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Review of  Researching Northern English

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Researching Northern English
Book Author: Raymond Hickey
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.2947

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The most culturally-distinctive region of England is unquestionably the North, traditionally seen as extending from the River Trent up to the Scottish border. This is understandable in historical terms. The North of England was the nursery of the Industrial Revolution, and came to contain much of Britain’s heavy industry, coalmining, textile manufacture, and so forth; in the days when Britain was “the workshop of the world”, the North of England was the main workshop of Britain. The 19th-century movement to convert Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economic theories into practical government policy, which has made the modern world so much wealthier than the world of two hundred years ago, was developed in and disseminated from Manchester, one of the chief industrial towns of the North – free trade was often called “the Manchester system”. At the same period, the co-operative principles of the Rochdale Pioneers, and Friedrich Engels’s writings about working life in Manchester, became leading factors in the growth of different styles of socialism internationally.

With the decline of manufacturing this basis for distinctiveness has faded, but even now there remains some residual sense of Northern society being a sister rather than merely (like the West Country or East Anglia) a provincial subordinate of the society centred on London and the South-East. The sisterly relations are not always particularly friendly, in either direction.

Against this background it is not surprising that the North possesses a highly distinctive variety of English (itself with subvarieties, of course). Isabelle Buchstaller and Karen Corrigan’s chapter in this book quotes a quantitative metric of dialect distinctiveness developed by Bernd Kortmann and Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (2004); on this metric, Northern English is by a large margin the most distinctive variety within the island of Great Britain – much more so than Scottish English, even though Scotland was an independent country, with a separate written standard, until 1707, and recently came close to reclaiming its independence. (Within the British Isles, the only kind of English that emerges as slightly more distinctive on this metric is that of Ireland.)

Northern English is a language-variety close to my own heart: although a southerner by origin, I lived from age 30 to 47 deep in the rural North of England. According to a map reproduced in Raymond Hickey’s introductory chapter from Russell (2004), for most of that time I lived on the dividing line between “Near” and “Far” North. (Although I am familiar with Northern English, I should warn readers that I have not myself engaged in systematic empirical research on it, with the very minor exception of Sampson 2002.)

A quick way to offer a flavour of Northern English is to quote a stock remark used by Standard English speakers to caricature Northern speech, not inaccurately: “There’s trooble at t’mill”. The spelling ‘trooble’ represents the fact that the Standard contrast between FOOT and STRUT vowels is neutralized in favour of the FOOT phoneme. (Historically this is not a merger; Hickey explains that it is the consequence of a 17th-century phoneme split which spread from Southern England to almost all parts of the English-speaking world, including Scotland, but not to Northern England.) “T’mill” shows that the definite article is commonly reduced to a consonant only. And of course the topic of the utterance reflects the background of industry and adversarial labour relations.

Differences between Northern English and the standard are not confined to phonology. There are plenty of vocabulary differences – for instance “anything” and “nothing” become ‘owt’ and ‘nowt’, a stream is a ‘beck’, a valley is a ‘dale’, the vehicle called in Standard English ‘lorry’ and by Americans ‘truck’ is a ‘waggon’ in the North, and so forth. And there are some differences in grammar – when an auxiliary verb is negated, spoken Standard English usually contracts the ‘not’ (e.g. ‘he won’t’), but a Northerner is more likely to reduce the auxiliary (‘he’ll not’) – an issue discussed here by Buchstaller and Corrigan. William Barras mentions that nonstandard ditransitive constructions like ‘She gave a book the man’ are found in Lancashire. But it is probably fair to say that phonological characteristics are the most noticeable special features of Northern speech, and the most researched.

