24 Jan 2021

How do children impact the changing Kiwi accent?

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 9:20 am on 24 January 2021

A first-of-its-kind study is being conducted by two University of Canterbury research institutes to see how the Kiwi accent changes during childhood. 

Researchers from the NZ Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour and the Child Well-being Research Institute are teaming up to investigate how shifts in accent happen around the age of five, as kids head off to school and talk a lot more with peers and a lot less with caregivers.

Young asian woman teacher teaching kids in kindergarten classroom, preschool education concept

Photo: 123RF

Dr Lynn Clark of NZILBB joined The Weekend to discuss the study and tells Karyn Hay the New Zealand accent has changed dramatically over time.

“One of the things we’ve just recently discovered is that every single vowel sound has changed articulation over the past 120 years in New Zealand.”

It’s commonly believed that the New Zealand accent was borne from cockney English, but Clark says it was more of a melting pot of English accents that fomented the New Zealand accent.

Clark and other researchers believe the shift in accents is driven by children.

“What the literature seems to suggest is that when children acquire their first language they copy their parents and then, at some point around the age of five, they start to copy their peer group.

“At this stage there’s also an assumption they begin to notice the variation and the language changing in the community. They pick up on these changes and move them forward incrementally.”

However, they’re not yet sure why and how this happens.

“There’s a bit of a hole in the literature I discovered when I had my own children and became interested in this and started to poke around.”

Clark says that while the New Zealand accent will continue to change and evolve, it’s hard to predict which way it will go.

“It’s tied up with all sorts of social changes that happen from population shifts, changes in migration patterns and it can depend on what languages come into contact with each other… it’s very hard to know exactly.”