Reporter 439, 27 September 1999
North and South: A Linguistic Divide?
Inaugural Lecture, June 10th 1999
Professor Katie Wales, Chair of Modern English Language
School of English, University of Leeds
The phrase ‘the North-South divide’ is well known and used, especially in the media; it is usually used to refer to perceived differences in employment and standard of living, for example; even culture. But if there is a ‘north-south’ divide in Britain, where is it? Is it the same for everyone? How do we recognise it? What are its characteristics? Are there any linguistic consequences of this? My subject is really mental mapping, and the interplay of psycho-geography and perceptual dialectology.
In semiotic terms a North-South polarity is deeply entrenched in many cultures, although with differing degrees of universal value. The ‘frozen North’ and ‘warm’ or ‘deep South’ come particularly to mind. Such global temperature differences have easily transposed themselves to the British Isles, and not without some truth, so that persistent images of the north and south of Britain are in terms of ‘cold’ and ‘warm’. Politically too, north and south have been seen globally in terms of political conflict: the northern and southern states of America in the Civil War; Northern Ireland and Eire; Scotland and England. East and West too, of course: Eastern and Western Europe; East and West Berlin; east and west of the Pennines for the Wars of the Roses between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Like East and West, North and South then lend themselves to a binary opposition, like ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘old’ and ‘young’, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’: potentially gradable, but usually seen as antonyms or opposites. ‘Up’ and ‘down’, too. For most people, ‘up’ collocates with ‘north’ and ‘down’ with ‘south; or, as Leeds- born Alan Bennett writes (1994), echoing the emphasis of his parents, Up North and Down South. The origins of this spatial metaphor may have something to do with looking at a map, and also looking generally ‘up’ from the Equator. As feminists noted some time ago, however, for terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’, some binary terms are more positively evaluated than others: e.g. ‘hot’ (versus ‘cold’); ‘rich’ (versus ‘poor’). So the ‘North’ of England, it has to be said, is commonly seen as negative, against the more superior ‘South’ of England. The media regularly and aggressively promote such loaded oppositions (e.g. ‘Capitalist’ v. ‘Communist’ ) and they have done the most to promote the idea of a ‘North-South divide’. So, by analogy with terms like ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’, bias against gender and race, I shall propose regionism, bias against a region. So strong is this negative bias against the North, that it works against ‘up’ and ‘down’, also loaded terms. ‘Up’ has positive connotations usually ( ‘high’ = ‘heaven’ = ‘good’, for example); ‘down’ negative (‘low’ =’hell’ =’bad’). However, some Northerners (but not all) go ‘up’ to London, not ‘down’ to it.
London complicates the polarity of North and South: as the centre of ‘power’, of government, monarchy and cultural prestige located in the South, it leads to a focus for austro-centrism, a discrimination in favour of the South of England and Britain. London acts as the deictic anchorage, the point of reference or ‘origo’, by which everything else is judged inferior and insignificant. The Midlands may be the geographical centre of the country, but they are not the perceived centre of things. Susie Blake on the Victoria Wood Show in the 1980s summed up this austro-centrism, this condescension, in her role as a London television announcer: ‘I should like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be really awful for you’. Popular current phrases like ‘North of Watford’ (now in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English , for example) and ‘North of Potters Bar’ also reflect this centre of gravity. Beyond the northern limits of the former GLC, and the last stop on the Metropolitan Line is the wilderness; this cultural faultline is the bounds of civilisation. The North is the ‘Other’, the alien, the unknown. Apart from ‘The Great Wen’ [i.e. ‘cyst’, ‘tumour’], a phrase popularised by William Cobbett in the early nineteenth century, derogatory expressions for London appear to be lacking. Moreover, the power of London as a sign is also intensified by its signification as a metonym for ‘The Nation’, established as early as the 13c. As a result, the North is not usually part of the ‘mythic England’ idea.
However, as cultural and colonial theorists like Homi Bhaba argue, signs, even in apparent opposition, are often very complex, containing potential conflicting ambiguities. The ‘North’ is no exception. As I shall come back to, there have been through the ages quite positive, romantic and idealist images constructed by the ‘outsiders’ (as well as, of course, ‘insiders’): in Bhaba’s terms (1983: 38) "otherness’ is at once an object of desire and derision’. So Northerners, especially from Scotland and Yorkshire, are perceived as miserly; but also friendly and down-to-earth. These latter associations are much exploited in advertising:e.g. the successful Tetley ‘Tea folk’ campaign (with voice-over by the late Barnsley -born actor Brian Glover), the tea-bags produced in Middlesex. The result is, in Edward Said’s terms, a complex ideology or world-view.