This book comprises twenty chapters, by contributors who were invited by the editor to cover different aspects of the subject. After the editor’s introduction, a first section contains chapters on general topics, such as Hilary Prichard’s on “The Great Vowel Shift in the North of England”. Then the second section contains detailed studies of the dialects of eight mainly urban locations: Tyneside, Sunderland, Carlisle, Sheffield, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Merseyside, and Lancashire more generally. (Both Manchester and much of Merseyside fell within the historic county of Lancashire.) In view of this urban focus, it is surprising to see that there is no coverage of Leeds, Bradford, or their surroundings – that West Yorkshire urban area is geographically central to the North, and it is the second-largest Northern conurbation, exceeded in population only by Greater Manchester. (This omission means among other things that one of the most distinctive features of some Northern dialects, the devoicing rule thanks to which e.g. those who live in Bradford call it ‘Bratford’, receives no mention in the book so far as I have seen – the index is unsatisfactory, so it is hard to be sure.) Hull is another “missing city”. And there is no coverage of rural dialects, unless sketchy remarks in the Carlisle chapter about the Lake District count. (These gaps are perhaps explained by the editor’s remark that some potential contributors were unable to accept his invitation.)

The third and last section covers border areas: after a general chapter by Chris Montgomery about “Borders and boundaries” there are chapters on the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the Fenland, the Scottish Border, and a closing chapter on the English of Polish immigrants in Manchester. Leading dialectologists including John Wells and Peter Trudgill have argued that the “linguistic North” extends much further south than what the average Briton understands by the phrase “North of England”; Trudgill (1990), who distinguished “modern dialects” from “traditional dialects” (the latter being obsolescent speech-varieties spoken mainly in rural areas and hard for outsiders to understand), proposed a Stammbaum for the modern dialects of England in which the principal split is between speech-varieties north and south of a line running from Shropshire south of Birmingham to the Wash, so that almost all of what is normally called the Midlands groups with the North rather than the South. Thus the “border area” section is highly relevant to the overall topic. (The main finding of Warren Maguire’s chapter on the Scottish Border area, though, is that this is a case where a political boundary coincides closely with a clear linguistic boundary.)

The contributors, as might be expected, predominantly represent Northern universities, though a number work elsewhere in Europe, and Hilary Prichard is at the University of Pennsylvania.


The chapters on individual Northern locations are full of solid quantitative data, including instrumental data and Labov-style data on interactions between speech variables and demographic factors such as age and sex. One particularly interesting finding in Natalie Braber and Nicholas Flynn’s “East Midlands” chapter, reminiscent of Labov’s research on near-mergers of phonemes, is that “even those speakers for whom STRUT and FOOT sound merged, may still display a distinction when realisations are analysed instrumentally”.

On the other hand, the topics of some (not all) of the “general” chapters strike me as somewhat misconceived. For instance, the chapter immediately following the editor’s introduction, by Joan Beal and Paul Cooper, is about “The enregisterment of Northern English”. The term “enregisterment” was new to me but it is evidently being used nowadays for the process by which the public become aware of a distinct language-variety. Beal and Cooper track the history of comments from the 14th century onwards about differences between Northern speech and the emerging South-East based standard, and they focus in detail on perceptions of Yorkshire English during the 19th century. The subject is too slight to bear the weight of Beal and Cooper’s analysis. We all know that speakers of a standard language tend to perceive regional differences from the standard as careless, unsystematic deviations, whereas linguists appreciate that they are systems with internal logic of their own. This is true, linguistics students learn it in their first year, and then, one hopes, they move on to more substantial topics. I am not sure what is gained by working in detail, as Beal and Cooper do, through centuries of unenlightened quotations about shortcomings in the speech of an area of the North, which made way gradually for an acknowledgement of “Yorkshire English” as an independent dialect.

It is not as though “Yorkshire English” were a linguistic reality. The principal administrative subdivisions of England are counties, and their boundaries were largely constant for some thousand years up to 1974; so, despite confusion introduced by successive waves of local-government reorganization since that date, it is inevitable that laymen categorize local phenomena in terms of county names. (In this review, as is common in writing with a historical dimension, county names refer to the pre-1974 units.) But linguists know that isoglosses do not necessarily coincide with administrative boundaries. Neither with respect to Trudgill’s analysis of the traditional nor the modern dialects of England is there a dialect area roughly corresponding to the county of Yorkshire. Trudgill’s Stammbaum for the traditional dialects of England has a top-level split which runs through the middle of Yorkshire. In his map of modern dialects most of Yorkshire, except for areas round Middlesbrough and Hull, does fall within a single dialect territory, but that territory is huge, also covering the whole of Cumberland and Westmorland, much of Lancashire, and smaller parts of other counties. So what Beal and Cooper appear to be describing is a process by which the public came to recognize the reality of a fictional construct. Does this have anything to do with linguistics? Perhaps it might be seen as an exercise in sociology, though not, I should have thought, very interesting sociology.

