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“All the people who live in Auckland”: A study of subject and non-subject relative clauses in Auckland English

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posted on 2021-12-07, 20:36 authored by Birchfield, Alexandra

This thesis is a study of the variation in relative marker choice by speakers of Auckland English. The data used in this study was collected as part of “Breaking Babel – Rethinking Language Change in a super-diverse city” (Meyerhoff et al. 2015). The thesis investigates the syntactic and social conditioning on the variation of the complementisers used to introduce relative clauses in the speech of a diverse group of Aucklanders. As a super-diverse city with a rapidly changing sociolinguistic profile, Auckland offers a rich source of data. This research explores how syntactic variation marks speakers of “Auckland English”.  This work addresses several key research questions which centre on whether there is evidence of language change for this variable, and if so where has the change been initiated and by whom is it lead. Further, how does the variation in Auckland English compare other communities studied, both in terms of studies of relative clause variation and variation in super-diverse cities.  These questions derive from an exploration of the history of relative clauses in English. In chapter 2, I review how the current variable system of relative markers developed and how they have been treated both by syntacticians and variationists in previous literature. The purpose of a (restrictive) relative clause is to delimit the denotational reference of an antecedent head nominal that it post-modifies (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 1034–1035). As such, variation in the choice of complementiser that introduces relative clauses tells us a great deal about how speakers specify information. The variability of relative markers is highly circumscribed (Ball 1996, Levey 2014). Nevertheless, the syntactic and social factors governing their distribution vary between speech communities and can offer insight into the linguistic profiles of these communities (Tagliamonte et al 2005, D’Arcy and Tagliamonte 2010).  This study analyses over 2000 tokens of relative clauses, coded for syntactic environment and speaker age, sex and community. Three communities, chosen for their differing demographic profiles, are sampled across Auckland. Significant predictors of relative marker choice are then compared to other studies of relative clause variation. This thesis then explores (i) which factors are universal or common predictors of relativiser choice, (ii) which factors index Auckland English and (iii) which are markers of specific communities within Auckland.  Previous studies of superdiverse cities (cf. Cheshire et al. 2015) have shown that the input of many diverse language varieties into a community can lead to large scale innovation and change. I explore the variation in relative markers in Auckland English in this context. Little evidence of language change taking place is found in this study and in fact, social factors such as age-grading patterns may suggest stable variation. There is some evidence of levelling (Trudgill 2004) in the most diverse of the three communities surveyed. The thesis concludes with a discussion of the significance of these results, both to the study of relative clauses and linguistic variation in general.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Meyerhoff, Miriam