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English varieties of the British Isles

Guest Andrew Moore

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Guest Andrew Moore

I'm drafting a teaching guide to dialect varieties of the British Isles (a subject taught for examination here).

I will put this on my Web site when it's finished - but that may take some time. I would like to post a few extracts here, and evaluate people's responses.

Here's a bit from the start:

What is dialect?

It may be useful to begin by deciding what a dialect is. Dialect describes a language variety where a user’s regional or social background appears in his or her use of vocabulary and grammar. This description is a very open one, and there is continuing debate about its application to particular varieties. Before considering these, it may help to explain the related feature of accent. (Some linguists include accent, along with lexis and grammar, as a feature of dialect.)

Accent denotes the features of pronunciation (the speech sounds) that show regional or social identity (and arguably that of an individual, since one could have a personal and idiosyncratic accent).

Problems with this description

This description of dialect lacks precision and coherence. We can see these as problems, but reflecting on the reasons for them brings more understanding of what dialect means, and of why an exact definition is an impossibility. That is, any dialect is a generalization from the individual language use of a wider population. It comes from observation and perhaps some objective study. But we will not, if we stand outside St. Mary-le-Bow church in London, hear everyone around us speaking a uniform variety of English that matches a description of “Cockney”. We will, however, if we speak to a hundred people who have lived there for more than ten years, observe some common features of lexis, grammar and phonology that we would not find commonly used if we repeated the observation in Aberdeen, Hull or Plymouth.

There is a more fundamental objection to the conventional description of dialect – and this is that all language is dialect, including Standard English. This was originally a regional dialect, but has become a prestige variety, favoured by the courts, government, the civil service, the officer class of the armed services and the elite universities. Moreover there is a prescriptive tradition in education and broadcasting that has formalised the status and prestige of both written and spoken standard English.

Barrie Rhodes, of the Yorkshire Dialect Spciety, states this more bluntly:

Increasingly, we have come to criticise the whole concept of dialect (and associated adjectives such as “traditional” and “regional”); we now subscribe more to the notion of “idiolect” in recognition of the fact that there are as many “dialects” as people. For instance, one of my friends in Norway uses the “musical hall northern” expression "Ee, by gum!" and so, increasingly, does her daughter. My friend says she picked up this expression from one of her mother's in-laws in Lancashire.

Now, given that this expression is habitually used by two people in Lillestrom, does it now make it part of that locality's “dialect”? This sort of example makes a nonsense of trying to draw boundaries (and, even worse, draw isoglosses) around “dialect regions”. We have to accept that the term “dialect” is nothing more than a convenient label, a shared shorthand for a very complex concept.


Does a region or other social organization need to be of a given size in order to have a dialect – and if so, what is this? People from the south of England may speak of “Yorkshire dialect” (as Frances Hodgson-Burnett does in The Secret Garden). And there is a Yorkshire Dialect Society. But we might qualify this description by saying that really Yorkshire has a number of more local dialects, perhaps in one of the historic Ridings or centred around one of the big cities.

Scots is a regional variety of English, spoken throughout Scotland, alongside Standard English. Some speakers may freely mix elements of Standard English (SE) and Scots, for example features of grammar that the speaker does not know are from one or the other. (These might include, say, the Scots use of past participle after needs or wants, where SE has present participle: Scots has “this wants done” where SE has “this wants doing”). But if Scots is the form of English widely spoken in Scotland is it then, perhaps, a language in its own right? So when does a dialect become a language? When a shepherd in Yorkshire's north-western Dales says, "If tha seeas a yow rigwelted, tha mun upskittle it", is he speaking in a dialect or a separate (Anglo-Norse?) language?

Politics and language variety

Deciding when a variety of a language may be considered a language in its own right is sometimes a matter of linguistic fact, but may also reflect political wishes. Welsh is clearly a distinct language (it is not intelligible, to speakers of any other language). In the same way Icelandic is not intelligible to speakers of related North Germanic languages, such as Swedish.