Said’s famed critique (1978) of orientalism, based on an East- West divide, is clearly relevant for what I would here term septentrionalism. Orientalism for Said is a style of thought producing constructed fictions and myths; it is also based on notions of power and superiority. Significantly, as a constructed discourse it cannot exist without the other polarity; and it breeds its own internal consistency, its own ‘virtual’ reality, its own imaginative geography. It also breeds its own mythology by persistent stereotypes and metonyms, images which stand for the whole, but which also hide the whole.
So the cultural images and metonyms of the North and Northerners , heavily promoted in the media, advertising, cartoons and jokes, are of slag-heaps, flat caps, whippets, brown ale, headscarves, factory chimneys, brass bands, ‘hard’, ‘poor’, ‘friendly’, ‘uncouth’, etc, etc. Grime and dirt are pervasive metaphors. These images are implicitly or explicitly opposed to mental images and metonyms of bowler hat, thatched cottages, luncheon, village green, ‘soft’, ‘civilised’, ‘intelligent’, ‘ambitious’, ‘well off’, etc. Never mind that the reality is more complex, even different. As Raphael Samuel (1994) rightly argues in general, and whose work on ‘theatres of memory’ has been influential on my whole approach, ‘the visual provides us with our own stock figures, our subliminal points of reference, our unspoken point of address’. In the headlines and cartoons of the national broadsheets, as well as London-centred publications like the London Evening Standard and Private Eye, black puddings, mushy peas, flat caps, greyhounds and mufflers regularly appear in stories or news items relating to the North, reeking of condescension. So, when Manchester bid for the Olympic Games early in 1999 a cartoon appeared in Private Eye (5.2.99), with a cloth-capped, mufflered man offering a bag to another man: ‘Juan, there are two free black puddings here, but keep your mouth shut’.
Clearly, many of the current stereotypes of the North of England are, in Homi Bhaba’s sense again, ‘arrested and fixated’, since they derive from the Industrial Revolution and the huge expansion of industry and growth of the Midland and Northern towns, alongside wool and cotton mills and factories. Gaskell’s novel North and South (1854) springs to mind in this respect, especially since it appears to inscribe the binary opposition in its title. Some critics like to read the opposition in the novel as equal; or even neutralised. But to me, the opposition is connotatively loaded. Milton Northern is resolutely situated in ‘Darkshire’, and the first impression of reader and Margaret Hales is of a ‘deep lead-coloured cloud’ hanging over it. It is hard to forget the sunlight and the roses of the South, however symbolic of Margaret’s youthful innocence.
It is the Industrial Revolution that brings into play a very important image that weighs against the North, that of the working-class, with the growth of a new kind of labourer different from the agricultural farmhand or cottage spinner. For many people even today ‘Northern’ and ‘working class’ are synonyms, despite the ubiquity of the phenomenon. (Linguistic implications of this I shall return to.) Certainly many professional Northern comedians and music-hall acts (Norman Evans and Ken Platt, for instance) have exploited a working-class image; but this is precisely they key to their popularity, since they transcend as a result the north-south divide, appealing to class rather than regional stereotypes. So too for Andy Capp, the strip cartoon flat-capped idler created by Reg Smythe from Hartlepool. (It is interesting in this respect that, apart from ‘pet’, there is very little linguistic regional stereotyping in Andy Capp.)
