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Review of  Northern English

Reviewer: Daniela Cesiri
Book Title: Northern English
Book Author: Katie Wales
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.851

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Author(s): Wales, Katie
Title: Northern English
SubTitle: A Social and Cultural History
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 2006

Daniela Cesiri, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University
of Salento (formerly University of Lecce), Italy


As stated in the PREFACE, the aim of the book is to present a history --
strictly connected with social and cultural factors -- of the variety of
English used in the Northern counties of Great Britain. The author
introduces the monograph as a ''personal journey'' (p. xi), being herself
born and raised in Darlington, Co. Durham, which also gives her the
opportunity to provide the reader with a native speaker's insight into the
variety she describes. This book is aimed at present-day and historical
dialectologists, not only to illustrate a variety of English up to now
understudied, but also to draw their attention to the danger of attaching
cultural labels that only in a few cases reflect the actual identity of its

The latter topic is particularly developed in CHAPTER 1 (''The North-South
divide''), where Wales first differentiates what a 'dialect' and a
'non-standard variety' of a language are in terms of their ideological
connotations, and as compared to the 'prestige' usually attributed to the
so-called Standard English. The author then continues venturing in the
disputed geographical definition of 'North', since each scholar wanting to
divide England into sections for dialectology studies has given a personal
definition of this part of England. The 1974 public administration change
of county boundaries has not done much to solve the problem, even in the
Northerners' mind, whose opinion when asked to define the line where 'the
South' begins has appeared to depend upon their birthplace. Only one point
- at least in modern times - seems to remain fixed: Hadrian's Wall as a
border between England and Scotland. In the final part of the chapter,
Wales focuses on the stereotyped opinion (a sort of 'leitmotif' found
throughout the book) shared by British people of 'the North' and 'the
Northerners', providing literary and modern examples of ''mythologies of
Northernness'' (p. 25).

In CHAPTER 2 (''The origins of Northern English''), the author describes how
Northern English (henceforth NE) originated from a mixing of Old English
and Scandinavian languages, as well as contacts with Celtic tribes either
from Scotland or Ireland. In particular, Wales describes the confused
cultural-political situation of Britain from the X century onwards:
different cultures such as Viking invaders, Anglo-Saxon kings from the
South and Celtic tribes coming into contact and mixing with each other with
the 'help' of commercial relations, but above all of inter-marriage, and
creating a rather 'rich' (euphemistically speaking) language contact
situation. Because of linguistic similarities between their languages,
Danes and Norsemen might have understood Northumbrians more easily than
'southerners', thus reinforcing interchanges and linguistic tendencies
preserved until modern times, for example the use of ''hard'' consonants (p.
57), in which ''may well lie the root of the persistent myth that Northern
consonants are '''harder' than Southern'' (p. 57), and creating ''a hybrid
language ... a Mischsprache'' (italics in the text -- p. 58), something
half-way between the Northumbrian dialect and the Scandinavian ones, all
tinged with some elements from Celtic languages.

CHAPTER 3 (''Northern English and the rise of 'Standard English''') is
devoted to a deeper exploration of the 'North-South' opposition from the
seventeenth century to the nineteenth: as London increased its political
and economical influence over England, its English, especially the courtly
'Chancery English', started to have a prominence in written texts and in
the perception of 'gentlefolk', who considered it the most acceptable
language as opposed to the Northern speech, which was considered expression
of 'savageness' and vulgarity, thus increasing stereotypes and a general
negative perception of Northerners. Wales argues, however, that from the
seventeenth century -- and especially during the Romantic period -- a
certain revaluation was going on, due to the growing vogue for ''educated
... metropolitans'' (p. 105) to discover the 'picturesque' side of Northern
landscapes and its 'noble savage' dwellers, solitary inhabitants of those
regions speaking ''an uncorrupted language in harmony with nature'' (p. 105).
From the linguistic point of view, Wales stresses the role of NE in the
spreading of certain syntactical features into ''Southern Middle English''
(p. 82-83), that are still present in Modern Standard English, such as ''I
as the 1st person pronoun form'', ''levelling of past tense plurals'', and so
on. Wales' theory is not that of the spreading of these features
'southernwards', but a ''spokes of a wheel theory'' (p. 85) or the extension
of the grammatical features to southern speech with the help of contacts by
trade and migration.

As CHAPTER 4's title states, ''Northern English after the Industrial
Revolution'', Wales continues by describing the socio-cultural situation of
NE from the nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth, when
industrialization pushed the Northern economy forward in ship building,
coal-mining, wool production and trade. However, the way the Victorian
bourgeois saw the 'Northerners' did not improve any more than in the
previous centuries: on the one hand, 'Southerners' still stigmatised what
they considered the coarse accent of the North; on the other hand,
Victorian novelists tried to re-evaluate the dialect stressing the most
positive characteristic of its speakers: simplicity and plain talk. The
Victorian antiquarian vogue of compiling dialect glossaries and the growing
interest of the general public in ballads and popular songs led to a better
understanding and to the preservation of the dialect. It also 'propelled'
the creation of new satirical works and of stereotypes referring to
'Northernness'. Moreover, diffusion of compulsory education and a general
diffusion of literacy led young men, who wanted to elevate their social
status, to move 'down South' and make every possible effort to lose their
accent in order to be socially accepted. Wales supposes that nineteenth
century migration to America, Australia and New Zealand might have
introduced Northern linguistic features to the English spoken overseas,
although scholars such as Knowles (1997:217) argues that NE made an
''insignificant contribution''. This situation continued well up to the early
twentieth century, until the advent of the new technological media (cinema,
radio and, later, television), which made the audience accept regional
features, also thanks to the popularity of music halls, music recording and
films where Northern characters became fashionable.