Scots also does not have a standard system of spelling – there is no official body to endorse this. (Neither does English, of course). And until recently, it did not have its own national assembly, while official publications for Scotland came from the Scottish Office, a branch of Whitehall government.

Norwegian (which perhaps has fewer speakers than Scots – some 5 million worldwide) is the official language of Norway (it has two varieties, Bokmål and Nynorsk). The Norwegian state, like France, determines acceptable forms through a learned body, the Språkråd. Scots today is arguably in the same position as Norwegian in 1814, when the country gained semi-independence, and its own parliament. But Swedish, Danish and Norwegian (both varieties) are mutually intelligible. The differences among them are perhaps no more profound than those between Standard English and Scots (of any Scottish region).

Welsh is not a Germanic language, and is not the language most widely spoken in the whole of Wales (English is). But it is now established as one of two official languages in Wales. Official publications use both Welsh and English (Welsh appears first), while there are requirements for broadcasters to produce programming in Welsh. Perhaps the growing activity of government in Edinburgh will lead to the emergence of Scots as a separate language (in an official sense). But this has not happened yet.

Dialect is all around you

Of course, if we accept that all vernacular language varieties are in some sense dialects, then this is a truism or statement of the obvious. But it may help us stop thinking that dialect is something that other people do in big cities or remote dales, and that we are not dialect users, too. Some supposed dialects – especially urban ones – have attracted the attention of broadcasters or writers, in ways that have made them familiar to a wider public. That is we can put a name to their speakers, Cockneys and Scousers and Geordies. The effect of this can be unhelpful.

· First, we do not really know about the authentic language of people in London and Liverpool or on Tyneside – so much as a simplified or popular representation, based on TV drama.

· Second, rural varieties of English seem not to receive as much notice.

· And third, we can forget that everyone lives in a region, that may have its own distinctive dialect forms – to a linguist, Staffordshire or Hertfordshire or Westmorland are no less worthy of study than London, Liverpool or Newcastle.

If you are a teacher or a student, then you can find resources for studying dialect very easily. There are very extensive materials that you can find on the World Wide Web, for dialects that are not local to you. But you can find much more by staying at home – by reading, or listening to, the language of the people who live and work there, perhaps older people or those in historic and traditional occupations. (Or those who have time to talk about occupations that are no longer practised.)

You can very easily gather, share and publish data, using digital recording devices (such as mp3 players/voice recorders) or computers with multimedia functions, and suitable recording software such as Audacity (records mp3 files) or Helix Producer Basic (records Real Audio files).

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What is a dialect?

See David Crystal's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (Blackwell):

"Accent: In phonetics, those feature of pronunciation which signal a person's regional or social identity. The term is often contrasted with dialect, which includes features of grammar or vocabulary.

Dialect: A language variety in which the use of grammar and vocabulary indentifies the regional or social background of the user."

The point at which a dialect becomes a separate language is debatable. I speak fluent German but I can only understand around one word in ten when listening to

Swiss German, which is regarded by some people as a dialect of German but by others (and rightly so) as a separate language known as Schwyzerdütsch. Similarly, Scots can be regarded as a distinct language from English - and I recall an occasion where an interpreter was provided in an English court of law for a young lad from Strathclyde accused of a crime committed in London.



"The oft-cited distinction between a language and a dialect is that 'a language is a dialect with an army and a navy': there are no hard and fast rules, and distinctions often tell us as much about politics as they do about linguistics."

See the European Minority Languages website, which includes both Schwyzerdütsch and Scots:


Scots (Lallands) and Ulster Scots (Ullans) have been recognised as languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:


My wife is from Ulster. I had a few problems understanding my mother-in-law when we first met. I was fooled by the following expression that she used in a early conversation that we had: "thon wee fellow fernenst me" = "the chap that live opposite me". I love Ulster expressions such as "He got a quare gunk" and "Give my head peace", the latter being the title of a BBC Ulster sitcom: http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/gmhp/

See http://www.ullans.com

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Further to the what I have already posted concerning English dialects, I found Melvyn Bragg's TV series "The Adventure of English" particularly useful - and the book is pretty good too.