Furthermore, their treatment seems to suggest that a local language-variety is a unity which its speakers, or outsiders, either recognize or fail to recognize as a whole. The reality is much more differentiated. For Northern English, the lack of a STRUT phoneme is a cliché, the first thing any southerner thinks of in connexion with Northern speech, and Northerners know that. Many of them will produce approximations to STRUT vowels in company that is wider than their intimates; sometimes they get them wrong. I came home from work one day and asked my young daughters, natives of the North, where their Mum was; they were obviously aware that their parents used a vowel that they did not hear from their schoolmates, and one of them told me proudly “She’s in the kitchen, [kʌkɩŋ] a [pʌdɩŋ]”. 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. Even speakers who pride themselves on correct usage will say (and, I imagine, write) ‘tret’ – though Standard speakers from the South would certainly regard ‘tret’ as an error or a picturesque dialectism. Contrast that again with the use of the FLEECE rather than PRICE vowel in the first syllable of ‘either’. I am fairly sure it is mainly Northerners who say ‘eether’ (though I find no confirmation in Upton et al. 1994), but a Southern ‘eyether’ speaker would not think of ‘eether’ as a mistake: it is a more a matter of individual choice, like preferring coffee to tea. (The Oxford dictionaries of the standard language list both pronunciations, which could be why the Survey of English Dialects ignored the issue.) To talk of “enregistering” a regional language-variety to my mind blurs the fact that, in reality, people are conscious of many different elements of a language-variety to different extents or in different ways.

Again, Chris Montgomery’s “Borders and boundaries” chapter involves experiments in which student informants carried out tasks such as plotting their perceptions of dialect areas on a map. The data generated are analysed in sophisticated ways, but I am left unsure of the overall purpose. (When I noticed that some informants had identified accents as belonging to points in the North Sea, I wondered whether the students took the experiments as seriously as their teacher did.) The chapter turns out to be concerned largely with the question whether England should be seen as divided into “North” versus “South” or whether a “Midlands” region should be recognized between the two. That seems an empty debate about terminology rather than realities. Linguistically, the truth surely is that the speech of what is commonly called the Midlands is intermediate in most respects between the dialects further north and further south, though there are also features found only in areas of the Midlands. (These would include ‘yow’ for “you”, or the remarkable Black Country negation system, discussed in Esther Asprey’s chapter, which changes the vowel of the verb rather than suffixing ‘-n’t’, e.g. ‘doe’ for “don’t”, ‘day’ for “didn’t”, ‘caw’ for “can’t”, and so forth.) Need anything more be said?

Other shortcomings run through some of the specific as well as the general chapters. In a number of cases I would take issue with factual assertions. More than one contributor claims some usage to be pan-Northern which I believe is by no means so. Buchstaller and Corrigan say this of ‘yous’ as a second-person plural form; I do not remember ever hearing the form ‘yous’, again it is not mentioned by Upton et al., and from what I have read I took it to be distinctively Irish.

Writers who imitate Northern dialect in ordinary orthography invariably write the vowel-less definite article as ‘t’ ’, but the editor’s introduction claims that the phonetic reality is not [t] but either the fricative consonant of the standard form, glottalized or not, or a glottal stop. I have certainly heard very clear [t]s, with consonantal release. Since consonant-only “the” is an icon of Northern-ness (unlike some other features which are below speakers’ conscious awareness), I suppose it is possible that I was hearing an artificial pronunciation, adopted to express aggressive local patriotism in the presence of a southerner – but I notice that William Barras in his “Lancashire” chapter gives [t] and glottal stop as the leading possibilities, which matches my impression. (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.)

Another factual error, though one that has nothing to do with linguistics, is Sandra Jansen’s suggestion that the 1778 invasion of Whitehaven during the American War of Independence was the last time the British mainland has been invaded by hostile forces. Fishguard was invaded by French revolutionaries in 1797.

