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Scientists Discover Why Kiwis Speak Funny English

Scientists Find Out Why Kiwis Speak ‘Funny’ English

We New Zealanders might be hanging on to Victorian British habits in ways we don't think about.

A University of Canterbury research project has found, for example, that how we say the vowels in such words as "pet" or "pat" might be closer to the original 19th century British pronunciations than we realised.

"Although once vilified as errors of colonial speech, many New Zealand pronunciations are features of 19th century British speech that have been retained here but not in Britain because of a phenomenon called ‘colonial lag’," says project leader Elizabeth Gordon, of the University of Canterbury.

This is one of the findings of a research project named ONZE (Origins of New Zealand English) now underway by linguists at the university. The research is trying to explain how New Zealand English (NZE), especially the distinctive accent, has developed historically. Initial funding for this research was provided by the Public Good Science Fund.

Colonial lag aside, our Kiwi speech has shown much independent development in, for example, how we say the 'i' in words like fish (much to the amusement of Australians).

"This was once thought to have been due to the influence of early Lowland Scots settlers. But we now know that's not true; it's a 20th century New Zealand innovation," Professor Gordon says.

Researchers have also been surprised to find "extremely early" examples of current NZE features in the speech of people born as early as the 1860s and 1870s.
"We have called these examples 'embryonic variants', and their discovery is of some international importance," Professor Gordon says.

The research team has interviewed more than 200 New Zealanders born between 1850 and 1900, recorded by the Broadcasting Service's Mobile Unit from 1946-48. The resulting phonetic analysis of their speech is used to do three main things: First, to identify features of old British dialects that were important in the formation of New Zealand English (the "original ingredients” as it were); second, to pinpoint when and how features now part of NZE emerged; and third, to test theories about language change in general.

The research to date has resulted in a Cambridge University Press contract for a book, which is intended to appeal to linguists, historians, English teachers and anyone with an interest in this country's history, culture, and identity.

Research into why New Zealanders speak the way they do continues.

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