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Story: Linguistics

Producing a Māori dictionary in 1844, William Williams was the first of a long line of New Zealand lexicographers. Other linguists have studied New Zealand English, te reo Māori, minority languages and sociolinguistic issues.

Story by Janet Holmes
Main image: English-language students in a laboratory at Victoria University's English Language Institute

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Linguistics is the study of language and how people use it.

Linguistics in New Zealand universities

At first linguistics was taught within other university subjects, such as English language, romance languages and anthropology. Auckland University was the first to offer linguistics as a subject, in the 1950s. Victoria University of Wellington has gained an international reputation for sociolinguistics.

Areas of study

New Zealand linguists have looked at Malayo-Polynesian languages and the relationships between them, including researching the languages of Vanuatu.

Linguists from New Zealand have led the world in the study of te reo Māori. Researchers included Bruce Biggs, Hirini Mead, Ranginui Walker and Anne Salmond. In the 1970s Richard Benton did the first survey of knowledge and use of Māori. This found that only about 5% of Māori were really fluent in te reo. Benton went on to advocate language immersion and bilingual education.

Research into New Zealand English began in the 1960s, and has included historical research using sound recordings from the 1940s. Because New Zealand English is a new variety of English, it is of interest to linguists studying language variation and change. Linguists have researched how ethnicity and gender are signalled in people’s speech. They have also looked at regional differences in New Zealand English, and changing attitudes to it.

Sociolinguists have studied the use of minority languages such as Samoan, Greek and Fijian Hindi in New Zealand. They have researched language use in the workplace and in the media.

Dictionaries

New Zealand has produced a large number of lexicographers (dictionary-makers).

  • William Williams created the first English–Māori dictionary in 1844. His grandson, Herbert Williams, produced an enlarged edition in 1917.
  • Ian Gordon was a lexicographer and English professor at Victoria University from 1937 to 1974.
  • Harry Orsman produced the important Dictionary of New Zealand English in 1997.
  • Robert Burchfield was the chief editor of the Oxford English dictionary from 1971 to 1984.
  • Graeme Kennedy edited the first New Zealand Sign Language dictionary, which is online as a multimedia resource.

Applied linguistics

Applied linguistics focuses on practical uses of linguistics, such as language teaching, language testing and language policy. In New Zealand it has its roots in teaching English to speakers of other languages. The English Language Institute was set up at Victoria University in 1961. At first it focused on teaching English to teachers from Asia. The Victoria University School of Linguistics includes the New Zealand Dictionary Centre and a Deaf Studies Research Unit.

How to cite this page:

Janet Holmes, 'Linguistics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/linguistics (accessed 26 March 2017)

Story by Janet Holmes, published 22 Oct 2014