Near Square

In all my star-struckedness (yeah, not really) yesterday, I forgot to tell you about the speech I gave at Toastmasters on Tuesday night.  My seventh official speech, so I’m creeping ever closer to ten and finishing the first qualification.  As with everything else in my life at the moment, the race is on to complete them all before July.
My assignment for this speech was to research a topic (yeah, I was totally in my element – in fact, I kind of over-researched it, and could easily have given a 30 minute speech – it was more of a challenge to decide what to leave out to fit it into the 8 minute time slot I actually had!). The topic I picked was the Near Square Merger, which is a fun wee feature of NZ English not many people are aware of (and has the advantage that I learnt about it in a linguistics class a few years back, so it was easy to dig out a few appropriate books and articles to refresh my understanding of it 🙂 ).  Sometime between the 1970s and 1990s, the vowel sounds (strictly they’re diphthongs, but that’s close enough) in words like “chair” and “cheer” merged in NZ English, so that children (and the adults those children grew into) now pronounced them both as “cheer”.  The change has progressed to a point that nowadays pretty much everyone under 30 merges the two sounds, while over 50s still pronounce them differently (and those in between merge them occasionally but not consistently (actually, that’s a major over-simplification, but again, close enough)).  Which has led to a proliferation of bad hairdresser puns that work in NZ, but don’t quite work anywhere else in the world (like “Hair and Now”).  Weirdly though, not many people actually realise that there’s been this change in our accent until you point it out to them.
Anyway, I did a demonstration of the merger at the beginning of my speech.  I got three volunteers, one who’s 18, one who’s in his 60s, and one who’s from the UK so doesn’t have a NZ accent, to read out word pairs like “cheer chair”, “spare spear”, “rear rare”, and asked the audience to write down what they’d each said.  Then I amazed everyone by predicting that everyone would get the 18 year old’s words wrong (because everyone thought he’d said “cheer cheer”), the over 50s would get the other two right, and the under 30s would get them all wrong – which of course, when I gave them the answers, was exactly the case.  Then I explained about the merger, and some of the studies that had been done into it, and how extrapolating from when it happened gives you the age range for people who merge the sounds today which was how I’d been able to make my prediction.
The speech went really well, the demonstration worked perfectly (which I’d been a bit worried about), and I got a really good evaluation for it.  I’m (very slowly) getting better at this stuff – though I’m not sure it’s getting any less nerve wracking!
Now I’ve just got to start preparing for my next speech, which is only a few weeks away…

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