1. At p. 349 in Volume 2 of his invaluable Accents of English (1982) Professor J. C. Wells remarked that "about half of the English speak with some degree of northern accent". The geographical region which is the subject of the present account is identified geographically by Wells (ibid. p. 350) thus: "The middle north includes the densely populated industrial belt straddling the Pennines from Manchester through Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds, to Sheffield". Thus the speech of this central northern region of England is notable as having a particularly large number of speakers compared with the other accents of the British Isles. It will be noticed that this excludes peripheral locations such as the conurbations of Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle which Cruttenden 2008 at § 7.6.4 naturally includes under the heading 'Northern English'.
2. Most of the linguistic attention to this area has been given to the demotic 'broad' accents of speakers of the least sophisticated kinds notably by the Leeds University 'Survey of English Dialects' (carried out from 1950 to 1961). On the present occasion it is proposed to consider the usages of the relatively sophisticated speakers of this central northern area. It is observable that very many such people exhibit only fairly moderate differences of pronunciation from the equivalent groups in other, including the more southerly, parts of England. In such places many of the more sophisticated speakers employ the General British (hereafter 'GB') English accent of Great Britain which by definition exhibits no very readily identifiable regional features.
3. In the title the General Central
(hereafter 'GCN'), the term 'central' is used to
indicate the exclusion of the far
northern areas of Tyneside and Tees-side
and the peripheral northern
ones of Merseyside, East Yorkshire and the northerly midlands. The
expression 'sophisticated' refers to
exclusion of consideration of markedly demotic or strongly localised
usages. It may be taken
that in daily
conversation the speakers in question make use
essentially only of standard English grammar and vocabulary. It is
therefore what should be designated as a Standard Accent of
observations upon which the descriptions have been based have
been made in the course of 35 years or so spent residing in the area
(within the Wakefield and Leeds postal districts) and while listening,
considerable degree systematically, to a fair amount of regional
broadcasting and of national broadcasting by GCN speakers. Much, but by
no means all, of what we have to say here about GCN is also applicable
to the peripheral northern districts mentioned and indeed even to some
more southerly ie north midland areas. GCN speakers include
many who can not be distinguished from GB speakers immediately one
them but reveal their GCN affiliations almost only in their treatment
of the vowels described in the next paragraph and their preference for
what is popularly referred to as the "flat a". Others are more
instantly observable as GCN speakers by certain voice quality and
rhythmic features that are quite hard to define, notably varieties of
nasality that differ slightly from the ones common among GB speakers.
On the other hand one quite often comes across (unknown) speakers whose
accents seem completely indistinguishable from General British ones in
every way — segment qualities, intonations, rhythms and voice
qualities — who have been speaking for perhaps some minutes
(though more often a minute or so) until one suddenly notices either
preference for a strong vowel in the prefix of a word like contain or for the use in a word like bath of the short vowel that both they and GB speakers employ in a word like maths. This is indicative of how very close to GB usages those of many GCN speakers are.
Wells at Accents of English pp 362/3 said “Northern speech tends to retain strong vowels in certain environments where ... other accents show weakening ... Latin prefixes such as ad-. con-, ex- when pretonic." He gives seven examples but doesn’t point out explicitly that the reason why whereas eg concern has the strong vowel but connect has predictably the weak is because Northern initial syllables ending with a strong consonant (ie non-approximant non-liquid) sound immediately followed by another strong consonant regularly maintain a strong vowel .
Thus in Northern English the vowel of an unstressed initial syllable is usually not converted to an ordinary schwa or to a 'front schwa' / ɪ / or eliminated, as generally happens in all types of English in familiar vocabulary items, but exhibits the rhythmically strong value that a vowel has in English as a rule if it bears any degree of stress as eg in the first syllable of `expert or the first and second syllables of 'expec`tation. Words embodying this feature include many very common ones such as absorb, abstain, admit, advise, complain, computer, concise, confuse, contain, employ, enclose, endure, enjoy, entire, entwine, example, expect, explain, object, obtain, observe, etc. Some such words have common GB mainly subvariant versions with strong vowels eg accept, acknowledge, agnostic, antagonise, Antarctic and various other relatively uncommon and learned words.