Metonyms of clogs and chimneys hide, of course, the broader picture: the beautiful scenery of the Border Country, the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales. To encourage tourism, railway companies and local councils have continually resorted to a reverse set of metonyms: the LNER posters from earlier this century come to mind, of hills and moors and solitary sheep; or of ‘Healthful Hartlepool’ with its ‘natural beauties unsurpassed’, and its ‘most bracing sea air in the kingdom’. Even at the onset of railway travel it was promoting a pre-industrial reputation from another era. Currently there is a new kind of media metonymy emerging in the discourse of regional tourism : ‘Catherine Cookson country’; ‘Heartbeat country’; ‘Beatrix Potter country’ ,etc., producing a new kind of map of Britain. But although we might laugh at such advertising ploys, the fact remains that mental stereotypical landscapes have powerful ‘real-world’ implications. Even today, businesses encounter resistance in re-locating North of Watford. And in the early 1970s Doncaster Council produced a celebrated caricature of Londoners' perceptions of the North in the form of a distorted map, which marked Potters Bar as the ‘end of civilization’; Manchester as the ‘end of railways’; Scotland as the ‘end of roads’ and within the Arctic Circle with ox carts (reproduced in Gould and White 1974:40; also Preston 1989). Although very amusing, the caricature was produced precisely because of the economic repercussions of such mental images.
In contrast, many northern professional writers have often defiantly promoted the negative stereotypes and metonyms as a gesture of regional pride: writers like Alan Plater ( Close the Coalhouse Door (1969)) and John Braine, for example. Interestingly, in a radio programme about the North devised by the poet Simon Armitage in 1996, John Braine claimed part responsibility for the vogue for gritty Northern ‘realism’ (sic) of the novel and film in the 1960s, and noted in addition the concealment involved, in Bhaba’s sense : for the ‘clear river, effervescent with fish, the woods and pastures and the moors and hills - all this and much more had to be left out’ (1998: 218 ). This romanticised, industrial landscape has been satirically deflated in very similar ways by Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, in the guise of the topic of the writer and his roots. In The Listener (1981) , in Bennett’s ‘The Pith and its Pitfalls’, there are Monty Pythonesque lines such as:
‘Six bob was six bob in them days. You could buy three pennyworth of chips and still have change from sixpence. We were all miners in our family…Under the skin, I suppose I’m still a miner…in a very real sense,…a miner writer….I think perhaps that’s why I live in Ibiza, because the blue of the Mediterranean reminds me of the blue of the eyes of the Doncaster miners…’ (repr.1994 :383)
In one of her TV sketches Victoria Wood at a fashionable London party meets Alan [Jim Broadbent] , a Yorkshire playwright skulking in the entrance hall. He addresses her with lines such as
‘…Southern parasites. Licking the fat off the land while the north lies dying. Close the conservatory door, lad, there’s bones inside….They’re letting it die-my north…’
Victoria: ‘Whereabouts do you live?’
Literary and film landscapes, like the caricature produced by Doncaster Council, are fictional and partial, yet they are not so unlike our own individual mental landscapes and maps. Even ‘real’ maps, of course, are not always objective and accurate (discounting those done in ignorance by early explorers and cartographers): the London Underground map is one famous example; or maps to promote locations of universities near airports; or maps of desirable housing locations. Also, maps are continually being redrawn as political or bureaucratic boundaries change. Of course the boundary between North and South is not marked on any map as such; there is no consensus as to its location anyway: it is a shifting signifier! But it clearly exists in the popular imagination, and so is marked in each of our own cognitive landscapes, on our own mental maps, which are a blend of knowledge and myth. These are no less ‘real’ than printed maps. And what I also want to illustrate is just how significant crossing the ‘divide’ is, psychologically speaking. Moreover, just as our mental maps are partially constructed from ‘the ways other people talk’ (Preston, 1989:ix: my emphasis), so crossing the ‘divide’ is quite often crucially a matter of changing language.
In our mental maps in general location and distance assume the surrealism of a dream landscape; or the inaccuracies of early explorers. I shall return in the last part of my lecture to the perceptions of my own students, but it is clear that many of them have quite a hazy idea of English geography (Liverpool in Derbyshire, Newcastle -upon- Tyne in
Nottinghamshire, and Devon in East Anglia, for example: although this last location may be the result of geographical dyslexia….) Everyone has their own ‘blind-spots’, areas of ignorance. Many find Birmingham hard to locate, for ‘Middle England’ is ‘neither here nor there’, a ‘no man’s land’, a victim of the North-South divide.
