LINGUIST List 27.3338

Fri Aug 19 2016

Disc: Review of 'Researching Northern English'

Editor for this issue: Michael Czerniakowski <>

Date: 19-Aug-2016
From: Patrick Honeybone <>
Subject: Review of 'Researching Northern English'
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Geoffrey Sampson's review of the volume 'Researching Northern English' (, published in the Linguist List on 13th July, does not meet academic standards and cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Sampson admits that he is not really qualified to review work on Northern English (''I should warn readers that I have not myself engaged in systematic empirical research on it'') and this is unfortunately clear from his comments. For example, Sampson writes: ''Contrast the absence of STRUT with the use of 'tret' (rather than 'treated') as the past tense of 'treat'. My impression is that 'tret' may be restricted to the North-East, but there it is absolutely normal, and those who use it do not appear to think of it as non-standard.'' This shows the problems with the review. Firstly, Sampson’s claim about the data is wrong: 'tret' is by no means restricted to the North-East (Petyt 1985 - a volume which is something of a classic for those who study Northern English - shows it to be found in West Yorkshire as well, for example), and secondly, professional linguists will not be interested in Sampson’s anecdotal 'impressions' about the geographical distribution of linguistic features or about people's perceptions of them.

Another example: in discussing cases where Sampson ''would take issue with factual assertions'' in the book, he addresses Definite Article Reduction, and writes that ''Barras says that an interdental fricative also occurs, but he transcribes this with the symbol for the voiceless fricative – I wonder whether it is ever voiceless.'' This betrays ignorance about the linguistic patterning of the phenomenon. While voiceless dental fricative realisations of the definite article may not be the most common, Jones (2002) - another well-known piece among those who research Northern English - shows that such forms are widely attested, including in the Survey of English Dialects materials. Unsystematic personal experience of linguistic features should not outweigh expert linguistic study, and has no place in an academic review.

The most ill-considered aspect of Sampson's review is the fact that he dismisses a whole branch of linguistic study out of hand. Apparently unfamiliar with perceptual dialectology, he singles out two chapters in the volume which engage with perceptual dialectological issues as ''misconceived''. Beal & Cooper's chapter describes how perceptions of English in the north of England (and in Yorkshire in particular) have developed during the history of the language, and Montgomery's chapter investigates non-linguists' perceptions of a linguistic north-south divide in England. These are important issues for those of us who are academically interested in English from the north of England.

Sampson, however, dismisses Beal & Cooper's chapter, writing that ''[i]t is not as though 'Yorkshire English' were a linguistic reality''. But this is not for Sampson to say! The political reorganisation that he mentions obviously occurred and - equally obviously - ''isoglosses do not necessarily coincide with administrative boundaries'', but speakers' perceptions of linguistic systems are psychologically real and are legitimate objects of linguistic investigation.Those working in the paradigm of perceptual dialectology have been developing subtle tools to investigate this aspect of speakers' knowledge about language for decades (one important survey is Preston 1999). Sampson discusses ''what the average Briton understands by the phrase 'North of England''', as if he knows what that is, and as if what (he believes) people think about language should substitute for academic study of those opinions. Perceptual dialectology allows us to actually investigate and understand what those opinions are.

I write as someone with an academic interest in English from the north of England (full disclosure: I know many of the authors in the book, although I am not one myself). I do not write to protest that 'Researching Northern English' is perfect - how could any edited collection be that? - but I do protest that Sampson's review of the volume has obvious and fundamental flaws.


Jones, Mark. 2002. The origin of Definite Article Reduction in northern English dialects: evidence from dialect allomorphy. _English Language and Linguistics_ 6. 325-345.

Petyt, K. M. 1985. _Dialect and accent in industrial West Yorkshire_. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Preston, Dennis (ed.). 1999. _The handbook of Perceptual Dialectology_. Volume I. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics

Subject Language(s): English (eng)

Page Updated: 19-Aug-2016