New Zealand language values equality

“Address terms give us a good idea of the value system of a culture. Where we find address terms like ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, these cultures are more likely to stress hierarchical relationships, while in New Zealand equality is stressed. Even when there are relationships of power between speakers, they are likely to be addressed by their first name,” says Dr Jean Parkinson from the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

She says when New Zealanders call the Prime Minister or the Vice-Chancellor by their first name, they are downplaying the relationships of power between them, “We see this most frequently in cultures like ours and Australia’s where equality is important.”

Dr Parkinson’s study of the familiariser terms ‘guys’ and ‘mate’ as used by tutors in vocational education settings, was recently published in the Journal of Pragmatics, and is unique for its use of recordings of teaching sessions to establish how terms of address are used in the classroom. It draws on data collected in the Ako Aotearoa-funded ‘Language in Trades education’ research project.

“In the data, I found that tutors were universally addressed by their first name, and ‘guys’ was the most common way in which tutors referred to students, whether this was to tell them what they ought to be doing, to acknowledge their work, or to issue orders. It was used to stress friendliness, as well as to encourage a positive atmosphere in their classes.”

The word ‘mate’ was used in quite a different manner from ‘guys’; this is partially due to the fact one is singular and the other plural, but also the study found ‘mate’ was used more frequently to offer encouragement, and to give direct instructions.

“The use of ’mate’ was mainly to soften ‘face-threatening’ acts such as orders and criticism, which may damage the self-esteem of students, as well as to express encouragement to students,” says Dr Parkinson.

The word ‘mate’ has long been used in Australia and New Zealand to express solidarity between working men, right back to colonial times. Dr Parkinson expected to see more use of the term ‘mate’ to express solidarity in the data, but she says, “I only found three instances, and they were largely between equals, where a tutor was speaking to another tutor; and in one case to orient to a shared responsibility of both student and tutor to abide by the Building Code.”

The use of ‘guys’ and ‘mate’ in the vocational education context was surprising mainly because these familiarisers were so prevalent. “I expected more terms like ‘bro’ for example, or ‘fella’, but these didn’t arise, possibly due to the demographics of the tutors who participated.”

“This area of study is fascinating because it examines a micro level feature of our normal talk. We may not notice these things as we do them, but our choice of words reflects just one of those unconscious ways that teachers enhance student engagement in any learning environment. When I gave a presentation on this paper, the first question I asked the University academics present was what they called their students, and immediately a buzz arose from around me as everybody engaged enthusiastically with the question,” says Dr Parkinson.

“I would expect to find similar address terms being used in other contexts, and I am considering comparing my findings to existing recorded classroom data from American and British contexts in future research.”

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