Culturally speaking, there are several potential places for the ‘North-South divide’, some quite contemporary, some of long-standing historical origins. North of Watford/ Potters Bar I have referred to already; and, since the opening of the M1, the phrase ‘North of Watford Gap’ has also become popular. It is unlikely that the majority of people who use this expression actually know that Watford Gap is in Northamptonshire; the currency of the phrase perhaps due, by a kind of ‘folk etymology’, to an association with Watford and the similar expression. A relatively new boundary is provided by the M62, for Northerners at least, running from the Humber to Merseyside. It is certainly a salient frontier for Simon Armitage, in All Points North (1998). Brought up in Marsden, South Yorkshire, he feels that he lived on two borders: between North and South and between East and West (the Pennines). Yorkshire for him is the ‘real’ North: ‘where Jarvis Cocker meets Geoffrey Boycott [and] where David Hockney meets Peter Sutcliffe’, and ‘halfway to heaven, the country with more acres than letters in the Bible’ (p.8.)
The earliest reference I’ve encountered to a distinction between the North of Britain and the South is that reported by Tom McArthur (1985: 24). The Roman Emperor Severus (d.211) divided the British colony into two main provinces: Britannia superior (‘upper Britain’), i.e. the part nearest to Rome with its capital Londinium; and Britannia inferior (‘lower Britain’) beyond it, with its capital at York. Hadrian’s Wall acted as another North-South divide, for beyond the Wall was Britannia barbara ( ‘uncivilised Britain’), the border area and the mountains of Caledonia. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ work in opposite directions from the present-day; nonetheless, superior and inferior, despite their etymological meaning, do also appear to have their evaluative connotations, as well as the London -centre of gravity. Moreover, the adjective barbara lives on clearly in many stereotypes of both the North of England and its Scottish neighbours, the latter well and truly marginalised. Some Northerners even feel Scotland is ‘beyond the pale’. J. B. Priestley, Bradford-born, on reaching the furthest point of his English Journey (1934) north of Newcastle, felt ‘like a man marooned in Lapland’ (p.290).
My own personal example of an early literary reference to a potential salient North-South divide in cultural terms comes from King Alfred’s prefatory letter to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care (c.891). Writing from his Winchester capital on the decline of learning, he laments that when he came to the throne there were very few ‘on this side of the Humber [ behionan Humbre] who could read their Mass-books in English, or translate an epistle from Latin; and he thinks that there weren’t many ‘on the other side of the Humber [begiondan Humbre]. So few there were that he can’t think of even a single one south of the Thames [be sudan Temese]. He would know of the cultural reputation of the North (not the South) , beyond his own authority, before his reign, with centres of learning at Jarrow and Lindisfarne, now destroyed by Viking raiders. Of course, ‘north of the Humber’ is actually built into Anglo-Saxon naming practices, and survives in our own Northumberland, which actually did then stretch from inside Scotland to the Humber, and included Cumberland, Westmoreland and part of Lancashire. ‘South of the Humber’ is still a significant ‘borderline’ for many people, especially those who live north of it; and Doncaster in South Yorkshire a significant ‘staging-post’.
King Alfred himself also single-handedly introduced another potential ‘North-South divide’, called the ‘Danelaw’: where, in a truce with the invading Danes in 878 they agreed to settle north of a line running roughly diagonally from the mouth of the Mersey to the Wash : and also close to Watling Street. As a result, England is put on a kind of North- East/ South-West axis, with interesting linguistic effects. Because of the Scandinavian settlements north of this line (and with the Norwegians settling in Cumberland also) , the West Midlands linguistically become distinct from the East Midlands and East Anglia in the Middle English period, while the northern counties straddling the Pennines remained linguistically close. The Danelaw/ Watling Street line also marked the boundary of SW final /r/ in words like ‘cheer’ (Wakelin 1983).