5. Where the unstressed initial syllable ends with a vowel sound, GCN usage is generally no different from that of practically all of the rest of the English-speaking world eg in words like abrupt, abuse, accuse, acquire, address, affect, afraid, agree, amuse, apply, attract, collect, commercial, commit, community, connect, correct, oblige, offend, oppose, produce, promote, suggest, suppress, etc. It will be noted that the weak vowel in these initial syllables is followed either by a simple consonant or by a cluster ending with one of the approximant consonants / l, r, j / and / w /.
6. The foregoing comments are not to be understood as suggesting that GCN speakers invariably use the non-GB strong-vowel forms but that such forms are extremely common and for most GCN speakers the predominant usage in most words. However, in a small number of words, eg companion, expect etc, for reasons that are difficult to decide about conclusively, a strong vowel may well not be used by a considerable number of GCN speakers who in most other such words have the usual GCN preference.
7. Occasionally but not at all regularly a GCN speaker may be heard to employ a strong vowel in initial syllables not in the strong category described above. This could possibly in some cases be a product of more than usual influence of the orthography but it is a kind of variation that can occur among GB speakers. The especially heavy prefix trans- as eg in translate which may be heard from a small minority of GB speakers in a few words as /tr(ə)nz-/ may well represent among GCN (or former GCN) speakers a hyper-adaptational avoidance of the perceivedly less prestigious GCN strong-vowel-in-prefix pattern.
8. Sometimes, in a departure from their usual pattern of using weak vowels in weak prefixes, GCN speakers pronounce
words like suspect, sustain etc as /sʌ`spekt, sʌ`steɪn/ compared with GB /sə`spekt, sə`steɪn/.
9. Unfamiliar learned or technical words may well not conform to the patterns found with everyday items. For example words like the medical terms ectopic and endemic seem ordinarily to be begun with a strong vowel in practically all forms of English. On the other hand many, it seems particularly Londonish (popularly 'Estuary') speakers, may opt for a strong-vowel version of various common words beginning with the ex-.
10. Although most regularly observable in monosyllabic pretonic closed syllables which are prefixes, there are indications of such a GCN tendency to use a strong-behaving vowel in some other similarly structured words eg harmonious, historical, July, leukemia, mosaics, museum, musician, united, Victorian etc which are not so treated in most other accents of English.
11. It can be said that the vowel / ɪ / is ambiguous in terms of strong or weak rhythmic value so that its feeling for the speaker on any occasion has to be extrapolated from their general practice and therefore can be differently interpreted for a GB speaker and a GCN speaker when exactly the same prosody has been used by each. For instance ˈIg ˎnore it or ˈVicˎtorian can be quite emphatic for a GB speaker but represent a neutral prosody for a GCN speaker.
12. A somewhat related circumstance is that the word / ɪn`kwaɪə / is
no less often so pronounced by GCN speakers than by GB speakers. Since
it is in ordinary orthography, despite its traditional listing in the
OED etc as a mere subvariant spelling of inquire, more often written and
printed (at least in everyday non-official applications)
one might have expected GCN speakers to pronounce generally as /
/ but they don't necessarily do so. However, the fact that the
is more often preferred in the north than in the south of England in
everyday applications as opposed to legal etc tradition is probably a reflection of spoken usage.
13. A consequence of the preference for the strong vowels of the kinds we have been noting is that in certain prosodic contexts some GCN speakers quite often use accentuations such as a 'com(')binedˎforce, the 'ex(')istingˎsnow, on 'ex(')posed ˎcoasts, 'im(')proved offers, the 'Con(')servative ˎParty etc with or without the second (lower) level tone or with a single pretonic tone which is a descending type.
16. He also offered the perhaps less confidently
that one or two such words depart from this
pattern as a result of
"school-inspired standards of correctness" an instance being "master, which, he added, is often
/ by northerners who would nevertheless pronounce plaster and disaster with short / a /". Oddly
enough, though I haven't particularly noticed master so pronounced, I have
observed plaster with the
long vowel from speakers from whom it was mildly surprising. (An OED note mentions that N.E.D. (1907) recorded a late ME form plaaster.)
17. The fact that even the most speech-conscious GCN speakers so generally resist any temptation to adopt the prestigious long vowels in almost all such words may owe something to an understandable uncertainty regarding which words in GB receive the "broadening" treatment. The fact is that a very large proportion of the words with such spellings have the short vowel in GB (more than twice as many as have the long vowel) and that a substantial group (of perhaps 50 common words) vary from speaker to speaker within GB over whether the short or the long vowel is favoured.
