Phonological Merging of front vowel monophthongs and diphthongs in New Zealand English Televised Media: The Case of Shortland Street

Jordan Steven Dyment


Phonological merging of the front-vowel monophthongs [ε]/[I] and diphthongs [eə]/[iə] is a relatively recent development in the history of New Zealand English (NZE), reaching the level of speakers’ awareness only in the past forty to fifty years (Bayard 1995, Gordon et al. 2004, Gordon and Maclagan 2001). Maclagan and Hay (2007) argued that contemporary NZE arose out of general raising in the phonology, such that words like dress now sound like [drIs] and square, like [skwiə]. It has been demonstrated that phonological merging in NZE follows Labov’s Principles of Change (c.f. Cheshire 2004), with women on the forefront, using raised variants (merging) more frequently than men (Gordon and Maclagan 2001, Maclagan and Hay 2007, Woods 1997). Since speakers became aware of this aspect of NZE, performers on radio, stage, and television began reducing their use of Received Pronunciation and opted for a more New Zealand vernacular (Bayard 1995). Indeed, as Tagliamonte and Roberts (2005) showed, the use of language on television can accurately reflect concurrent changes in the language of the speech community. Phonological raising in mid-to-high front vowel monophthongs and diphthongs was investigated in the long-running New Zealand medical drama, Shortland Street. Approximately 800 tokens (704 monophthongs and 80 diphthongs) from actors Olivia Tennet (b. 1991) and Amanda Billing (b. 1976) were collected from early 2008. The rate of monophthong raising was 6% – a rate significantly less than conversational speech (50-80%) – and all examples of diphthongs were categorically mid-vowels. Although raising is resisted on Shortland Street, when compared to Amanda, the younger Olivia raises more frequently. It is argued that Olivia’s and Amanda’s speech is a product of performance, and hence, the actors must be aware of NZE forms in order to resist them.


New Zealand English; Phonological Merging; Phonological Raising; Front-vowels; Televised Media; Shortland Street; Goldvarb

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Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle

EISSN: 1920-440X
ISSN: 1200-3344

University of Victoria