New pathway in Language Variation and Change

Are you interested in accents and dialects?

New Linguistics pathway in Language Variation and Change at UC


In a linguistics lecture…

You may not realise it, but the University of Canterbury and the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, are among the world’s leading research centres in the field of language variation and change. The research that has been done at Canterbury on New Zealand English is known worldwide, and it has been so influential in linguistics that it has helped shape what we know about how language changes over time. As well as our state of the art research…

  • We have ONZE – the Origins of New Zealand English database. This is a massive collection of New Zealand speech – the largest in the world – with speakers born between 1851 and the mid 1980s. Using this database, you can search for particular words, or particular sounds, or particular syntactic structures, and analyse how they have changed over time. This tells us not only about how language in New Zealand has changed, but it can also be used to shed light on theories of language change in general. People from across the world come to UC to work with the ONZE database, because it is such a powerful and unique resource. Students also have the chance to get involved in research projects involving ONZE, especially once they’ve gained experience working with the database in the linguistics courses which focus on language variation and change.
  • We also have OLIVE – the Origins of Liverpool English. This is the largest database in the world of language from north-west England, from speakers born between 1897 and 1994. Like with ONZE, staff and students use this data to find out new things about how language changes over time.
  • Language Variation and Change (LVC) is one of the main research themes of the New Zealand Institute of Language Brain and Behaviour (NZILBB), to which the Department of Linguistics is affiliated. The director of the NZILBB is Jen Hay, who is Professor in the Linguistics Department, and who also leads the LVC theme. Each year there are opportunities for students to apply for paid work on research projects being carried out by people in the NZILBB, gaining valuable experience and earning extra income.
  • The Linguistics Department publishes the New Zealand English Journal, an important venue for the latest work on language in New Zealand. Edited by Kevin Watson, it is one of the few academic journals dedicated to a specific variety of English, which is testament to the important role NZ English has had in sociolinguistics (and other areas of linguistics, too). The next issue of the journal features work from UC undergraduate students (see references below).

New pathway at undergraduate level

Students present their work

Students present their work

To reflect our interest and our strengths in this area of linguistics, we have developed a new pathway to allow students to specialise in language variation and change, either as a minor or as part of a major. This means that if you’re interested in this area, you can choose to make it the focus of your studies from 100 level through to 300 level by taking courses from the LVC pathway in Linguistics. We have launched the new course ‘LING210: Language variation across space and time’ (taught by Kevin Watson, for the first time in Semester 1 2013) and we have also reinstated the course ‘LING220: History of English’ (taught by Lynn Clark in Semester 2 2013). This means that we now have the following suite of courses which are focused around related themes:

  • LING102 From Babies to Adults, How Experience Shapes your Language (Semester 2; 15 points. Dr Kevin Watson). When we hear somebody talk, even for the very first time, we make a split second judgement about them. That’s because a speaker’s language tells us something about them. We not only receive a linguistic message – the content of what is being said – but we also receive social information. Is the speaker male or female? How old are they? Are they working class or middle class? Are they happy or sad? In this course, we explore how our language is able to convey social cues such as these. Our overarching question is: how does our language influence who we are and who we are seen to be? This course serves as an introduction to the area of sociolinguistics in general, and language variation and change in particular.
  • LING210 Language variation across space and time (Semester 1; 15 points. Dr Kevin Watson). Languages are not fixed; they vary across physical and social space and change over generations.  These patterns of variation and change can be understood by studying the linguistic and social factors which affect language use. This course builds on LING102 as a further examination of the field of sociolinguistics. We examine how language varies both across individuals (e.g. according to a speaker’s regional origin, gender, social class, ethnicity and age) and within individuals (e.g. how speakers adjust their language in different contexts depending on the social message they want to convey). You will be taught about best practices in sociolinguistic methodology, and you will learn how to collect and transcribe spoken language. You will learn how the ONZE database was created, and you will also record and transcribe some spoken interviews given by New Zealand speakers, which will then go directly into the ONZE database for you and future linguists to study.
  • LING220 The History of English (Semester 2; 15 points. Dr Lynn Clark). This course is about variation and change in English over many centuries. We examine how English has varied and changed during its entire recorded history. The course will look both at the social history of the language and the way its form has changed over the last 1400 years. Why does English sound so different now to how it did at its beginning? What linguistic changes have taken place? And what social forces facilitated them?
  • LING310 New Zealand English (Semester 2; 30 points. Dr Kevin Watson). The entire history of New Zealand English can be tracked in the Origin of New Zealand English corpus. Using this extensive collection of spoken language, we can compare the accents of the very earliest New Zealand born settlers to those of contemporary speakers, to examine how New Zealand English has changed. This allows us to answer interesting questions not only about New Zealand English but also about language change in general. This is a research course. It has a practical focus which will provide hands-on experience in the analysis of New Zealand English. Students are trained how to think like a researcher, how to formulate hypotheses, and how to test them with the ONZE data. You have the opportunity to conduct your own piece of research on language variation and/or change in New Zealand. We always encourage the best work to be submitted to the New Zealand English Journal for possible publication. This course is excellent preparation for applications to summer scholarships in linguistics, and for anyone wishing to work as a research assistant for the NZILBB.