18. It may well be further evidence of the perhaps surprising high status of this GCN vowel choice that the Scot James A. H. Murray should have decided to adopt a special "avowedly ambiguous" phonetic symbol for the original Oxford Dictionary to deal with words like pass and command because he considered that they were "variously identified by different speakers with the a in man and the a in father". Present GB usage was only established in the latter nineteenth century. It is likewise noteworthy that subsequent authorities including Robert Burchfield, the great lexicographer of the latter twentieth century, should have maintained such a custom despite declaring the intention of representing only the "educated speech of southern England". The OED second edition of 1989 regularly added the ash symbol (æ) after such words in turning over the notation from Murray's set of symbols to one employing the International Phonetic Association's alphabet which provides no such ambiguous symbols. A similar policy persists in the current OED.
19. A curious usage which relates to the northern preference for a short vowel in a word like bath can be seen in the speech of some individuals who, apparently rejecting the alien "southern" way of saying a word which they seem to imagine (having presumably heard it mainly from GB speakers) to be spelt "*athritis" give it the pronunciation /æθ`raɪtəs/. For a number of years this could be heard in a much-repeated tv advertisement in which a dear little old lady expressed her satisfaction with a particular brand of armchair. She was not at all unique in adopting this way of saying the word.
21. Speakers of high social standing who maintain / ʊ / in
at least some cup-type words
may be met with
sporadically. Some of them, but not nearly all of them, in doing so can
tend to sound rather
aggressively assertive of
their northern background. Incidentally I have never observed any GCN
of such striking hyperadaptive forms as / `ʃʌgə
/ for sugar or / `bʌʧə / for butcher. The remark by Wells
(ibid. p. 353) that the word someone
as ['sʌmwən] is in effect a sort of shibboleth for GCN doesn't chime
with my impressions because such a version strikes me as well within
the range of pronunciations used by GB speakers, certainly as a weakform in a phrase like ˈsomeone `else.
22. A notable consequence of the fact that GCN speakers often employ a schwa or something nearer to it than an ordinary GB-type / ʌ / is that certain ambiguities arise where weakforms of an, and and of are involved. Wells 1984 (p. 67) gives the examples in northern speech of an ending vs unending and a large and tidy room vs a large untidy room. This kind of thing occurs also where the word other from a northern speaker may correspond to a southerner's of the as in some of the time versus some other time. I have, for instance, momentarily misheard what other book she likes for what are the books she likes. Examples of such ambiguities are very frequent. They include many rather misunderstanding-causing ones of the type involving contrast of and and un-, eg labelled and classified versus labelled unclassified, considered and approved versus considered “unapproved”, the tomb was found and opened versus the tomb was found unopened and home from work and well versus home from work unwell.
In Leeds Studies in English (1968) Charles L. Houck reported a randomly sampled survey of over 100 Leeds speakers one conclusion from which was that 'the
vocalic segmental phoneme they used in "bud" seemed to indicate that
the linguistic behaviour in Leeds is a function of socio-economic
25. It is probable that GCN speakers use slightly fewer weakforms than GB speakers possibly making slightly less use of reductions of Sir and Saint to / sə / and /snt/. On the other hand weakening of non-auxiliary uses of parts of the verb to have seem less usual than they possibly once were. For example 'He's a dog' was once a familiar way of saying 'He has a dog' that seems now quite recessive.
27. GCN speakers usually show little or no difference from GB usage as regards aspiration of / p, t, k / or / ʧ /. The same can be said of their use of light and dark varieties of / l /. Dropping of aitches is regarded by GCN speakers as unacceptably 'uneducated' to just the same degree as by GB speakers.
almond /`ɒlmənd/ LPD "§"
among /ə`mɒŋ/ LPD "§"
assume / ə`ʃu:m/
ate /eɪt/ : once rather a Northernism this pronunciation is now spreading ever more widely in GB
Atlantic / æt`læntɪk / LPD "§"
because / bɪ`kɒs, bɪ`kɔːs, -z / LPD "§"
breakfast / `breɪkfəst / LPD "§"
comfortable / `kʌmfətəbəl / in LPD as a GB subvariant
constable / `kɒnstəbl / in LPD as a GB subvariant
difficult / `dɪfɪkʌlt / is a GCN subvariant shown in LPD as "§"
disrupt /dɪz`rʌpt/ LPD has only /dɪs-/
eighteen / eɪt`tiːn / LPD "§"
eighty / `eɪtti / LPD "§"
`exam / `egzam / LPD "§"
`exhaust (noun) / `egzɔːst / LPD "§"
gooseberry / `guːsbri / LPD "§"
horrible / `hɒrɪbl / in LPD as a GB subvariant
industry / `ɪndʌstri / is a GCN subvariant shown in LPD as "§"
`magazine in LPD as a GB subvariant
mischief / `mɪsʧiːf / LPD "§"
The next four items are commonly heard but within limited GCN areas. Speakers who employ them sometimes exhibit hyper-adaptive forms such as / nʌn / for the first sylable of non-smoking etc.
