North holding its own against spread of southern English dialects, study finds

North holding its own against spread of southern English dialects, study finds

‘We won’t all be sounding the same,’ says researcher after comparison of extensive survey with findings from 70 years ago

An ice cream van on New Brighton beach in Liverpool

Dialects from southern England are spreading, research has shown, but it isn’t all having your dinner at teatime: the north is also pushing back.

Researchers from the University of York, Lancaster University and New York University surveyed more than 14,000 native English speakers and compared how they speak today with findings from similar studies 70 years ago.

The conclusions are something of “a mixed bag”, said Dr George Bailey, from the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistic Science. “The big takeaway for me is that concerns you hear about how we’re all going to be speaking the same whether it’s 40, 50 or 100 years … those concerns are overly dramatic,” he said.

“Northern dialect features are holding their own. We won’t all be sounding the same.”

The survey mapped people’s responses to questions about pronunciation, grammar and use of certain words against where they lived between the ages of 4 and 13 – the key years of acquiring language and developing our way of speaking.

Bailey said they found that one particular dialect feature was creeping north.

People across England used to pronounce “cut” and “foot” so that they rhymed, but this changed in the 17th century and now the rhyming pronunciation is a northern thing.

The research shows that the dividing line is creeping northwards, with people from counties in and around the Midlands, such as Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, changing from a “northern” to a “southern” form.

However, there was also evidence of northern traits continuing to flourish and spread.

For example, the rhyming pronunciation of “fur” and “bear” is as widespread as ever in Lancashire and Merseyside, and even spreading, with it emerging in Hull and Hartlepool on the east coast of England.

The reasons for that are tricky to pin down, said Bailey. “A lot of the time, language changes because of face-to-face contact; it’s speakers of different backgrounds who are moving. When you speak to someone, you often subconsciously converge towards them and those short-term effects can build up over a long period.”

Researchers hope in future to look at census data to track population movement and migration patterns and see how they correlate with accent trends.

Whether someone pronounces the “g” in “finger” and “singer” is another key dialect marker, with a silent “g” in singer now the most common form.

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In the 1950s, speakers who articulated the “g” in both words were mainly in the north-west of England and the West Midlands, but the new survey found that this pronunciation is spreading beyond its traditional limits, into Herefordshire, Preston, the Ribble valley and Nottinghamshire.

Similarly, the survey found that the term “lolly ice” rather than “ice lolly”, thought to be used exclusively in Liverpool, was now common across north Wales as well.

Bailey said the research showed there still was a rich variety of accents in the UK.

“People do often have this thought that we’re all going to be speaking the same and the accent of London is spreading. We found some evidence of that, but we also found the opposite.

“Accents still form a huge part of people’s identity. It is like a marker of who we are and where we are from, not just geographically but socially. There is a real pride in that and it is not something we are going to give up lightly.”

The research is published in the Journal of Linguistic Geography.