111-145.

Bayard, Donn 1987. Class and change in New Zealand English: a summary report. Te Reo 30: 3-36.

Bayard, Donn 1995. Kiwitalk: Sociolinguistics and New Zealand Society. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Bell, Allan 1982. This isn't the BBC: colonialism in New Zealand English. Applied Linguistics 3,3: 246-58.

Bell, Allan 1990. Audience and referee design in New Zealand media language. In Allan Bell and Janet Holmes (eds) New Zealand Ways of Speaking English. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters. 165-94.

Bell, Allan and Janet Holmes (eds) 1990. New Zealand Ways of Speaking English. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Bell, Allan and Koenraad Kuiper (eds) 2000. New Zealand English. Wellington: Victoria University Press. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Britain, David 1992. Linguistic change in intonation: the use of high rising terminals in New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change 4, 77-104.

Gordon, Elizabeth and Tony Deverson 1989. Finding a New Zealand Voice: Attitudes to New Zealand English. Auckland: New House.

Gordon, Elizabeth and Tony Deverson. 1998. New Zealand English and English in New Zealand. Auckland: New House.

Gordon, Elizabeth and Margaret Maclagan 1990. A longitudinal study of the ear/air contrast in New Zealand speech. In Allan Bell and Janet Holmes (eds) New Zealand Ways of Speaking English. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters. 129-148.

Holmes, Janet 1997a. Setting new standards: sound changes and gender in New Zealand English. English World Wide 18, 1: 107-142.

Holmes, Janet 1997b. Maori and Pakeha English: some New Zealand social dialect data. Language in Society 26,1: 65-101.

Holmes, Janet, Allan Bell and Mary Boyce 1991. Variation and Change in New Zealand English: a Social Dialect Investigation. Project Report to the Social Sciences Committee of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. Wellington. Victoria University.

Maclagan, Margaret and Elizabeth Gordon 1996b. Women's role in sound change: the case of the two New Zealand closing diphthongs. New Zealand English Journal 10: 5-9.

Stubbe, Maria and Janet Holmes 1995. You know, eh and other 'exasperating expressions': an analysis of social and stylistic variation in the use of pragmatic devices in a sample of New Zealand English. Language and Communication 15, 1: 63-88.

Woods, Nicola 1997. The formation and development of New Zealand English: interaction of gender-related variation and linguistic change. Journal of Sociolinguistics 1,1: 95-125.

The information on this page was provided on 18 October 2000.
The author of this page is:

Janet Holmes
School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Victoria University of Wellington
PO Box 600
Wellington, New Zealand
e-mail: Janet.Holmes@vuw.ac.nz