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Having been reminded of the much-quoted definition about a language being a dialect with an army and a navy, I decided to check it's origin. Most authorities seem to agree that it emanates from Max Weinreich:

"A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot " (Yiddish original)

This is found in Weinreich's "Yivo and the problems of our time", Yivo Bleter, 1945, Vol. 25, No. 1, p. 13.

Adding a humorous note to the discussion concerning dialect, here are some fun websites:

Dialectizer: http://www.rinkworks.com/dialect/

Some years ago I recall being given a copy of a DOS program that converted any text into Jive. This a website that converts other websites into Cockney, Jive, Redneck, Elmer Fudd, etc.

Alternatively, just feed in a text of your choice. Here's my original text, followed by the translation into Cockney:

1. "I was walking down the road the other day when I felt thirsty, so I went into a pub and ordered a pint of beer."

2. "I were walkin' dahn the road the bloody uvver day wen I felt firsty, so I went into a rub-a-dub and ordered a pint of beer."

Hmm, a couple of rhyming slang opportunities missed, I think: (i) "road" = "frog" ("frog and toad"), (ii) "beer" = "pig's" ("pig's ear").

The Jive version is better: "Ah wuz walkin' waaay down d' road t'oda' day when ah felt dusty, so's ah went into some pub an' o'dered some pint uh beer. Ah be baaad..."

The BBC TV series and book The Story of English featured Jive - as did the comedy film Airplane (the scene in which an old lady converses with two big guys fluently in Jive). Melvyn Bragg's series The Adventure of English featured Gullah, another Afro-American variety of English.

For the Ali G translator see See http://mackers.com/alig

The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice reads:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

which translates into Ali G slang as:

"It is a truf universally acknowledged, dat a single geeza in possession of a wicked fortune must be in dig of a bitch."

For an academic b*llsh*t generator see:

BULL at http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nnh/critic.htm

BULL stands for Basic Unitary Literary Language. It’s a computer program by John Holland that generates impressive-sounding sentences such as:

"In a situated discourse, the metonymy of inclusion devolves into the hegemony of pre-existing structure."

I love this kind of stuff . I wrote a poetry generator along these lines (in collaboration with my old friend David Steel) back in the 1970s, but it’s a long time since I saw anything as good as this. If you think the above sample is BULL then the real thing is even better:

"If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the ‘now-all-but-unreadable DNA’ of a fast deindustrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglossic wilds and others of the inner city."

The above text is authentic and written by one of the winners of the Annual Bad Writing Contest: see Volume 11, 82 of the Humanist Discussion Group at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/

I also like the Postmodernism Generator: I am grateful to Tim Johns for drawing my attention to this clever CGI program at


Written by Andrew C. Bulhak, it generates completely meaningless but impressive-sounding essays, e.g. Baudrillardist hyperreality and subpatriarchialist theory, by V. Andreas Buxton, Department of Gender Politics, University of California, which begins as follows:

"Sexual identity is part of the paradigm of narrativity," says Foucault; however, according to Finnis [1] , it is not so much sexual identity that is part of the paradigm of narrativity, but rather the fatal flaw, and subsequent futility, of sexual identity. It could be said that Sartre suggests the use of presemiotic textual theory to attack sexism. Foucault uses the term 'Baudrillardist hyperreality' to denote the difference between art and class."

Great stuff!

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Re the Speech Accent Archive at: http://classweb.gmu.edu/accent/

A great site, David! I have spent at least an hour today, browsing the archive and listening in particular to the regional varieties of English. I am not a linguistics specialist - I began my career as a teacher of German -but I have always been fascinated by accents and dialects and can mimic a few. I have put in a link (and mentioned David as the source) on my "Favourite Websites" page (language-related sites) at:


Just a couple of comments about the text that the speakers are asked to read:

“Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.”

The term "snow peas" is unknown in British English. We call them "mange-tout peas", don't we? I was intrigued by our Canadian cousins ordering "snow peas" in a restaurant in British Columbia one evening - so I joined them. The penny dropped when the meal arrived. Most British English speakers would expand "go meet her Wednesday" to "go and meet her on Wednesday". I noticed that a couple of the British speakers at the site inserted an "on" before "Wednesday". But I realise that a standard text is useful in order to make comparisons, even though it is unnatural. The word "store" is North American, but it is creeping in over here and probably would not be regarded as unnatural. Our local supermarket is called "Country Store".

My personal choice of interesting and distinct British and Irish accents would be:

 London (Cockney). The London accent is spreading into the surrounding Home Counties, giving rise to a variety known as "Estuary English": http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/

 Bristol

 Birmingham - usually instantly recognisable. The sample speakers from Birmingham at the above site have a fairly soft Black Country accent .

 Liverpool - very distinct and completely different from the surrounding rural areas.

 Glasgow - can be completely unintelligible!

 Yorkshire & Lancashire

 West Country (Somerset / Devon / Cornwall)

 Geordie (Northumbrian) with the distinct Danish "r".

 Cumbrian

 Welsh - the accent, not the language. My father was Welsh (lovely lilting accent).

 Scottish Highlands

 Ulster - Belfast being a particularly harsh form of the accent/dialect: See the BBC website, which has samples from the BBC Ulster TV series, "Give My Head Peace": http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/gmhp/. My wife Sally is from Belfast.

 Dublin - very distinct from other varieties of Irish English and close to Liverpool English

 County Cork, Ireland - a lovely sing-song lilt. My sister-in-law Helen is from Cork.

 West Coast of Ireland (County Limerick, County Clare)

 Donegal

I hail from Maidstone in Kent, which falls within the area of Estuary English, and I only have a slight regional accent. I live in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where there used to be a fairly distinct accent with a post-vocalic "r", which you can still hear amongst the older generation, but Berkshire is now mainly Estuary (which lacks the post-vocalic "r"). The post-vocalic "r" begins to creep in towards West Berkshire and can be heard clearly when you reach Wiltshire.

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Glad you liked the site. I was tipped off about it by Keith Bryant who works at the National Centre for Flexible Learning in Sweden.

Here's another site you might like:


It's the results of Professor John Wells' work on current pronunciation practices in British English. I first read about this in the IATEFL News (the article can be downloaded from the link I've just put in). One of the results which surprised me was that certain 'Northern' sounds are being taken up in the south of England. Professor Wells highlights the way that the word 'chance' is being pronounced more and more with the vowel sound in the word 'pat', rather than the one in the word 'part'.

As a teacher of EFL, I am made constantly aware of the fact that English changes all the time, and that the changes are brought about by the people who speak the language, rather than by any prescriptive body. This doesn't mean that you can be sloppy, but that, in my opinion, you need to accept change and to be a bit careful about universal prescriptions about how the language works.

The 'Mission Statement' on the GMU site (the one I posted earlier) makes interesting reading for me, at least …

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David Writes:

Here's another site you might like:


Thanks - very useful!

I met John Wells at a gathering of Esperantists some years ago. No, I'm not an Esperantist; I was just interested to find out what it was all about.

Regarding the above website, I've noticed numerous shifts in pronunication and usage in my lifetime. My grandfather, a Man of Kent, pronounced a post-vocalic "r" but my generation had already lost it. I see more and more North American forms of pronunciation, as well as individual words and phrases, creeping into British English, but there is also a slight shift the other way too, which I've noticed when visiting our Canadian cousins: for example, "fridge" has replaced "ice-box" and "lift" co-exists with "elevator". My British English has sometimes confused our cousins, e.g. when I said "I'll knock you up early tomorrow morning" and "That's a load of b*ll*cks!", but I automatically slip into North American usage when talking about cars in Canada and habitually say "gas", "trunk", "hood", "fender" in order to be better understood.

What about the rising intonation that characterises young (especially female) speakers of Australian English? That's creeping in over here too - attributed by some people to the popularity of Australian soap operas such as "Neighbours". An Australian colleague of my generation claims that the rising intonation is relatively new in Australia too. Rising intonation is well established in some regional accents of the British Isles, however, e.g. Bristol and East Anglian - and, of course, Welsh and Irish English.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Some very helpful comments here - thanks. I will assimilate some of these into the emerging guide. Here's the next section...


The lexis of dialects is perhaps their most conspicuous feature for listeners and readers. (If we see unfamiliar grammatical forms, we may be able to infer meaning readily; but if we see a novel lexeme we can at best guess its meaning from the context.) This will include both forms that are peculiar to the dialect and forms that are found elsewhere, but have a distinctive meaning in the dialect. So beer-off for an off licence is a distinctive form (found in East Yorkshire), while happen is a verb in Standard English, but in some Yorkshire dialects is used as an adverb, in the sense of maybe or perhaps, corresponding to Shakespeare’s haply. (For example, “Happen it may rain tomorrow”.) There is no initial /h/ sound, so in dialect the written form may be given as appen. The common written representation ‘appen implies mistakenly that the speaker has dropped a sound that was never there in the first place.

While in Standard English indicates simultaneous time. But in East and West Yorkshire dialect it has the sense expressed by until in Standard English. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths (Saturday 24th January 2004) the wife of a member of the Spurn lifeboat crew said of her husband and his colleagues: “A lot of men go out in the morning. They don’t get back while seven o’clock at night…”


Distinctive grammar in dialects may be harder to detect or explain than distinctive lexis.

· One example is the way that dialect speakers on Tyneside use modal verbs.

· Another would be the use of past participle in Scots after wants or needs – where a Standard English speaker says, “That wants doing” or “This needs fixing”, the Scot says, “That wants done” and “This needs fixed”. (Barrie Rhodes notes that in Yorkshire, generally, we use want as the auxiliary in such constructions, where want and need are more or less interchangeable in other regions.)

The social functions of dialects

Are there language interactions where dialect forms work differently from Standard English? In the past some speakers might have known only to use a dialect, but today many are aware of both dialect and Standard equivalents – so may use one or the other more or less in different social contexts. This may for purposes of greater or less formality or intimacy; and it may be conscious or involuntary (as when a speaker assimilates his or her style to that of another).

It is worth considering how far dialect is determined by geography and historical accident, and how far it may be related to sociolinguistics. (For example, it may be that geography and historical isolation explains the origin of a dialect, but that social attitudes explain its survival.)

The primary social function of any dialect (or of all language) is communication, but there are also claims to status and identity that are bound up with the choices of variant forms. However, the emergence of a prestige variety of Standard English is largely a series of accidents. Had Alfred (king of the West Saxons) not defeated the Viking Guthrum at the Battle of Edington, then York might have been established as the capital of England, and the Standard English of today might have been an Anglo-Norse variety. Of course, that did not happen.

Dialects and Standard English

Without the notion of Standard English, we may find it hard to identify anything as a dialect at all – since the distinctiveness of a dialect consists in those things that are different from the Standard. (This does not mean that a dialect emerged from people who took Standard English and then changed it; it is more likely that the standard variety and the dialect variety developed from some common and some locally distinctive influences over time, or that the dialect forms are older, and have been more resistant to tendencies to converge towards a standard variety.)

There is a problem in identifying any dialect as the standard, since this implies that other dialects are inferior or wrong. In the case of spoken English, we have good evidence that such prejudice exists – so there is an exaggerated danger that, in referring to a standard, we will strengthen what is already a tyranny. It may help to note that Standard English, too, is a dialect – albeit one that is no longer found in any one region of Britain. Barrie Rhodes notes:

This is what has been termed "...the tyrrany of the standard" which gives the impression that there is something called 'English' and all other varieties are, somehow, degraded, deficient, 'incorrect' forms of this.  [The idea of convergence towards this standard] for me, reinforces the impression that there is some set-in-stone ideal towards which people should strive.  Some observers would claim that this is what made people uncomfortable and ashamed of their native speech modes…The notion is very strong and well established that there is something called “English”…And everything else is a deviation from this, arrived at through ignorance of the “proper” form. When I give talks to various groups, I find the biggest challenge is to get people to accept that there are many Englishes, all with an equal and valid claim to be “proper” within their own contexts. Only historical and geographical accidents brought prestige to what today we call the standard. But students could usefully ask (within a sociolinguistic paradigm) why people still choose to use non-standard speech when "...they should know better". My paternal grandmother…heard on the radio, understood and wrote Standard English (very well) – but she never spoke it. Had she done so, she would have soon found herself socially distanced from the close “West Riding” speaking community she lived in. There are all sorts of identity and self-esteem issues here that are worth investigating.

The “standard” is a human choice that could have been otherwise (like driving on the right or left). It is not in any intrinsic way better or worse than other dialects. Nor are the historic regional dialects corrupt variants. Indeed, in many cases they preserve far older lexis, meanings or grammar than the so-called standard.

Historical and contemporary changes

In studying dialect forms, as they exist now, you should be aware of the history behind them. Regional varieties of English have historical causes that may go as far back as the Old English period. They may embody or reflect much of the history of the places where they are used.

Language is not a uniform and unchanging system of communication. It varies with place and changes over time. For example, human beings are capable (physically) of a wider range of speech sounds than any one speaker ever uses. Each language in its spoken standard forms has its own range of speech sounds, while regional varieties may leave out some of these and add others. Welsh has a distinctive sound represented in spelling by ll (voiceless unilateral l, common in place names). Some English speakers use post-vocalic r (rhoticization), though this is not common outside the north, Scotland and the south-west.

The social history of any region often explains the language variety that has arisen there. York was the heart of the Danelaw, the Viking kingdom in Britain. To this day, the lexicon of dialect speakers in the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire retains many words that derive from Old Norse. Scandinavian influence on the language does not stop with the end of the Danelaw, however: in the 19th and 20th centuries maritime trade and commerce in the North Sea and the Baltic brought many Danes, Norwegians and Swedes to ports like Hull and Newcastle.

The West Riding also has a large corpus of words of Old Norse origin. The Norwegian influence is stronger here, whereas Danish is more influential in the East Riding – there are more “Norwegian” forms than the '”Danish” of, say, the East Riding. There is a historical explanation in the trade routes from Dublin, via the north-west coast of England, over the Pennine uplands to York, capital of the Danelaw. We see an illustration of this in the place-name ending –thwaite, of Norwegian origin, which is common in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District, but rare east of the Pennines, where the Danish cognate -thorpe is far more common.

Over many centuries, regional varieties retained distinctive lexis, grammar and speech sounds, because most speakers stayed in the place where they grew up, or near to it. In the late 20th century greater social and geographical mobility, combined with the influence of film and broadcast media, has altered the way varieties develop. Geographical location still exerts an influence, but it is not the only one. So, for example, British people of Asian descent, living in Bradford may speak a variety of English, which has West Yorkshire and Asian speech sounds, as well as those of RP, and a lexicon based on standard English with neologisms from the languages of the Indian sub-continent, and perhaps a few traditional Yorkshire dialect words.

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As a teacher in a rural Devon secondary school I often heard kids saying, for example, “Where ‘re uz to?” (“Where are we?”), “Oi be” (“I am”), “Oi’ll see ‘ee somewhen” (“I’ll see you sometime”), which a teacher from our exchange school in Germany dismissed as “incorrect”. I pointed out that such expressions were not incorrect in the context of the rural Devon dialect, as everyone who spoke the dialect used them. There were some unusual formations of tenses too, but I can’t remember the system – and it was a system. And, of course, the German children on an exchange visit that I organised picked up all the non-standard local variations from the families that they stayed with.

My wife Sally is from Belfast. Although well-educated, she habitually conjugates verbs in way that sounds incorrect to speakers of standard English, but it appears to be common throughout the dialect area, e.g. “He got threw out” and “Did you went…?” She often rearranges sentences too, e.g. “It’s cold getting” instead of “It’s getting cold”. In Irish English you often hear the “after” construction in verbal phrases – more common in the South than in the North, e.g. “I'm after going down there” (past tense).

Regarding the social status of dialects, we have more hang-ups about this than German speakers, for example. In Switzerland it would be normal for a university professor to give his lectures in accented High German and then to chat to his students in Swiss German in the coffee bar afterwards. The situation is similar in Austria. I regularly visit St Johann in Tirol. People of all social classes speak Tyrolean German to other Tyroleans. But Tyrolean is more or less unintelligible to North Germans, so they tend to speak accented High German to them (and to me). But when they speak to Bavarians, who come from a closely-related dialect area, they seem to find a halfway mark. In other words they are virtually tri-lingual and particularly good at code-switching. The problem in England (less so in Scotland, Wales and Ireland) is that we have traditionally associated an accent or dialect with “incorrectness”. Things are changing now: v. the number of BBC news presenters that have a regional accent.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Thanks for the comments.

I am struck by how well-informed the discussion is - in secondary schools in England, the teaching of English language usually falls to teachers whose qualification is in English. That seems sensible, though mostly they have subject knowledge of literature, but less commonly of either modern languages or any science (both of which would arguably be better pre-requisites for teaching what is in effect language science).

There is, though, an interesting difference of approach, which some of the postings partly reveal. In teaching English (or any language) to non-native speakers, then we may use a reference model of grammar in which notions of correctness (conforming to standard or prestige varieties) are sometimes present.

Graham's last comment is more in tune with a descriptive approach - and that allows for more sophisticated (and truthful) models of language, that can accommodate the varieties in the systems of different localities, or of other kinds of social grouping.

The attitude displayed by the German exchange teacher is one that you would find in almost any generally-educated Briton, who is innocent of modern language theory. The bullying attempt to impose a correct version of English on the nation is an absurd anachronism.

These ideas were promulgated by Bishop Robert Lowth, and derived from the study of grammars of classical languages. Yet these grammars themselves were written to explain only the high literary forms of ancient languages. We now know that they did not take account of demotic forms, such as the koiné or vulgar Greek, that one finds in the New Testament.

The myth that modern European languages are "descended" from Greek-and-Latin (ignorantly yoked to each other) is fatuous, but very persistent. And it leads to silly attempts to shoehorn a Germanic language into a Latin model, which was not, to begin with, even a very accurate model of Latin - and had the convenience of being applied to the moribund written form of the language used for scholarship in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

To take a very simple example, David Crystal refers to adverbs as a "dustbin" class of words - since it is not at all coherent, and includes words which are logically and semantically not remotely in the same class (such as indications of time or frequency [sometimes, daily] and intensifiers [exceptionally]).