none / nɒn / LPD "§"
nothing / `nɒθɪŋ / LPD "§"
once / wɒns / LPD "§"
one / wɒn / LPD "§"
perfect (adj) / `pɜːfekt / in LPD as a GB subvariant
possible / `pɒsɪbl / in LPD as a GB subvariant
raspberry / `rasbri / not in LPD though it has as variant / `rɑːs- / and "§" / `ræz- /
says / seɪz / LPD "§"
terrible / `terɪbl / in LPD as a GB subvariant
us /əz / and / ʌz / LPD "§"
version / `vɜːʒn / in LPD as a GB subvariant
with / wɪθ / LPD "§"
yester`day LPD "§"
Not included by LPD as "§" variants but to be heard occasionally from some people with very largely GCN profiles are
aggravate / `ægrɪveɪt /
basin / `beɪsɪn /
fundamental / fʌndɪ `mentl /
ornamental / ɔːnɪ `mentl /
Until relatively recently, the noun `dispute was so stressed only in the north: currently (since the seventies) it is probably very often so stressed by younger southerners too.
Asia with / ʒ / during the later twentieth century moved from being a predominant choice only in the north to being so in General British usage.
(If a GCN speaker uses owt or nowt it’s jocular linguistic slumming.)
It is probably fair to say that many GCN speakers often favour intonation patterns like high-level-plus-low rise, as eg in We pre 'fer ˏcoffee, in situations where southerners would much more often be likely to select a falling-rising tone.
Similarly Kingdon (ibid. p 234) observed that in an expression like ˏCome with me to the ˏstation, that although the same tone choices can occur in the north and the south a "slight difference is ... observable" between them in that the range covered by the rises is greater" in the north.
None of these features is very marked in GCN.
It showed him as generally employing the typical GCN strong prefixes in obtained, expansion (twice), enforce, examination, enthusiasts, accept (twice) and admittedly. But, in a way that should surprise no careful student of variation in speaker's performance, he recorded his use of an initial weak syllable in the words completion, conformity, considerable, continue, examination, observing and example (twice). Regarding the fact that examination occurs in both values it is interesting to note that the strong-initial-syllable version appears at the beginning of a sentence while the weak one occurs within a word group ( ... future examination of ... ).
In the bath and chance group of words he showed himself as using the traditional short vowel in answer and example though with the symbol ash (æ) suggesting a value less open and less retracted than the more conservative GCN style. Similarly for other words in this group he preferred a symbol for a less advanced value than many GCN speakers use viz ɑ (which he employed with a length mark) in the words after, ask, asked, staff, and task.
Like most speakers his usages showed a mixture of newer and more conservative values. He for instance favoured the more traditional diphthong / oə / for more; among was / ə`mɒŋ /, because was / bɪ `kɔːs /; possible was / `pɒsɪbl /. He showed no tendency to use an / i / quality in the final syllable of happy words.
However, his general leaning was, as we have seen, to more modern GCN values: he didn't use / θ / in with ; his schwa in the second syllable of education sounded rather modern; he employed / ʌ / wherever it corresponded to GB, even in no-one.
The kind of "hypercorrection" with which his article had been concerned referred to developments in the deeply dialectal speech of informants born decades back into the nineteenth century, but an interesting more modern example of his topic was exemplfied by Ellis's transcription of his own version of the word difficult. The vowel he showed in its last syllable was / ʌ /.
Gimson, A. C. (1984) The RP Accent. In Peter Trudgill (ed.) Language in the British Isles. Cambridge:CUP
Kingdon, Roger (1958) The Groundwork of English Intonation. London: Longman
Pointon, G. E. (1983) BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names. Oxford: OUP
Wells, J. C. (1982) Accents of English. (3 vols). Cambridge: CUP
Wells, J. C.(1984) English
Accents in England. In Trudgill...
Wells, J. C. (1990, 2/e 2000) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. London: Longman (“LPD”)