Earshot rules, Nelson Wattie

Languages of New Zealand
ed Allan Bell, Ray Harlow and Donna Starks
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734905

When I returned to New Zealand in 1989 after a quarter-century in Europe, I was naturally curious about how European languages fared here. Knowing this, a friend one day showed me a quite considerable collection of books in Estonian. They were stacked in cupboards above the wardrobe of a bedroom in Waikanae, with the cupboard doors securely closed. In my mind, that became a metaphor for New Zealand attitudes to language. “Foreign” languages exist here in large numbers, but they are often kept locked away in private places. They are, of course, not foreign to those who use them.

Another experience had also revealed something to me, many years before that: in 1967, to be precise. Back home on holiday, I was pleased to find someone to practise my German on. We sat in a coffee shop on Lambton Quay, cheerfully chattering, when a woman leaned over from the next table. “Speak English!” she said in a friendly but determined tone. My companion thought this was simple xenophobia, but her explanation that I was actually a Kiwi ran off the lady’s back like water from a duck’s.

In the book under review, Koenraad Kuiper has a useful expression for that phenomenon: “the earshot rule”. It is considered impolite in New Zealand to use any language but English within earshot of monolingual people. Immigrants quickly learn the rule, often the hard way, and, wanting to be accepted in their new home, speak English even to fellow immigrants if anyone else is near.

In recent years, I have had the impression that the earshot rule has gradually become less rigidly applied. That is probably a mistake. A couple of years ago, the newspapers reported that an Auckland factory owner had forbidden the use of any language but English on the factory floor. It was a matter of indifference to him that many of his staff were socially isolated and even partly unable to carry out their duties efficiently as a result of his ruling.

Kuiper has some extremely interesting things to say about the earshot rule. His experience and research are with the Dutch community, noticeably the one to stop using its native language faster than other immigrant groups, to the point that the language is apparently lost within years, and certainly within a generation. This is not as straightforward as it might seem, however. Kuiper recalls a social occasion with a large number of Dutch immigrants and a small number of others. The latter tended to congregate at one end of the room. At that end, even two native speakers of Dutch spoke English; at the other end of the room, they spoke Dutch, while in the middle, where there was more chance of being overheard, the two languages were mixed.

The earshot rule and hostility towards unknown languages that underlies it result in immigrants forming linguistic “sanctuary domains”, where people can speak Dutch (for example) without risk of being overheard. These are the social equivalent of those books in closed bedroom cupboards. Such domains include women’s handicraft groups, where cultural production – weaving, patchwork etc – is combined with social life and “gossip” in the native language. They might include men’s clubs as well, and general “cultural associations”. But even here the situation is complex. Kuiper reports that at a committee meeting of the Netherlands Society in Christchurch, members – all of them immigrants from the Netherlands – are much more likely to speak English than Dutch. His analysis of such situations is subtle and perceptive.

I have devoted so much space to Kuiper’s article – one of 14 in the book – because it is especially interesting, for two reasons. First, it contains much original research. Other articles are useful summaries of a field of research rather than telling us anything new. Secondly, Kuiper is concerned with attitudes, and it seems to me that these underlie all the other phenomena dealt with in this book. Even “purely” linguistic matters, such as vowel shifts, are in fact inseparable from social attitudes. The attitudes of the general community are of sensitive importance to the status of Maori, of course – Dutch will survive, at least in the Netherlands, if not here. Mary Boyce’s study of “Attitudes to Maori” is therefore very welcome too. She argues strongly that the strength of te reo is inextricably related to the strength of the Maori community itself and its resistance to destructive forces.

Other topics covered include the politics of Maori broadcasting, the adaptation of Maori to the modern world, the origins of New Zealand English (I wasn’t aware that so much of what we think nationally distinctive can be heard in the regions most British immigrants came from), intonation, sign language (it cannot be pointed out too often that the New Zealand Sign Language is unique to the country, by no means “international”), the survival struggle of Cook Islands Maori and language patterns in our Korean community. Especially charming is the material covered by Laurie and Winifred Bauer. I have delighted in their presentations over the years and I find nothing new here, but the schoolyard games and language patterns described cannot fail to interest, and the division into regions is a revelation, since most of us went only to one or two primary schools.

The comment that most of these articles are summaries of research rather than revelatory of new research is not meant to be dismissive. On the contrary, it is valuable to have the fruits of such extensive work brought together in a single volume. The articles come in three sections: Maori, English and “other languages”. Just how much work has been done in all three fields is revealed by the excellent bibliographies. Each bibliography attached to the relevant article shows that recent years have seen strong, sometimes passionate and always scholarly research into many aspects of language in this country.

Even the bibliographies, however, are by no means complete. All the contributors work in university linguistics departments, and it is hard to avoid the impression that they are talking and listening to each other without raising their eyes to consider other disciplines or trying to communicate their insights outside their closed circle. Sometimes I felt like an eavesdropper. The only work by Anne Salmond quoted here, for example, is a relatively narrowly conceived academic article from sociolinguistics. Her fine books on the encounter of cultures and peoples are replete with information directly and indirectly related to the topics covered here. Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich’s study of the German community is also highly relevant in a wide variety of ways. Essay collections and journal articles from the modern and Asian language departments would add other dimensions. The range of the bibliographies here is praiseworthy, with this caveat: interdisciplinary work could enrich these studies immensely.

A curious feature of New Zealand publishing is that the university press in the capital treats its academic list in a much more cavalier fashion than its literary list. Anti-academic feeling has always been strong in this country, but it is odd to find hints of it inside the university. Put this book next to a novel or volume of poems from the same publisher, and you will see what I mean. The present book is clean and neat, but that is the best one can say. It is printed unlovingly in a boring Roman font on harsh (reflective, sharp-edged) paper with narrow margins. Most distressing of all is the absence of an index, making the wealth of information in this useful volume much less accessible than it should be.


Nelson Wattie is a Wellington writer and translator.


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Language, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category