The words we use: some results (part 1)

This year the LING102 students sent out an online survey about the words we use to their Facebook friends and other contacts. We had a very good response, receiving almost 1000 completed questionnaires from a number of countries around the world. Here, Dr. Kevin Watson blogs about some of the early analysis.


Our online survey was designed to be similar to a paper survey used by Laurie Bauer and Winifred Bauer (Victoria University of Wellington) in a research project about children’s language which was carried out between 1999 and 2001 (see here for more information about that project: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/research/playground/). We are very grateful to Laurie Bauer for permission to use some of the same questions, so that we can compare our results.

Our survey, like Bauer and Bauer’s, had a number of sections which focused on words used in different aspects of life (we had e.g. Our school days, Being social, Words for things). Participants responded to various questions in each section (e.g. ‘Do you have another name for a holiday home?’), and we also collected other information, such as participants’ age. Looking at whether different words are used by people of different ages can suggest language change, so our data allows us to explore whether the words people use have changed over time. This is slightly different from what Bauer and Bauer set out to do in their project. They sent paper questionnaires to schools all over New Zealand, and had a teacher fill in responses to their questions on behalf of Year 7 and Year 8 students. Bauer and Bauer got an excellent geographical spread in their data, which was the first of its kind to focus on words used by young New Zealanders. But we can’t use that data alone to look for linguistic change because it provides a snapshot of a single point in time – of people born around 1986-7 (that is, Year 7 and 8 students in 1999, when Bauer and Bauer collected most of their data). For our survey, respondents were categorised into 7 age groups (16-18, 19-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, 61-70, 71+) so we have responses from people born between at least 1941 and 1996. The respondents from Bauer and Bauer’s study would be most comparable to our 19-30 age group (people born between 1982-1993).

In this first short report, we focus on participants who were born in New Zealand and who have not lived outside of New Zealand for more than three months. We have 729 people who meet this criteria – see table 1. There are many more female than male respondents, and the data is skewed towards the younger age groups. This age skew is no doubt a result of how the survey was distributed – via the contacts of LING102 students on Facebook – but it means we should be careful when we interpret data from at least the two oldest groups.

Table 1. Number of participants who were born in New Zealand and have not lived outside of New Zealand for more than 3 months.

Since we have so much data, I won’t go into detail about all questions in one post. I’ll start by talking about just three, and add a few more in other posts. Here, I’ll talk about the following questions:

  1. ‘Do you have another name for a holiday home?’
  2. ‘What is the name of the snack, made from slices of potato, which comes in a bag or packet? You can get them in different flavours (e.g. salt vinegar, chicken, barbecue etc).’
  3. ‘If you missed school without permission, for example to go to the park or into town, what word would you use to describe it?’

Do you have another name for a holiday home?

There were a number of different responses to this question, but many words are only used by one person (e.g. ‘weekender’, ‘place’). For the analysis presented here, I removed any word which is only mentioned once to make other patterns clearer. When I also took out the participants who chose not to answer this question, we were left with 713 responses in total. It will come as no surprise to readers in New Zealand that there is one standout word which accounts for a large proportion of the answers to this question – ‘bach’, with 637/713 responses (89.3%). While this is clearly the ‘winner’, it has a number of variant spellings (e.g. ‘batch’ & ‘bache’ as well as ‘bach’). Some people report being unsure of the spelling of this word – one participant explicitly tells us “’bach’ or ‘batch’ (I’ve never been sure how to spell it!)”. Other participants are very sure that their spelling is the right one – one person writes “’bach’ (and it bugs me when someone spellings it ‘batch’!)”. Of all the spellings, ‘bach’ is the most common (481/637 [75.5%], followed by ‘batch’ 153/637 [24%] and then ‘bache’ 3/637 [0.5%]).

Has there been any recent change in the use of this word? Do people of different age groups give different answers? The data is shown in figure 1. (Different spellings of the same word are grouped into a single response – so e.g. ‘bach’, ‘batch’ and ‘bache’ are all considered to be the same answer in the figure below, and I chose ‘bach’ as the majority spelling.)

Figure 1. Do you have another word for a holiday home?

