Sociolinguistic variation in NZSL

Sociolinguistic Variation in New Zealand Sign Language

NZSL videoclips about the project:

Video: Introduction

Video: About the Project

Video: How did we do the research?

Video: Lexical variation (15 minutes long)

Video: What the research tells us

The Deaf Studies Research Unit at Victoria University of Wellington undertook a three year project investigating sociolinguistic variation in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), from 2005 to 2007. The research was supported by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Principal investigators were Dr David McKee and Dr Rachel McKee, with research assistance from George Major, Sara Pivac and a number of Deaf data collection facilitators.

This project investigated how variation in lexical, phonological, and grammatical structures of NZSL correlates with signers' region, age, gender, and ethnicity. Findings confirm that NZSL exhibits the kinds of patterned variation found in other signed languages, and in human languages generally. Variation in the lexicon was found to be strongly related to age and to a lesser extent, region, reflecting circumstances of its use through the past century. Phonological and syntactic variation was found to be related to internal linguistic factors. Findings from the study can be applied to the development of teaching resources, to interpreter training, and to dictionary making.

Research Method

The quantitative research design was modelled closely on two similar studies of sociolinguistic variation in American Sign Language (ASL) (Lucas, Bayley & Valli 2001) and in Australian Sign Language (Auslan) (Schembri & Johnston 2004), enabling corsslinguistc comparison. NZSL data was collected from 150 Deaf people including representation of four regions, three age groups, gender, and Maori/European ethnicity. Trained Deaf facilitators local to each region recruited participants and recorded data. Only signers who had acquired NZSL prior to 12 years old were included. Data took the form of informal interviews, unobserved conversation between two to four people, and vocabulary items elicitied by flashcards. Participants completed a brief questionnaire to provide background information aboutage, region, schooling, and age of exposure to NZSL.

Data was transcribed in ELAN and analysed using Varbrul (a multivariate statistical package) to measure the strength of correlation between linguistic and social variables. Analysis focused on a set of 80 lexical items, one phonological variable (forehead location), and one morphosyntactic variable (null-subject). Lexical variants were correlated with signers’ age group, region, gender and ethnicity. Phonological and syntactic variables were correlated with both social factors, and factors in the linguistic environment, such as formational or syntactic characteristics of preceding and following signs, and grammatical function of the target sign. Results of the phonological (location lowering) and syntactic (‘pro drop’) studies were subsequently compared with findings from the parallel study in Auslan.

Related Publications

Schembri, A., K. Cormier, T. Johnston, D. McKee, R. McKee and B. Woll. 2010. British, Australian, and New Zealand sign languages: Origins, transmission, variation and change. In Diane Brentari (ed.) Sign Languages: A Cambridge Language Survey. Cambridge University Press. 476-498. (Click here for PDF)

McKee, Rachel and David McKee (2011) Old signs, new signs, whose signs? Sociolinguistic variation in the New Zealand Sign Language lexicon. Sign Language Studies 11(4) 485-527.

McKee, Rachel, Adam Schembri, David McKee & Trevor Johnston (In press, 2011). Variable Subject Presence in Australian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language. Language Variation and Change 23 (3).

McKee, David, Rachel McKee and George Major (In press, 2011). Numeral variation in New Zealand Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 12 (1).

Schembri, Adam, David McKee, Rachel McKee, Sara Pivac, Trevor Johnston and Della Goswell. (2009). Phonological variation and change in Australian and New Zealand Sign Languages: The location variable. Language Variation and Change, 21( 2). 193-231. (Click here for PDF)

McKee, David, Rachel McKee and George Major. (2008). Sociolinguistic Variation In New Zealand Sign Language Numerals. In Sign Languages: Spinning And Unraveling The Past, Present And Future. TISLR9, Forty Five Papers And Three Posters From The 9th. Theoretical Issues In Sign Language Research Conference, Florianopolis, Brazil, December 2006, ed. R. M. de Quadros. Editora Arara Azul. Petrópolis/RJ. Brazil. Available online:

McKee, R, A. Schembri, D. McKee, and T. Johnston. (2009). Tracking down the elusive subject: findings from research on 'null subject' in NZSL and Auslan. Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association National Conference, Melbourne, August 23rd, 2009. (Click here for PDF)

McKee, R., Major, G., McKee, D. (2008). Lexical Variation and Interpreting in New Zealand Sign Language. In Roy, C. (Ed.) Diversity and Community in the Worldwide Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Proceedings of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters conference, Segovia, July 2007. 89-106. (Click here for PDF)

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