Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Withdraw and Apologise: A Diachronic Study of Unparliamentary Language in the New Zealand Parliament, 1890 - 1950

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posted on 2021-11-15, 23:56 authored by Ruth Graham

This study presents a diachronic analysis of the language ruled to be unparliamentary in the New Zealand Parliament from 1890 to 1950. While unparliamentary language is sometimes referred to as ‘parliamentary insults’ (Ilie, 2001), this study has a wider definition: the language used in a legislative chamber is unparliamentary when it is ruled or signalled by the Speaker as out of order or likely to cause disorder. The user is required to articulate a statement of withdrawal and apology or risk further censure. The analysis uses the Communities of Practice theoretical framework, developed by Wenger (1998) and enhanced with linguistic impoliteness, as defined by Mills (2005) in order to contextualise the use of unparliamentary language within a highly regulated institutional setting. The study identifies and categorises the lexis of unparliamentary language, including a focus on examples that use New Zealand English or te reo Māori.   Approximately 2600 examples of unparliamentary language, along with bibliographic, lexical, descriptive and contextual information, were entered into a custom designed relational database. The examples were categorised into three: ‘core concepts’, ‘personal reflections’ and the ‘political environment’, with a number of sub-categories. This revealed a previously unknown category of ‘situation dependent’ unparliamentary language and a creative use of ‘animal reflections’. The database design enabled the identification of sub-groups of members of parliament, the ‘principal users’ and ‘frequent targets’ of unparliamentary language. The analysis of the forms of rebuke made by the Speakers of the Legislative Council and House of Representatives, for using unparliamentary language, showed they changed over time.   In the early years of the period examined by the study, the use of unparliamentary language was relatively small with the numbers dramatically increasing after 1930. It is argued that increases in the use of unparliamentary language reflected ‘discontinuities’ in the Community of Practice. This was illustrated in the years 1928 to 1935 with high numbers of unparliamentary language directed at the incumbent coalition government by Labour Party members. The ‘principal users’ of unparliamentary language made full use of the ‘shared repertoire’, both parliamentary and unparliamentary language, as part of their ‘identity’. Following Wenger’s definition of ‘power’, as the duality of ‘negotiation’ and ‘identity’, the findings suggest that ‘non-participation’ in the institutional preference for parliamentary language was a form of ‘power’ within the Community of Practice.  This study shows unparliamentary language to be a little researched element of parliamentary discourse that reveals much about individual users and the dynamics of the legislative chamber. The trends in its use have mirrored some of the most important political events in New Zealand’s history. While the use of unparliamentary language is popularly considered ‘bad’ behaviour this study casts new light on its role when seen within the wider discourse and historical context.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand Dictionary Centre


Wallace, Derek; Bardsley, Dianne