Move back one step  Move forward one step 
Larger font Smaller font Default font
New dialect formation

The term new dialect formation refers to a linguistic situation which arises when there is a combination of dialects leading to a single new dialect which is different from all inputs. It is a historical process whereby a new focussed variety arises from a series of dialect inputs, e.g. in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. The analysis of this process has been primarily associated with the work of the British sociolinguist Peter Trudgill (see Trudgill 2004, 2008) who has postulated the following stages:

(1) rudimentary levelling
(2a) extreme variability
(2b) further levelling
(3) focussing

Thus new dialect formation has as its beginning a mixture of dialects and as its endpoint a single new dialect. In the context of New Zealand, new dialect formation took place after the initial immigration of speakers from different regions of the British Isles. This was a process of dialect mixture in which, over just a few generations, a focussed variety arose which was then uniform and distinct from any other existing varieties of English. While the progression from input to output is uncontroversial, the question of just what input features survived into the later focussed variety has been a matter of scholarly debate. Trudgill’s stance is deterministic: the quantitative representation of features across speakers of input dialects (given in percentages) determines whether they become part of the output (with an appeal to linguistic markedness to explain the survival of minority variants such as schwa in the TRUSTED lexical set), e.g. if a feature was used by more than 50% across the English, Scottish and Ireland communities of early anglophone New Zealand then it survived. For this to have worked, early anglophone New Zealand society would have had to be uniform with contact among all speakers.

Trudgill did not consider the status of immigrants (the English generally emigrated as families, the Irish and Scots as individuals) or local concentrations (Scots in Otago and Southland, Irish in Westland, Nelson, Hawke's Bay and Auckland). Importantly, he disputed the role of social factors for the young in following generations, e.g. the fact that New Zealand was a British colony and hence south-east English features would have been favoured by later generations; he also vigorously rejected any embryonic identity function for the combination of features which emerged in the later focussed variety (see criticism in Hickey 2003). In addition, there is no evidence that in a scenario where sociolinguistic factors apparently played no role the quantitative occurrence of a feature across the early communities would determine its survival. It might very well be that in such a situation, if it ever obtained, the survival of features might be random. Other critical assessments of Trudgill’s views have been presented, see the discussions in Language and Society (2008, Vol. 37.2, pp. 241-280) and Baxter, Blythe, Croft and McKane (2009 [1.2.6]).

The following is a link to a PDF text file which examines the concept of New Dialect Formation in the New Zealand context in detail.

New Dialect Formation (Hickey, 2003)

Critical assessments of Trudgill’s views on New Dialect Formation have been presented elsewhere as well, see the discussions in Language and Society (2008, Vol. 37.2, pp. 241-280).


Baxter, Gareth J., Richard Blythe, William Croft and Alan J. McKane 2009. ‘Modeling language change: An evaluation of Trudgill’s theory of the emergence of New Zealand English’, Language Variation and Change 21: 257-296.

Britain, David and Peter Trudgill 2005. ‘New dialect formation and contact-induced reallocation: three case studies from the Fens’, International Journal of English Studies 5.1: 183-209.

Hickey, Raymond 2003. ‘How do dialects get the features they have? On the process of new dialect formation’, in Raymond Hickey (ed.) Motives for language change. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 213-39.

Trudgill, Peter 1986. Dialects in Contact. Oxford: Blackwell.

Trudgill, Peter 2004. New Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes. Edinburgh: University Press.

Trudgill, Peter 2008. ‘Colonial dialect contact in the history of European languages: On the irrelevance of identity to new-dialect formation’, Language in Society 37.2: 241-254.

Trudgill, Peter, Elizabeth Gordon, Gillian Lewis and Margaret Maclagan 2000. ‘Determinism in new-dialect formation and the genesis of New Zealand English’, Journal of Linguistics 36: 299-318.