Monday, July 15, 2024

NZ study thaws language on ice 

When a ‘scientist’ turns into a ‘beaker’ and ‘newbies’ are called ‘fidlets’ you have most likely arrived in Antarctica.  

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) graduate, Dr Steph Kaefer’s doctoral research is investigating colloquial Antarctic English vocabulary exclusive to the English-speaking research stations, focusing on the United States, British Antarctic, and New Zealand Antarctic programmes.

Dr Kaefer’s passion for linguistics and Antarctica emerged through networking at conferences and discussions with her UC PhD supervisors, Associate Professor Daniela Liggett from the Faculty of Science, and Associate Professor Lynn Clark from the Faculty of Arts.

Dr Kaefer (pictured) travelled to Antarctica in 2019 with UC’s Gateway Antarctica research centre and government agency Antarctica New Zealand to work for one of her supervisors who couldn’t make the trip, and to collect data for her own research at the same time.

She wanted to find out how the words she gathered emerged and developed over time.

“Everyone was really excited about what I was doing, and the department was always really supportive,” she says.

“Often, when we create words, we make them transparent – particularly in a situation where you need to pass on a lot of information easily, you want people to understand without needing a lot of background information. But when you’re creating a community, whether intentionally or not, and you don’t want people to understand, you might make the words more opaque so that people can’t work them out unless they’re part of that group.”

Dr Kaefer was expecting vocabulary changes to be mostly time-affected, such as younger generations bringing and creating in new slang words, but was surprised not to see this happening.

“It goes against what linguistic theories tell us; we would expect the changes be faster, especially in an isolated environment. But the community I researched is different to other isolated communities in that it’s not just isolated but also confined and extreme, which is known as an ‘ICE’ environment and is well known in the literature as a type of environment but not as a community,” she says.  

Dr Kaefer explains that living and working in Antarctica is highly unique. People are restricted to their research stations and can’t easily visit other stations, contact their families at home as regularly, have access to or do the things they would back home, or leave whenever they like, so it qualifies as an ‘ICE’ environment.

“I’m the first person to look at these conditions and how they influence language and that they likely have an unusual impact on the language and this community,” she says.

Associate Professor Liggett, whose research focuses on polar regions, says Dr Kaefer’s research showcases the importance of community building.

“It’s so fascinating to see her apply her linguistic skills to this unique environment,” she says.

Co-supervisor and linguistics expert, Associate Professor Clark says the project contributes to understanding of language change in contact situations where social conditions are quite different to ‘normal’ language-contact scenarios.

“It would be great to be able to take these ideas and see how they play out in other similar environments such as the International Space Station,” she says.

“Steph was very lucky that she was able to get to ‘the ice’. It’s hard enough to get the opportunity to go to Antarctica to conduct science research; it’s very difficult indeed to go to conduct social science/humanities research.”  

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