Exploding the myths of newzilnspeak, David Britain

Kiwitalk: Sociolinguistics and New Zealand Society
Donn Bayard
Dunmore Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 86469 220 X

Among the many revolutions that took place in New Zealand in the 1980s, one was sociolinguistic. Twenty years ago, very little had been written about language and its place in New Zealand society: we knew that the survival of te reo Maori was under threat, we knew that New Zealand English was different from other Englishes, even from that spoken across the Tasman, we knew that there were large numbers of ethnic and other minority groups in New Zealand struggling for recognition of their native languages: the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, Dutch and Italians, those from neighbouring Pacific islands and users of New Zealand sign language. But solid evidence was lacking. No profile of New Zealand sociolinguistics existed.

And then, the Big Bang ‑ over the past 15 years, there has been an explosion of interest in the Maori language, variation and change in English and societal multilingualism in New Zealand. The revolution came late ‑ it was felt in North America and Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s ‑ but when it came it was big. Sociolinguists conducted extensive empirical research, providing not only a wealth of data on the state of languages in Aotearoa, but also contributing fully towards the wider academic debate at an international level. New Zealand’s sociolinguists number among the world’s leading researchers in their fields.

But sociolinguistics has always had a rather uneasy relationship with some of its public. Almost everyone has language, they use it all the time and they have opinions about it. The most publicly visible outcome is the dreaded letter to the editor ‑ Joe Smith from Timaru or Taihape writing to complain that Judy Bailey dropped a “t” when reading the news and that “I’m not racist, but everyone should speak English”. These views never square with those of the practitioners of sociolinguistics. The upshot is a feeling, particularly in some more reactionary parts of the media, that sociolinguists want to corrupt our English language with double negatives and split infinitives, convince us that Maori is well suited to the late twentieth century and make all our children learn Gujarati or Greek.

It is within this context that Donn Bayard’s book Kiwitalk: Sociolinguistics and New Zealand Society has appeared as the latest attempt not only to chart the principal landmarks of the Kiwi sociolinguistic revolution, but also to explode the many myths that are circulated and defended by the Complainers. Bayard cites Janet Holmes, New Zealand’s best known sociolinguist, in setting the agenda for his book:

Sometimes the task [of the sociolinguist] may be to remove the rose tint from society’s spectacles. More often it is to clean off the sooty sediment of negative stereotypes and


(“The role of the sociolinguist in society” in Graham McGregor and Mark Williams (eds) Dirty Silence: Aspects of Language and Literature in New Zealand (Oxford University Press, 1991), p39)

The book is also, however, a very personal account of how sociolinguistic issues have affected the author’s life. It draws heavily on his experiences as an American who became a Kiwi, as an anthropologist who became a sociolinguist, as a “new” pakeha finding his identity in New Zealand society. I am not sure this personal touch is appropriate for a university textbook.

Reassuringly, the book is not content with defence of the sociolinguist’s position, but comes out shooting from the preface through to the conclusion.  In chapter 1, “Language and New Zealand Society”, Bayard lines up those folk linguistic (and folk anthropological) myths that he wishes to later explode ‑ questions relating to accent, class and national identity, to racism and attitudes to te reo Maori, to gender and differences between men’s and women’s speech.

His approach is as much anthropological as linguistic. Some of the chapters put a greater emphasis on deconstructing notions such as ethnicity than on investigating how they interact with language. I found this both fascinating and frustrating. As an interested reader, I found his discussion of both the “cultural cringe” and ethnic identity clear and convincing. As a sociolinguist, however, I sometimes felt disappointed about the lack of in‑depth coverage of some areas: multilingualism and language shift, for example, received relatively little attention, considering the amount of research done recently on Maori language maintenance and on the “other” languages of New Zealand ‑ those of the Pacific, Asia and southern Europe and New Zealand sign language. Sometimes social myths were exploded without demonstrating their linguistic relevance.

Chapters 3 and 4, “English in Aotearoa” and “Speech and Society”, look at the historical development and present day structure of New Zealand English (NZE). The recent interest in investigating the origins of NZE has not developed in an academic vacuum. For the past two decades or so, many social dialectologists around the world have been concerned with how new dialects evolve, in particular those new varieties that emerged as a result of colonialism in the Americas and Australasia. English was taken to these countries from the United Kingdom and Ireland, yet there are no dialects there which are identical to any of the postcolonial Englishes. Similarly, francophone linguists are interested in the relationship between the French spoken in France and in Québec, just as Indian linguists are keen to track the development of their languages in places to which labourers from their country were sent, such as Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and South Africa.

A consensus is beginning to emerge which can account for the differences between the old and new varieties. We can demonstrate this by looking at the study in depth of New Zealand by Elizabeth Gordon at Canterbury University.

First, the settlers of Aotearoa did not come all speaking one and the same dialect ‑ they came from different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and a significant number came from Australia. They brought with them different, sometimes very different, dialects which were mixed together in New Zealand. Children acquiring English in New Zealand had somehow to focus their own dialect from this mixture ‑ the outcome was a new levelled dialect made up of sounds and grammatical constructions that were common to a majority of the settler dialects. NZE, for example, like the majority of settler dialects that produced it, has a vowel distinction between “put” and “putt” which dialects from northern England do not have. Some of the rarer sounds and constructions were eradicated, like the Scottish “ch” in words like “loch”.

Second, in almost every case settler Englishes came into contact with indigenous languages and these have had a considerable influence on the new Englishes that have emerged. The principal influence of Maori on NZE has been lexical ‑ providing a whole host of new words that have become accepted among non‑Maori speaking pakeha in Aotearoa: haka, kiwi, moa, rimu, kauri, pukeko, marae, etc.