We are passionate about teaching

As a student in the area of LVC, you are not just lectured at and assessed, but instead you become an important part of the research culture of the department. Staff will help you carry out real life research projects for course credit, and there are often other paid opportunities for you to work with postgraduate students and staff on projects outside of class.

Dr Lynn Clark giving a lecture

Dr Lynn Clark giving a lecture

We take our teaching very seriously, but our style is pretty informal, and our students tell us they enjoy this. In 2012, Kevin Watson was nominated by students for the UC Lecturer of the Year award. The work students do in our classes often seems challenging at first, but we make sure we are easy to contact outside of class, and the informal atmosphere means student usually find it easy to ask questions and lead discussions. Students also comment on our enthusiasm for the subject. Here are some comments written by students on Lynn Clark’s and Kevin Watson’s recent course evaluations:

Lynn’s passion for linguistics was apparent and contagious. It was much appreciated and made the class worth-while

[Lynn] has nothing but enthusiasm for Phonetics, and demonstrated this at every available opportunity.

[Lynn] showed and discussed many different case studies and had useful helpful resources that we could look at in our own time if we enjoyed/didn’t quite understand the certain topic.

Of all the lecturers I have had so far [Kevin] has definitely showed the most enthusiasm for what he is teaching which made my interest much higher!

There was lots of participation in this course, and Kevin was always happy to take questions or have discussions during lectures, in addition to providing us with lots of support outside lecture times.

[LING102 was] one of the best courses I’ve taken, it was fun and interesting.

Kevin made himself very available to the students if we needed any last minute questions answered


Some students stay in the field of LVC and go on to do work at honours, MA and PhD level, either at UC or overseas. But the skills you learn are vital for a wide range of other careers. Any job which involves communication and public relations requires an understanding of how language varies between different groups of speakers, and this is also valuable for anybody wanting to work in law, media, politics, psychology, education, social work, speech & language therapy, audiology, and any other health-related field, because the social aspects of communication play such an important role in all of these fields.


Just one of the ways we manage lots of data – with the phonetics package ‘Praat’

As well as this, work in LVC is useful for any job that requires data handling/processing. Students of LVC work with very large datasets, so they learn new skills for efficient data management (e.g. using Excel, and other software), and they learn how to present data clearly (e.g. in graph form). Employers regularly look for evidence of these sorts of skills, and LVC project work, particularly if it is published in a journal, provides exactly the right sort of evidence.


2012-13 publications on language variation and change by UC linguists

Here are some example publications on language variation and change by UC linguistics staff and students in 2012-13.

Scandrett, Gina. To appear. Intensifiers in New Zealand English. The New Zealand English Journal. [This article was written by a student on LING310 in 2011, resulting from her project work.]

Watson, Kevin, Sarah van Eyndhoven, Alina Filatova, Astrid Harrison. To appear. Lexical variation in New Zealand English: a view from apparent time. New Zealand English Journal. [This article is based on work carried out in LING102, as part of a research report that students produce for their assessment. See here]

Hay, Jen, Jayne McKenzie, Daniel Nielsen, Abby Walker. To appear. “To thee or not to thee” The linguistic and social distribution of (the) before vowels in New Zealand English. New Zealand English Journal. [This article is also based on work carried out by undergraduates of the Linguistics Department.]

Clark, Lynn. 2012. Dialect data, lexical frequency and the usage-based approach. In G. de Vogelear and G. Sieler (Ed.). Dialects as a Testing Ground for Theories of Language Change: 53-72. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Drager, Katie and Jen Hay. 2012. Exploiting random intercepts: Two case studies in sociophonetics. Language Variation and Change 24(1): 59-78.

Hay, Jen. (2012) Analyzing the ONZE data as evidence for sound change. In Nevalainen, T. and Traugott, E.C. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of English: 94-97. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Chapter in Book)

Hay, Jen. and A Clendon. 2012. (Non-)rhoticity: Lessons from New Zealand English. In Nevalainen, T and Traugott, E. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of English: 761-772. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hay, Jen. and Margaret Maclagan. 2012. /r/-sandhi in early 20th Century New Zealand English. Linguistics 50(4): 745-763.

Hume, Elizabeth. F Mailhot. 2013. The role of entropy and surprisal in phonologization and language change. In A. Yu (Ed.) Origins of sound patterns: Approaches to phonologization. In press. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nokes, Jacqui and Jen Hay. 2012. Acoustic Correlates of Rhythm in New Zealand English: A Diachronic Study. Language Variation and Change 24(1): 1-31. [Jacqui is now studying for a PhD in the department, and she did her undergraduate degree at UC too]

Warren, P. and Hay, J. (2012) Methods and experimental design for studying sociophonetic variation. In A.C. Cohn, C. Fougeron and M. Huffman (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Laboratory Phonology: 634-642. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watson, K. (2012) Patterns of accent variation in British English. In D. Clayton (Ed.), Language. A Student Handbook on Key Topics and Theories: 44-59. London: English and Media Centre.

If you are interested in finding our more about our work in language variation and change, or you’re thinking about enrolling in one of the courses above but have questions, get in touch with Kevin Watson (

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