The 'less' said the better

Professor Miriam Meyerhoff first grappled with the intricacies of New Zealand English aged six after migrating from California after her mother married a Kiwi.

“I got very interested in accent differences because they were right there in the house. I learnt my New Zealand accent by quite consciously copying my stepfather. It was something highly salient for me for about a year at an important stage of my life. I guess I got to a point where I sounded local enough and was happy so I stopped paying attention for a while.”

Miriam, a Professor of Linguistics in Victoria’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, now pays attention on a daily basis and has just started a three-year research study, Auckland Voices, supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The study—in collaboration with  Dr Elaine Ballard, Dr Helen Charters and Dr Catherine Watson from the University of Auckland, where Miriam is an honorary fellow in the School of Psychology—is investigating the New Zealand English spoken in two Auckland communities: one predominantly Pākehā/European, the other with no ethnic majority.

“We’re trying to see whether when you get lots of people from different backgrounds coming together in a very high density in one community, and in particular when the community is a bit younger, those communities are starting to develop different norms.”

Pronunciation will be part of the study—but not exclusively so.

“I suspect there are things going on at what I would consider to be a more grammatical level. There’s a whole lot of stuff people haven’t really looked at in New Zealand English because everybody has been so obsessed with the accent. Like people not being so inclined to say ‘the North Island’, just calling it ‘North Island’, not being so inclined to say ‘in the Waikato’, just saying ‘in Waikato’. No one uses the word ‘fewer’ any more. Everything is just ‘less’. I imagine we will probably find some data to do with that.”