The History of the English Language – Modern English dialects

Our last little installment of dialects! I know that this is a historical linguistics’ blog, but, today, let’s talk about Modern English, shall we?

Before we can do that though, we need to talk about something else: the distinction between a dialect and an accent.

Up until now, I haven’t made this distinction because it hasn’t been truly necessary; you see, when talking about Middle English and Old English, the term dialect holds quite true. When it comes to modern English, however…

Not as much.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms dialect and accent actually refer to two different things in linguistics. So what is an accents and what is a dialect?

Well, an accent is one part of a dialect.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Alright, an accent refers to how people pronounce words, while a dialect is much more all-encompassing and includes pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

As I have been focusing on the England in this post, I’ll be focusing on the accents (commonly called dialects) in British English, but don’t fret! I’ll come back to other varieties of English (like American English) in a future post.

via GIPHY

Yeah, that was a bit creepy, but hey, what can I say – I am a horror-flick fan.

Anyway, the accents of (British) English!

Trudgill divided the accents of English into ten (!) different accent regions. In no particular order, with their accent name in parenthesis following, these are:

Accent regionAccent nameStrongest center
West MidlandsBrummieBirmingham
SouthwestWest CountryBristol/Plymouth
Northwest MidlandsManchesterManchester/Salford
NortheastGeordieNewcastle/Sunderland
MerseysideScouseLiverpool
Home CountiesLondon/EstuaryGreater London
East, North, and South MidlandsEast MidlandsLincoln
East AngliaEast Anglian (traditional)Norfolk/Suffolk
Central LancashireLancashire (traditional)Rossendale
Central and lower NorthYorkshireLeeds/Bradford

Trudgill divided the accents into these groups based on a simple sentence: very few cars made it up the path of the long hill.

Ignoring the function-words here (that is it, of, and the), Trudgill recorded the pronunciation of these eight words and noted the following:

Accent"y" in "very""ew" in "few""ar" in "cars""a" in "made""u" in "up""a" in "path""n" in "long""hill" in "hill"
Brummie/i//juː/[ɑː][ʌɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
West Country/ɪ//juː/[ɑːɹ][eɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[ɪl]
Manchester/ɪ//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Geordie/i//juː/[ɒː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[hɪl]
Scouse/i//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
London/Estuary/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ~æɪ]/ʌ//ɑː//ŋ/[ɪo]
East Midlands/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]
East Anglian/i//uː/[aː][æɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[(h)ɪl]
Lancashire/ɪ//juː/[aːɹ][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Yorkshire/i//juː/[äː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]

In addition to these features, the absence or presence of the so-called trap-bath split was also recorded (under the feature path). The trap-bath split is a vowel split by which some words come to be pronounced with a long /ɑ:/, mostly in the southern English accents, and short /a/ in the northern ones. If you are unsure of how that would sound, check out the sound examples at the Pronunciation Studio.

Using this fairly simple sentence, it was possible to discern some general patterns of accent “boundaries”, thus creating the accent-boundaries of modern (British) English! Using the results, it was then possible to divide the country into six major dialect areas:

  • Scots (which Lisa talked about here and here)
  • Northern dialects
  • Western Central (Midlands)
  • Eastern Central (Midlands)
  • Southwestern dialects
  • Southeastern dialects

Isn’t that quite amazing? (and, as usual, a bit ridiculously oversimplified)

However, there is one accent that I haven’t mentioned yet:
Received Pronunciation, or RP.

Also known as Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English, BBC English, Standard British pronunciation or Southern British pronunciation, RP is a highly prestigious “standard” accent in Britain. However, very few British English speakers actually speak RP: Trudgill estimated only about 3% in 1974. This has since been questioned but the highest “guestimates” appear to be 10% – which is really not a very high number any way.

And there you have it – the British English dialects!

I hope you enjoyed that little tidbit, but check out the references if you want to learn more – because, naturally, I can’t go through all of the details here (nor, if I am frank, do I know them) and there is a lot more to learn!

Join me next week when we go back in history again, and take a look at Old English morphology! Until then!

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References

If you want to learn more about the difference between dialects and accents (and dialects generally), check out this OED blog post.

Wikipedia’s entry for the English dialects (*cough* accents *cough*) is quite informative and well-worth a look (and I’ll admit to having largely reproduced the table from theirs, with some adjustments).

On a more formal level, Trudgill’s study was reported by Ossi Ihalainen in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5, where you can read more about the study. Or go straight to the source, which in this case is The dialects of England by Peter Trudgill (1990).

I’ve also had a brief look at Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (2013) Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects.

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