The last chapter, CHAPTER 5 (''Northern English present and future'')
presents a more linguistically oriented approach regarding present-day NE
distinctive features, as well as possible future scenarios for this
variety. During the 1960s films and media entertainment contributed to the
spreading of a different view of ''the North'', this happened also thanks to
the famous soap opera ''Coronation Street'', and to the growing of various
''Dialect Societies'', soon followed by 'comic ''guides''' (p. 163) to Northern
varieties which contributed to the preservation and to the revival of local
identities. These phenomena encouraged the acceptability of regional
varieties, although preserving in the meantime the usual stereotypes that
still lead Northern youngsters, wishing to succeed in their careers, to
adapt their accent to the more prestigious Received Pronunciation.

Wales continues by underlining the most neglected areas where NE needs
further investigation by researchers --distinctive usages in grammar and
discourse features, among others -- and ends the book by presenting the
future, or various possible futures, for NE: ''dialect levelling'', which is
the most feared and the most discussed threat among dialectologists, along
with convergence around a single local 'metropolitan core'. Positive signs
come from the Internet, where local communities find a space to ''assert
identity'' (p. 209), and also from the tourist revaluation of Northern
counties, which might help call workers to areas where in the past they
escaped from. Both of these factors may help cement social and linguistic
bonding in local communities.


This monograph is an extensive and thorough account of how Northern English
has survived through time and how it was approached by 'Southerners', who
were considered to speak a more prestigious variety of English, and how
'Northerners' reacted to this approach. What is interesting is the author's
personal experience as a speaker of NE, mostly witnessed in the final
chapter, that offers the reader both the scholar's and the native user's
perspective. Another interesting point of this book is the final
presentation of future scenarios. What is particularly convincing is the
theory, shared with other scholars such as Milroy (1993) and Påhlsson
(1972), of 'convergence' towards a single metropolitan core variety, and
above all the proposal about the place where 'endangered' dialects might be
preserved: the Internet and the World Wide Web. In particular, I would add
'blogs' (shortened form of 'web-logs') as the most fitting places where NE,
as any other variety, is likely to be preserved: in these virtual spaces
people who share the same identity (even if they don't live in the same
place any more) virtually meet to (re-)assert their social and
'geographical' identity.

The style of the author is clear and plain, although she sometimes makes
overabundant use of cross-references to preceding or subsequent sections of
the book, or to other authors' research contributions. These references
might well have been placed in notes, since they make the reading slow and
the reader sometimes loses the point of the paragraph.

Apart from this, the book is suitable for those scholars who seek a guide
to the SOCIAL and CULTURAL factors which have influenced the spread of this
variety of English, since its linguistic features are just hinted at (with
the exception of the final chapter), or indicated whenever it is necessary
to help clarify the impact NE had on 'Standard English' (for example, to
show the reasons why certain Northern features have been stigmatised more
than others throughout its history). Thus the discussion is generally
redirected to a social framework, according to stated purpose and title of
the book.

For its focus on socio-cultural aspects of NE more than on linguistic ones,
this book is not recommended for students looking for a general
introduction to this variety, since the paucity of linguistic examples
might restrict an overall study of its characteristics. Nor is it
recommended to readers who do not have a general knowledge of topics and
controversies in dialectology and sociolinguistics, since these are not
deeply explained (which, in any case, would have been impossible to do in a
single monograph), and quite often a deeper knowledge of these topics on
the part of the reader is implied.


Knowles, G. (1997), The nature of phonological variables in Scouse. In P.
Trudgill (ed.), 'Sociolinguistic Patterns in British English', pp.80-90.
London: Edward Arnold.

Milroy, J. (1993), On the social origins of language change. In C, Jones
(ed.), 'Historical Linguistics: Problems and Perspectives', pp. 215-36.
London: Longman.

Påhlsson, C. (1972), The Northumbrian Burr. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup.

Daniela Cesiri is currently a third year Ph.D. student at the Department of
Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Salento (formerly named
University of Lecce), Italy. She is currently compiling a "Corpus of Irish
Fairy and Folk Tales" to be analysed in her doctoral dissertation. Her main
research interests include historical linguistics, lexicology, lexicography
and historical dialectology with a particular focus on Irish English and
its linguistic, as well as socio-cultural, interrelations with other
varieties of the English Language in the British Isles.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521861071
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 276
Prices: U.S. $ 90.00
U.K. £ 50.00