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Research team studying changes in Maori language

July 22, 2004

Engineer part of research team studying changes in Maori language

A lecturer from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at The University of Auckland is part of a team of researchers undertaking a ground-breaking study on the changes in Maori language spoken today, compared with what was spoken 50 years ago.

Dr Catherine Watson, from the Faculty of Engineering is part of an inter-University team of researchers who have won a Marsden grant for a research project analysing changes in the pronunciation of the Maori language, and the impact the English language may have had in these changes.

Dr Watson says any language, if it is living, changes over time.

"While changes in the English language and many other languages have been recorded, no such study has been done analysing spoken Maori."

Dr Watson is the only engineer on the research team, which includes linguists from Waikato University, the University of Canterbury and The University of Auckland. Although an electrical engineer by training, she has been involved in many aspects of Speech Science and Technology and says she is looking forward to this latest study.

"The team has obtained recordings of Maori spoken 50 years ago from the Mobile Unit Archive from the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives and we have recorded Maori spoken today.

"An analysis of the recordings will enable the team to describe accurately the pronunciation of Maori speakers born in various regions in the North Island in the late 19th century - something that was previously thought impossible," says Dr Watson.

Maori has regional variation and much of the difference between dialects is to be found in the vocabulary, however, there are known to be differences in pronunciation as well.

The study will document the regional differences found in the speech of kaumatua (Maori elders) alive today and the developments in such differences over the past 50 years. The research is also expected to provide a detailed analysis of the extent of the influence of English on Maori.

As part of the study, Dr Watson and fellow Auckland colleague Dr Peter Keegan from the University's Arts Faculty are looking at the rhythm of Maori and recording how that has changed over time.

Dr Watson says it is difficult analysing Maori because it is unclear what the metric or base element is in Maori language.

"English is a 'stress-time' language building its stress patterns from alternating heavy and light syllables. However, the unit of analysis for Maori is possibly not a syllable and we need to develop the metric for Maori."

Using her engineering background, Dr Watson is charged with the responsibility of finding a good method to carry out the analysis and ensuring that the method can be replicated.

She is currently working on a systematic analysis, which includes a sophisticated computer analysis as well as an aural based one.

"Being an electrical engineer I am as much interested in developing the computer based analysis, as using it," says Dr Watson.

The analysis will involve transcribing all the recordings and time-aligning the transcript. An acoustic labeller will then phonetically label the data. Speech processing techniques will be used to extract various features, such as pitch, loudness, and vocal tract resonances. Using analysis based on these features will enable the researchers to produce a metric from which changes through the years can be identified.

Dr Watson has an extensive background in doing large scale, across time, analysis of speech. Her previous research has included analysing how the Queen's English has changed over the last 50 years and she is doing a similar study on New Zealand English.


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