There are other places in the book where contributors seem confused about usages which they describe as distinctively Northern but illustrate via examples that would be normal in Standard English. Buchstaller and Corrigan’s chapter on “Morphosyntactic features of Northern English” is full of such cases. For instance, they say that Northern English has a feature “in which a possessive form is used in an expression which is not ... possessive in nature”, and their first example is ‘Wor Thomas’ll be fourteen on Christmas Day ...’ Obviously the pronunciation ‘wor’ for “our” is nonstandard, but that is beside the point. There is a special Northern use of “our” + child’s name, but this is not it. A good example would be ‘Coom ’ere, our Thomas’ where the name is used vocatively. ‘Our Thomas’ll be fourteen ...’, on the other hand, is Standard English. Likewise Buchstaller and Corrigan say that definite articles are used in phrases where the standard language would disallow them, giving examples that include ‘the autumn’, ‘the measles’: again these phrases are standard. There are many further cases in this chapter. A case from another chapter is Adam Mearns’s use in his “Tyneside” chapter of ‘everyone must have thought we were the entertainment’ to illustrate a “characteristic North East use of _must _ as an expression of conclusions rather than obligations”. All English-speakers use “must” that way.

A further type of problem is various inconsistencies and loose ends that have not been edited out. We saw that the introductory chapter sets the scene with a map of Northern England on which various boundaries are marked – but these are not explained. I do not know whether the “Near/Far North” boundary is intended to mark a linguistic isogloss or some other kind of division, and the adjacent discussion implies that whatever the “Far North” is supposed to be, it begins much further north than the line on the map. I know that the line labelled “Approximate traditional dialect line” refers to the top-level split in Peter Trudgill’s Stammbaum only because I am familiar with Trudgill’s book. Hilary Prichard (p. 55) describes one dialect boundary as following a course as implausible-sounding as the border of a gerrymandered U.S. voting district – I imagine she has listed places in the wrong sequence, or something of that kind.

In Carmen Llamas’s “Middlesbrough” chapter, I could not follow the relationship between her Figure 1, which claims that [x] occurs as one possible allophone of /k/ word-finally between vowels (the only realization used by some informants), and Figure 7 which does not include the fricative as a possibility. And I found the Figures in Helen Faye West’s “Merseyside” chapter very hard to interpret, with no explicit statement of the meaning of blue versus red dots, or solid versus dotted versus dashed lines. Esther Asprey’s Table 7 attempts to transcribe Black Country verb forms in both phonetic symbols and ordinary orthography, but the two systems are muddled together; and she uses an abbreviation “PDE” for which I found no explanation. Likewise, the Scottish Border chapter makes repeated reference to a Scottish Vowel Length Rule which is not familiar to me, and not explained.

Finally, there are some simple English-language solecisms. “Concise” seems to be used for “precise” on p. 37; on p. 80 “negative attraction” should surely read “negative contraction”. It is odd to say that “Yorkshire is one of the largest English counties” (p. 35) when, famously, it is by far the largest of all, well over twice the acreage of Lincolnshire, the runner-up.

In summary: the material in this book on the speech of individual localities contains much valuable information, but it should be be used with caution. And the gaps in coverage are far too large for the book to be seen as a definitive account of its subject. What can one say about a book on any aspect of the North of England in which Yorkshire features only marginally? ’Amlet baht t’Prince.


Kortmann, B. and B. Szmrecsanyi. 2004. Global synopsis: morphological and syntactic variation in English. In B. Kortmann et al., eds, A Handbook of Varieties of English, vol. 2. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Russell, D. 2004. Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sampson, G.R. 2002. Regional variation in the English verb qualifier system. English Language and Linguistics 6.17–30.

Trudgill, P. 1990. The Dialects of England. Oxford: Blackwell.

Upton, C., D. Parry, and J.D.A. Widdowson. 1994. Survey of English Dialects: the Dictionary and Grammar. London: Routledge.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent several years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent book is a new edition of ''Writing Systems'' (Equinox, 2015).