Saturday, February 09, 2008

The appliance of science

How and why do languages change and what forces act upon languages to standardise them? These were some of the questions that linguists and physicists (weird, I know, but we'll get to them later) set out to answer in a study of the New Zealand dialect and its origins.

But for those of you who are not sure what a New Zealand accent sounds like, have a look at this clip from the rather brilliant Flight of the Conchords in which Bret and Jemaine (the Conchords) challenge a racist fruit and veg seller...


According to a report in The Daily Telegraph and a feature on the Radio 4 Today programme (click here to listen to the relevant part) the New Zealand accent took about 50 years to standardise itself from its initial mix of various English, Scottish and Irish accents, a staggeringly rapid process.

This is where the physicists came in. Using the same mathematical modelling that is applied to work out the constituent parts of a gas, the physicists studied the language, poring over a wealth of recorded data including interviews with early settlers. In doing so they realised that the speed of change was too quick to be explained by the previously accepted theory: that emigrants from broadly similar social classes had gradually mingled together and that the changes had slowly worked their way through the language.

What they started to think was that perhaps a particular group of people - perhaps from a certain region or certain social class - had influenced the other speakers. This could be an example of prestige in action: the linguistic effect of one group on another through the influence of factors such as social class or some other form of cultural capital. In other words, one group whose speech style might have been perceived as "better" or whose status was aspired to more by others, might have had a bigger influence on the path of the new accent than other varieties.

So, why care? After all, New Zealand is a long way away and you only have to study British English for this A Level. Well, language is interesting anyway wherever it occurs, but also the same processes which affect the development of a new Zealand accent affect the language we speak every day. You just have to have a look at the history of RP (Received Pronunciation) or the more recent research into MEYD (Multi-ethnic Youth Dialect) to realise that one social group can have a disproportionate impact on wider language change, whether it's the upper classes or immigrants from the Caribbean.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA5 - Language Varieties

1 comment:

Dan said...

I've just noticed that Ant has beaten me to it on his blog here and has links to other bits related to this story, along with a link to the whole paper on the research. Here: