Monday 6 June 2011

English accents in 2030

Just after I got back from the cruise I fielded a phone call from a journalist working for the Economist magazine, who wanted to discuss with me whether English accents are changing, and if so how fast. After ten minutes’ chat I told her she ought to talk to Paul Kerswill, and that’s just what she did.

The results duly appeared in the current issue of the magazine.

One of the tiresome things that our funding masters require of academics in this country these days is that we are supposed to try and generate results that show “impact” on the wider community. Paul writes
More impact (in UK govt parlance). Here's what an evening spent with an old Corel Photo House programme and a bit of pure speculation can produce. I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies of course, but don't get back to me until 2030!
He was referring to the maps you see above (click to enlarge).

Two days later, the Sunday Times took up the story.

Paul said
It's the silly season again, despite all the crises in the world. This year's accents story continues in today's Sunday Times ... no point in giving the url because you've got to pay. So I've made my own links here [and here] ...

It’s not over yet. Today it’s the Daily Mail that has taken it up.

Paul’s Facebook comment:
and so it goes on. Better run away for a bit. I don't do Geordie, honest.

Ed Aveyard dug up an older article on the same topic,
in which the demise of regional accents is predicted and "Academics at Lancaster University" are referenced. Perhaps Paul Kerswill has been used to justify both the strengthening and weakening of regional accents at different times in the same newspaper.
Ed comments further
One amusing mistake I've noticed on the 2030 map is that Scouse appears to be lost in Liverpool and confined to the Wirral!


  1. Actually the Economist article's not as bad as some of the others. It manages to describe phonetic features like TH-fronting fairly clearly without technical terms, and avoids the value judgements you often see in this type of article.

    And it resists the temptation to refer to Multicultural London English as (I can barely bring myself to type it out) "Jafaican".

  2. In addition, the Economist's article didn't make the mistake of excluding Liverpool from the Scouse zone in 2030. It did, however, employ stereotypes of Brummies.

    Sea erosion in 1970 appears to have taken a lot of East Anglia off the Sunday Times map as well.

    Any ideas what separates the South Central region from its neighbours? I don't know that part of the country well enough to know.

  3. Please, please, please, could someone come up with a better name for London Multicultural English than "Jafaican".

  4. @JHJ: What about simply "London"? This sits well with everyday usage where you might says that someone "has a London accent" (distinct from Cockney).

    Linguists can of course continue to call it Multicultural London English.

  5. John,
    Your first link to the Sunday Times is the same as your later one to an older article.

    The Economist article is not exactly free of funny ideas and value judgments. Look at the bit about some sort of TH here:

    «Liverpudlians tend to add a breathy “h” sound to words that end with a “t”, lending their distinctive intonation to “what”, “that” and “but”. According to Kevin Watson, who lectures in “sociophonetics” at the University of Lancaster, this is not lax articulation but rather a conscious effort to soften the uttered word through what he calls “plosive lenition”.»

    "t" + "breathy h"? Intonation? «"sociophonetics"»? Not "lax" (scil. sloppy) articulation, but hilariously a "conscious effort to soften the uttered word", the “plosive lenition” involved having apparently been understood on the basis of some dictionary definition or etymology.

  6. All this, I fear, reminds me of the predictions from half a century ago that a homogenized Broadcast General American was going to push the New York accents into Long Island Sound, drive Southern into the Gulf of Mexico, and level all accents across three thousand continuous miles of Suburbia. Not only are the older accents holding their own, but new and completely unknown and unpredicted accents have arisen out of nothing!

    "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." —Nils Bohr

  7. *Niels Bohr
    Excellent quote though.

  8. I know that this is going over old ground with LME, but I'd like to ask about the FACE and GOAT vowels. It says in the ST article:

    I presume that this refers to /e:/ and /o:/, which are the usual Jamaican vowels but also usual for a large proportion of the British Isles. If this becomes a permanent feature of London English, the number of Brits who use monophthongs in these vowels would be very high (combine with Scots, Welsh, Irish and those English north of Liverpool), and might become part of RP.

    Speculation is a wonderful thing.

  9. Because of my use of more-than and less-than signs, my comment omitted the part that I was referring to. The gap should read:

    turning “face” into “fehs” and “coat” into “coht”

  10. Ed wrote:
    "If this becomes a permanent feature of London English, the number of Brits who use monophthongs in these vowels would be very high (combine with Scots, Welsh, Irish and those English north of Liverpool), and might become part of RP."

    That's funny, because that might have been a part of the precursor of RP a while ago.

  11. @Pete: the trouble with that is that it's rather different from what most people think of as a "London accent", given features like the FACE and GOAT monophthongs mentioned by Ed and the open centralised TRAP.

    For now I think "London Multicultural English" is the best we've got, but it's a bit of a mouthful.

  12. Few people from south of Gateshead would be pleased to have their accent described as "Geordie" and, to be frank, nowhere close to Teesside does the local accent resemble it very much.

  13. I don't recognise the monophthongs that Ed refers to. MLE has ɛɪ and (something like) øy for FACE and GOAT.

  14. @ Pete: To be honest, I don't either, but that's what it suggests in the ST article and it says this on the Wikipedia article for MLE as well.

  15. Hrrmm. Looking at those maps from the perspective of a mid-North American: Are the boundaries of Wales and Scotland really that impermeable to language shifts?

    I mean, Canada, the US, and Mexico are distinct political entities, with three primary languages between us, and even we don't believe that regional dialects stop at national borders. You lot are a centuries-old "united kingdom," with hundreds of years of cross-border linguistic influence.

    I really can't imagine that there's a hard-and-fast dialectical line between the West Midlands and Eastern Wales.

  16. Howard: no one is claiming that the England/Wales boundary is "impermeable" - these maps just don't cover Wales at all. As for the England/Scotland boundary, it is remarkably robust in linguistic terms.

  17. Historically Southern Scots was spoken by people on the English side of the border as well, but in recent years the Scottish accent has become a mark of Scottish nationality, and people in England have moved away from it and closer to English accent. Similarly, much of the Canadian/U.S. border is also an accent boundary, although state and provincial lines are almost never accent boundaries unless they are natural boundaries (rivers, e.g.) as well.

  18. Surely it's Jafraican not Jafaican? A mixture of Jamaican and African.

  19. WillORNG: It's Jamaican + fake.

  20. Cool stuff you have got and you keep update all of us. English intonation


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