Southland English is arguably the only regional accent in New Zealand.

For some speakers a regional accent may be a source of pride, but for others, who are told their speech is "ungrammatical" or "sloppy", the impact can be really negative.

But, like all accents, Southland English is important. It's important because our accents are hugely important markers of our identities. Understanding how they work, and realising that they are highly organised systems, is an important step in understanding that Southlanders do not use "ungrammatical" or "sloppy" language.

Southland English is also important because we think it might hold an important piece of the jigsaw of understanding how language in general, not just in Southland, changes over time.

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To explore these big issues, we've recently been supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund grant for a project called: What is the Southland accent? By pooling recordings of Southland speakers over a 100-year time frame, we will conduct linguistic and statistical analyses of the evolution of Southland English and the features that distinguish it from contemporary General New Zealand English.

This project will achieve two simultaneous aims: It will plug a gaping hole in the New Zealand dialectology literature by providing a robust understanding of our main regional dialect, and it will present a unique opportunity to contribute to fundamental theoretical issues about the very nature of sound change, and the mechanisms through which it spreads.

One important aim of the project is to understand the linguistic heritage of Southland. One way we'll do this is to carry out a large scale investigation of the pronunciation of "r" in words such as "purple" and "work". Everyone knows that this is an important marker of Southland English but what we don't know is how it has changed.

The use of "r" in Southland is thought to be because of Scottish influence, when New Zealand English was first being formed. But the same Scottish influence isn't there today, so we'd expect the use of "r" to reduce.

This would mean the loss of a regional accent, and maybe the loss of a regional identity. There is small scale evidence that the "r" did start to disappear, but - and this is the unexpected part - we think the "r" is coming back.

In linguistics, language changes are often said to progress in one direction. But with Southland's "r" we have a unique chance to study an apparent reversal of a change. Such opportunities are rare, and have the potential to challenge what we know about how languages change.

The project isn't just about "r". It's about fully understanding the pronunciation system in Southland. Does Southland have other pronunciation features which are different to other regions in New Zealand? It would be unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, for a whole regional accent to be distinguished by only one pronunciation feature.

From our early work, we've got reason to think that Southlanders are actually more advanced with some pronunciation changes that are taking place across New Zealand. But nobody knows anything about how this really works.

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Finding out is a really time-consuming task, involving millions of words and hundreds of hours of recordings - we need "big data" and a suite of large-scale processing tools to fully understand the big picture.

Work on language change in New Zealand has been an international leader in the field of linguistics. This work shows us how language interacts with the society it operates in, and how people process language in their minds.

Dr Lynn Clark is a senior lecturer in Linguistics. She has been awarded a $530,000 research project on the Southland accent in collaboration with fellow University of Canterbury academics Dr Kevin Watson and Professor Jennifer Hay.