What is the Southland accent?

Linguists and lay New Zealanders agree that the variety of speech found in Southland is the main, and perhaps the only, regional accent in New Zealand. And yet surprisingly little is known about the Southland accent as it has never been thoroughly studied. UC linguist Dr Lynn Clark plans to change that with her $530,000 research project – the first large-scale, comprehensive study to ask: what is the Southland accent?

Lynn Clark

Southland English is arguably the only regional accent in New Zealand. To many New Zealanders, it stands out and can be a source of amusement. This happens with most accents that are different from the ‘standard’ accents of a region, and we know it can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Speakers with regional accents know they talk differently from other people. While for some speakers it may be a source of pride, for others – who are told their speech is ‘ungrammatical’ or ‘sloppy’ – the impact can be really negative.

But, like all accents, Southland English is important. It’s important, of course, because our accents are hugely important markers of our identities. Understanding how they work, and realising that they are highly organised systems, is an important step in understanding that Southlanders do not use ‘ungrammatical’ or ‘sloppy’ language. Southland English is also important because we think it might hold an important piece of the jigsaw of understand how language – in general, not just in Southland – changes over time.

To explore these big issues, we’ve recently been supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund grant, for a project called ‘What is the Southland accent?’

By pooling existing recordings of Southland speakers over a 100-year time frame, we will conduct systematic linguistic and statistical analyses of the evolution of Southland English and the features that distinguish it from contemporary General New Zealand English.

This project will achieve two simultaneous aims:

  1. it will plug a gaping hole in the New Zealand dialectology literature by providing a robust understanding of our main regional dialect, and
  2. it will present a unique opportunity to contribute to fundamental theoretical issues about the very nature of sound change, and the mechanisms through which it spreads.

One important aim of the project is to understand the linguistic heritage of Southland. One way we’ll do this is to carry out a large scale investigation of the pronunciation of /r/ in words like ‘purple’ and ‘work’. Everyone knows that this is an important marker of Southland English – a whole research project would not be needed just to demonstrate this. But what we don’t know is how it has changed.

The use of /r/ in Southland is thought to be because of Scottish influence, when New Zealand English was first being formed. But the same Scottish influence isn’t there today, so we’d expect the use of /r/ to reduce, with the result being that Southland sounded much more like other accents of NZE. This would be the loss of a regional accent, and maybe the loss of a regional identity. There is small scale evidence that /r/ did start to disappear, but – and this is the unexpected part – we also think /r/ is coming back in.

This would be important for a few reasons. First, it would show that a clear regional marker of Southland English isn’t dying out. Second, it helps us understand how language changes. In linguistics, language changes are often said to progress in one direction – a change begins, continues, and eventually sweeps to completion. But with Southland /r/ we have a unique chance to study an apparent reversal of a change. Such opportunities are really rare, and have the potential to challenge what we know about how languages change.

The project isn’t just about /r/. It’s about fully understanding the pronunciation system in Southland. Does Southland have other pronunciation features which are different to other regions in New Zealand? It would be unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, for a whole regional accent to be distinguished by only one pronunciation feature.

From our early work, we’ve got reason to think that Southlanders are actually more advanced with some pronunciation changes that are taking place across New Zealand. So Southlanders are innovators! But nobody knows anything about how this really works. Finding out is really a time consuming task, involving millions of words and hundreds of hours of recordings. You can’t just listen to a few speakers and decide what’s going on – we need ‘big data’, and a suite of large scale processing tools, to fully understand the big picture.

Work on language change in New Zealand has been an international leader in the field of linguistics – change in New Zealand English has taught us not just about New Zealand English, but about language in general. This work shows us how language interacts with the society it operates in, and how people process language in their minds. Ultimately, the results of this latest project will tell us not only how Southland English works, but they will also be an important part of the story of how language in general works.

Dr Lynn Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and is collaborating with her fellow UC academics Dr Kevin Watson and Professor Jennifer Hay on the new research project into the Southland accent.

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