Finally, languages are continually changing and the “new” Englishes are no exception. A change may occur in NZE which does not happen elsewhere and the effect of this is a gradual divergence from other dialects of English. Changes under way in NZE include the increasing use of high rising intonation and the merger of the diphthong in words such as “air” and “bare” with that in “ear” and “beer”.

The myth of New Zealand as a classless society with few social divisions, one of those “rose tints” in the spectacles of kiwi society, is one which Bayard can demolish with the support of considerable linguistic evidence. He demonstrates that the social, ethnic and gender divisions within New Zealand society are all reflected in language use.

The most solid evidence to support this conclusion comes from the Porirua social dialect project, begun in the late 1980s by Janet Holmes, Allan Bell and Mary Boyce at Victoria University. The project collected tape‑recorded discussions with 75 Poriruans, male and female, Maori and pakeha, working and middle class and of different ages, and analysed for evidence of linguistic variation and change.

This set of recordings has been supplemented very recently by the massive million‑word corpus of spoken NZE ‑ a collection of recordings of conversation, formal speeches and lectures, television and radio discussion programmes and documentaries, weather forecasts and sports commentary designed to give an overall representative sample of the spoken English word in New Zealand.

Some of the features distinguished include h‑dropping, ‑in/‑ing, the “air”/”ear” merger, the pronunciation of “i” in words such as “pin” and “brick”, the use of high rising terminal intonation, the glottalisation of “t”, the flapping of “t” (“budder” as a pronunciation of “butter”), the use of discourse markers such as “you know”, “eh”, “sort of”, “and that sort of thing” and the research goes on.

Whilst demonstrating that people’s social and ethnic characteristics are reflected in their speech, Bayard makes the valid and important point that as yet no clearly definable Maori English variety has been established. The differences between Maori and pakeha NZE are relative rather than categorical ‑ as yet no features have been found to occur in the English of Maori that do not occur at least some of the time in the NZE of pakeha as well. Bayard’s own well-known research using social‑psychological techniques to assess people’s ability to distinguish and evaluate different dialects solely on the basis of tape‑recordings has demonstrated that on the whole New Zealanders are not very good at telling pakeha NZE from Maori NZE ‑ nor, for that matter, very successful at distinguishing a New Zealander from an Australian. He skilfully show us, therefore, that our opinions of Maori, pakeha and Australian English are based on often negative evaluations of the speakers rather than evaluations of their dialects.

Bayard dedicates chapter 6, “Te Reo Maori Me Te Reo Pakeha”, to a discussion of both the historical development of Maori as a Polynesian language and a thoughtful discussion of pakeha attitudes to Maori language and culture since colonisation. We are reminded how racist the western world was in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. A belief in their own racial superiority led the colonists to view Maori as a “primitive stone-age language”, incapable of expressing abstract thought or functioning in a civilised society. The need for Maori to borrow many English words was considered ample evidence of its inadequacy for the modern age. Yet English more than many languages has relied on words borrowed from other languages.

A large number of borrowings is simply evidence of language contact rather than of linguistic deficiency. Bayard successfully buries this and other stereotypical racist attitudes to Maori language and culture ‑ the myth of the Moriori and of the “invention” of maoritanga. I was surprised, subsequently, to read rather too little about the renaissance of the Maori language, its increasing presence in the education system and attitudes towards these developments. A discussion of Mary Boyce’s excellent research on Maori language maintenance in Porirua would have fitted the bill here nicely.

Chapter 8, “Blokes and Sheilas: Language, Gender and Sexism”, attempts, as do previous chapters, to examine closely how Kiwi society has created harmful sociolinguistic myths that undermine the status of certain groups, in this case, women. Bayard tries to deconstruct the idea that women are weak, tentative, emotional but overly talkative creatures compared with the strong but silent “good Kiwi bloke”.

As usual he is able to draw on evidence that challenges these perceptions: from analyses of Sharon Crosbie’s television interviews to research on men’s and women’s swearing behaviour, Bayard demonstrates that many variables other than just sex intervene to determine men’s and women’s linguistic behaviour, most notably whether the talk is in public or in private and if the conversations are single‑sex or mixed‑sex. He claims, once more citing Holmes, that women are more polite, facilitative speakers than men: they don’t interrupt to grab the turn at talk as much as men, they encourage others to talk, they provide encouraging feedback and support their fellow conversationalists.

A discussion of sexist language then follows, showing that “man” and “he/ his” (“Man has succeeded in destroying his planet”) far from being generic terms to represent humanity are perceived to represent men and hide the existence of women. Bayard draws on the socio‑psychological techniques mentioned earlier to demonstrate that sexist perceptions are still alive and kicking. A discussion of possible resolutions of the problem concludes the chapter.

The final chapter looks towards language in New Zealand in the twenty‑first century, highlighting the growing Americanisation of the NZE lexicon and looking forward to a healthy multicultural environment in which te reo Maori, NZE and the other tongues of Aotearoa can thrive.

There is an index and a good bibliography, giving evidence of the wealth of sociolinguistic research in recent years. Chapter 2, “Linguistics and Sociolinguistics”, usefully provides a few of the nuts and bolts of phonetics and phonology, linguistic variation and the social psychology of language necessary to be able to follow later chapters. Each chapter has a one‑page summary to remind the reader of key points. The “here’s a myth and now I’ll explode it” format works well for the most part in convincing the reader of the necessity of a sociolinguistic rather than folk linguistic approach to language, but on occasions it leaves little space for discussion of examples from within that approach. In recognising, however, just how deeply we internalise folk linguistic myths and just how sooty is the “sediment of negative stereotypes and prejudice”, it is a successful first polish. The self‑appointed guardians of language will not like this book. For this Bayard should be congratulated.

David Britain lectures in language and linguistics at the University of Essex, Colchester, England.

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Posted in Language, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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