Language change, social change

When we say language change and social change are linked, what do we mean?

In my first post to mark Māori Language Week 2015 I talked about the increasing presence of Māori words in NZ English, so it’s reasonable to ask what’s been happening in NZ since around 1970 that’s been driving that change.

The short answer … lots.

But to focus on just a few key events, the first would have to be demographic change. Between 1945 and 1975 there was a dramatic change in the distribution of the Māori population, from 75% rural to 75% urban in just one generation. For urban, largely Pākehā NZ, Māori shifted from being ‘there’ to ‘here’.

Perhaps the opposition to the 1981 Springbok Tour was the next key event. It was easy enough to condemn apartheid. But for many NZers the realisation also grew that race relations could be better at home too. They became more aware of issues affecting Māori.

Then there was the establishment of the Māori Language Commission in 1987, another big step, and one that helped mark an official commitment to the preservation & revitalisation of the Māori language.

And perhaps the fourth key event would have to be the introduction of MMP in the 1990s. From being largely confined to a small number of Māori electorate seats, Māori representation in Parliament more or less matched representation in the national population. And why did this matter? More Māori voices were heard in public discourse, shaping debate, framing issues.

The net result of these (and other) changes was the increase in the presence of Māori words in NZ English, but not just any words. Since 1970 there has been a great spike in the use of words that link to social culture, words like whanau, mana, whakapapa, aroha.

Thus we see language changing as society changes.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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