The horizontal axis shows the 7 age groups described above. The N value is how many participants there are in each category (e.g. there are 3 participants in the 71+ age group, and 152 participants in the 31-40 age group). The vertical axis is a percentage response for a given word, shown by the different lines (e.g. of all the responses in the 61-70 age group, 72% of them were ‘bach’).

So, do different age groups have different words for a holiday home? The short answer is: no, not really. The word ‘bach’ – hovering around the 90% mark for all age groups except two – has been the most common word to describe a holiday home for at least 60 years. Why do the two oldest groups seem to behave somewhat differently? It’s hard to say for sure from this data alone, but the slightly different pattern may just be because we have a lower number of participants in these two age groups. It might look like ‘bach’ is used only 33% of the time in the 71+ age group, but we only have 3 participants in this category so we should be careful about how we interpret this.

There is another word which, although not as common as ‘bach’, does get reported a few times: ‘crib’. A few of our participants report that there is regional variation with this word, with ‘crib’ being found in e.g. Otago. We can explore this by looking at the regional origin of those people who answered ‘crib’ to this question. This information is shown in table 2, where we see that over 50% of the total number of ‘crib’ answers are given by people who report being from Dunedin or Invercargill. There certainly does seem to be regional variation here, and people’s intuition about it seems to be very good.

Table 2. Regional origin of people who gave the answer ‘crib’ for a holiday home


What is the name of the snack, made from slices of potato, which comes in a bag or packet? You can get them in different flavours (e.g. salt vinegar, chicken, barbecue etc).

Another question we asked was “What is the name of the snack, made from slices of potato, which comes in a bag or packet? You can get them in different flavours (e.g. salt vinegar, chicken, barbecue etc).” Responses are shown in figure 2. Like with ‘bach’ above, there is a clear majority answer for this question: ‘chips’. However, although once again we should be careful of over interpreting the responses of the two oldest age groups, there does seem to be a slightly clearer suggestion of more recent change here. For ‘bach’, the majority word reached the 90% mark for participants who were in the 51-60 age group. Here, ‘chips’ does not reach the same level until the 31-40 age group (at least if we take responses which give only 1 word as an answer – some people gave two words, e.g. ‘chippies or chips’, although this is not very frequent). It is possible that ‘chips’ has been competing with ‘chippies’ and also ‘potato chips’, but has ultimately ‘won’ the battle in the speech of our younger speakers. There could also be other patterns in the data, e.g. to do with region, but I haven’t yet explored this for this question.

Figure 2. What is the name of the snack, made from slices of potato, which comes in a bag or packet. You can get them in different flavours (e.g. salt vinegar, chicken, barbecue etc)?


If you missed school without permission, for example to go to the park or into town, what word would you use to describe it?

This is a question asked by Bauer and Bauer in their research project on school student’s language. They report 5 top answers: ‘wagging’, ‘bunking’, ‘skipping school’, ‘sick’, ‘playing hookey’. They suggest that ‘playing hookey’ is an older term which has survived in some rural areas. If the same pattern is reflected in our data, we should see a decreasing trend for this phrase for the younger age groups. Bauer and Bauer also report that ‘bunking’ is a strong rival to ‘wagging’, especially in Canterbury (and in mid-Northland and Hawkes Bay). Since most of our data is from the Canterbury region, we should expect to see ‘bunking’ as an answer to this question. The data for the main three responses to this question is presented in figure 3.

Figure 3. If you missed school without permission, for example to go to the park or into town, what word would you use to describe it?

We can see that ‘hookey’ is indeed used more often by the older speakers – it is hardly reported at all by the two youngest age groups, even though they account for 447 participants. We can also see that ‘bunking’ and ‘wagging’ are used often for most of the age groups. ‘Wagging’ is in the lead until the 19-30 age group, where we get a cross over and ‘bunking’ takes over. This might mean that ‘bunking’ is finally ‘winning’, but more data is needed to test this properly.


As we explore data from these questions further, and begin to look at the responses for the remaining questions in the survey, no doubt other interesting patterns will emerge which tell us more about recent developments in how we use our words.

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Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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