Language Variation and Change Theme

The theme leader is Professor Jen Hay 

This theme combines analysis of large databases of speech with experimental methods to understand the mechanisms through which language changes over time, how social factors lead to variation in linguistic patterns, and how listeners understand and make use of this variation in speech perception.

A significant component involves the construction and analysis of corpora. This aspect builds on the success of the Origins of New Zealand English Project (ONZE). In collaboration with the other themes, the existing ONZE corpora are being radically expanded to include audiovisual data, to cover bilingual speakers, and to include the entire lifespan.

Our Corpus Analysis Tool – Labb-Cat – was recently upgraded (c.f. Fromont and Hay 2012), and continues to be used by increasing numbers of labs around the world. As part of our own corpus building, we have transcribed, processed and uploaded data from preschoolers, older New Zealanders, and bilingual speakers of Māori.

We have also collected a valuable archive of Earthquake Stories as part of the UC QuakeBox project, and transcription of these stories is ongoing. This collection will form a large, publically accessible, carefully annotated archive, which will be of value to linguists, but also of more widespread interest.


The UC QuakeBox was established in 2012 after two major earthquakes occurred in September 2010 and February 2011 in the Canterbury region. Our mission is to record stories from Cantabrians about their experiences in the quakes and to store the audio and video files in a large database.

The Quake Box is currently taking a break. To date there have been over 730 people recorded sharing their earthquake story.

The Quake Box was deployed around different areas of Christchurch including Re:Start Cashel Mall, Eastgate Mall, the New Brighton Library, Brooklands Community Hall, Lyttelton, Sumner, Canterbury A & P Show and Westfield Mall.

To see some of the stories recorded in the Quake Box visit UC Ceismic Quake Stories

NZILBB wishes to acknowledge UC Ceimsic who have kindly donated some funding to help continue transcribing the stories that we have collected.

UC QuakeBox in the media

  • UC Quake Box featured on Radio NZ National Programme (July 2012)
  • UC Quake Box featured in a TV1 news story
  • Article in The Press about the relocation of the QuakeBox to Eastgate Mall.

Ongoing work using these corpora aims to understand processes of Language Variation and Change, modelling how variants spread through the lexicon and across speakers. Particular topics under current or recent investigation include changes in the short front vowels, variation in medial /t/, rhythmic variation, and effects of lexical frequency and conversational topic.

A particular recent focus has looked at how skewed lexical distributions can affect speech production and speech perception patterns. Some words are used more by older speakers than younger speakers for example; and some are used more by men than women. Work from corpus analysis and speech perception experiments is showing that these skewed distributions affect speaking and listening, and can influence the course of language change.