The apostles of correctness are maintaining flat Earth views - when a scientist encounters evidence that does not fit his or her hypothetical model, then it makes no sense to say it is wrong or incorrect, since manifestly it happens. "I am" is a standard English form, whereas "I be" is used in some parts of the west of England. But as a finite verb from the infinitive "be", the regional variety is certainly not less legitimate in any fundamental grammatical sense, than the distinctly irregular standard form. The prescriptive grammarian would no doubt, on seeing an Australian swan, say that it was "wrong" or "incorrect" since "proper" swans are white. To say what reality should be (in language science as in natural science), rather than explaining what it is, this is the position of a fool. Most people know that they are ignorant of natural sciences, and so defer to the experts. This does not happen with language.

I'm not sure that we have hang-ups about using regional forms. The UK is more homogeneous than some other countries in its language use - but we are comfortable with differences of accent, and with some local lexis. On which point, I've noticed odd bits of Scots escaping from the lips of (national) politicians, such as "outwith" where a Sassenach would say "outside" or "beyond".

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I'm not sure that we have hang-ups about using regional forms. The UK is more homogeneous than some other countries in its language use - but we are comfortable with differences of accent, and with some local lexis.

We have fewer hang-ups now than we did 50-60 years ago - and, yes, my memory does go back that far <_< . I recall the radio broadcaster Wilfred Pickles, a Yorkshireman by birth, provoking a storm of protests from listeners when his (almost) RP accent as required by the BBC at the time slipped. He is best known as a host of the show "Have a Go" and in performances as a character actor, e.g. in "Billy xxxx", where his delightful Yorkshire accent was a sine qua non of the role.

Listen to Wilfred's watered-down accent as a newscaster and his "real" accent in "Have a Go" at:


- a nice collection of sound clips!

Harold Wilson's regional accent came back when he got into power in the 1960s:


- another useful Web page!

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Very interesting, Andrew. I am an ex-Huddersfielder living in Australia and my parner is an ex-Geordie. I now understand, after living in Sweden for a short time, why my mother still says, "They did a midnight flit" because the Swedish word for movement is flyten. Also the use of bairn/barn for child, and kirk/kyrken for church.

I've wondered if the dropping of the definite article in the Yorkshire dialect is a reflection of the lack of it in Swedish/Danish. eg I'm going t'pub??

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The roots of our language were covered in the first part of the excellent ITV series "The Adventure of English", written and presented by Melvyn Bragg. The book accompanying the series was published by Hodder & Stoughton late last year: ISBN 0 340 82991 5.

There was a BBC TV series in the 1980s called “The Story of English”, covering similar ground, also with an accompanying book by McCrum R., Cran W. & MacNeil R., published in 1986 by BBC Publications (Faber & Faber), ISBN 0 571 13828 4. Amazon has a few copies left.

I have both books on my bedside bookshelf – fascinating reading. I don't know if video versions are available for sale. I recorded most of both series for home viewing and I watch them over and over again.

A good deal of what you hear (and read) today in the Northern English dialects can be traced back to the language spoken in the Danelaw - as opposed to the area of our island that was under West Saxon rule. Many words in the area of the Danelaw derive from the Viking language: v. street names in York that end in "gate" (from the Viking word for "street") and the unique pronunciation of the "r" sound in Geordie, which is close to the modern Danish "r". See the Geordie Dictionary at http://www.thenortheast.fsnet.co.uk/GeordieDictionary.htm and other links at this website produced by David Simpson.

A Danish friend of mine told me he was planning a shopping trip to Newcastle, and the topic of the Geordie dialect came up in the course of our ensuing conversation. He was a bit sceptical when I said that some words and phrases in Geordie and Danish were pronounced almost identically, so I suggested that he put it to the test by going into a pub and ordering a Newcastle Brown in Danish, phrasing it thus: "Give me a Brown". He tried it and was amazed when the barman gave him what he ordered without batting an eyelid.

My wife and stayed overnight in Alnwick (Northumbria) on the way to Scotland a couple of years ago. I was very hard-pushed to understand the local dialect but my wife, who is from Belfast, found quite a few overlaps with her regional dialect/language (Ulster Scots or Ullans), e.g. "bairn", "kirk": http://www.ullans.com/

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