Another significant ‘divide’ appears to be that of the River Trent, also flowing into the Humber; but, unusually for England’s rivers, generally flowing on a south-north axis, not east-west/ west-east (and so creating Lincolnshire, as it were). It actually caused considerable anxiety for Daniel Defoe on his Tour through the Whole Island (1724-6; 3 volumes, for South, Midlands and North). The eighteenth century witnessed a considerable vogue for travelling and writing about it; and much of it about the North laid the foundations for the Gothic and Romanticism (cf. works like Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes (2nd ed.1779). As a result, the discourse of septentrionalism was positively inscribed to encompass ideas of natural, untamed beauty; yet, like Homi Bhaba’s idea of the fetish (1983), the ‘object’ of attention was both desired and feared, attractive and repellent. The vacillation and dilemma inherent is neatly symbolised, as it is heightened, by the liminal, the threshold: for Defoe this is dramatically and physically illustrated by his having to cross the River Trent. Not once
but several times he refers to having to make the dreaded crossing (see also preface to vol.2; and Introduction to the 3rd volume). Always starting his journeys from London, literally his origo or point of departure, he gives the impression of a Polar explorer facing the unknown. In the following extract, note his first striking image, revitalising its etymological meaning (the river dividing Italy from Cisalpine Gaul) at the same time as confirming the significance of the event:
‘Having thus passed the Rubicon [i.e. the Trent] and set my face Northward, I scarce knew which way to set forward, in a country so full of wonders,…and yet to leave nothing behind me to call on as I came back, at least not to lead me out of my way on my return…’ (1927 ed., p.552)
Not surprisingly, therefore, he finds the River Humber a ‘dangerous passage’, and which he crossed ‘with 15 horses, 10 or 12 cows and 17 or 18 passengers, called Christians’ , and on which he was sea-sick. Once in West Yorkshire, however, he actually quite likes it. he wonders why no other travel-writer has noticed how wealthy and healthy the people are. Unfortunately, it is August- and snowing!
Now, bearing in mind these cultural conceptions of a ‘divide’, and bearing in mind also our deep-rooted stereotypes of North and South, and our own mental maps- what are the linguistic implications of these notions; and how do they relate to any linguistic ‘reality’?
There is no doubting the frequency with which travellers’ tales through the centuries, and descriptions of antiquarians and chroniclers, refer both to the richness of linguistic variety in Britain, and particularly to the clear distinctions between ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ speech, which rendered them virtually mutually unintelligible. Many of these are well known, and I won’t go through them all here. But one of the earliest and most famous is that of the Cornishman John of Trevisa (1380) in his translation of, and additions to, Higden’s Polychronicon:
‘All the language of the Northumbrians, and especially at York, is so sharp, slitting and frotting and unshaped, that we southern men can barely understand that language. I believe that is because they are near to strange men and aliens [i.e. the Scots]…that speak strangely’.
What is interesting is the number of explicit references to a NE-SW axis: the speech of Newcastle opposed to Bodmin in Cornwall, for example, by John Hart in his 16c Orthographie; the speech of Yorkshire and Somersetshire by Hugh Jones in his Accidence to the English Tongue (1724); and that of the ‘common man of Somerset and the common man of Yorkshire’ (who can’t understand one another) by H.G. Wells in Anticipations (1902). The speech of the North and the West are specifically ruled out as models for imitation by George Puttenham in his celebrated Art of English Poesie (1598), and ‘any speech used beyond the river of Trent’: an explicit reference to this particular Rubicon as a linguistic divide. Even in the 20c the North and South West in particular tend to represent the extremes of dialectal diversity (the SW, of course, far enough away from the influence of London closer to the SE) , and not surprisingly have often through the centuries been the foci of linguistic stereotyping, in dialect literature and cartoons: working class man (‘ee by gum!’) meets country yokel (‘ooh-arrrh!’).
As is well documented also, historical accounts of dialectal diversity have been emotively and judgmentally coloured by the emergence of a ‘standard’ English - first of all in writing in the 15c - by which other varieties are viewed negatively, dialect users assumed to be illiterate peasants.
The historical location of the standard in London (amongst the Chancery scribes first of all, allegedly) emphasises the ‘metro-centrism’ of linguistic bias, as well as of the cultural mentioned earlier: London, then, the ‘linguistic centre of gravity’ (Wells 1982:301). However, it has to be said that London at that time, nowadays collocating mostly with the South-east, was linguistically more Midlands-oriented, than Southern/ Kentish: Chancery English itself was much influenced by North/ East Midland features, possibly from earlier large-scale immigration to the city; and it is well known that William Caxton, who with his printing press promoted ‘standard’ English more widely , felt Midland English lacked the dialectal extremes of the North and South.
The development of a pronunciation standard complicates matters, and adds to the class distinction perceived between the North and South mentioned earlier. The idea of a prestigeful accent originated in courtly circles in the 16 it would appear, and has always been class-based really: associated in time not only with royalty and the aristocracy, but Oxbridge, public schools and the BBC. No matter that what is now termed ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) is spoken by many educated people throughout the British Isles (albeit about 5%) , for many Northerners RP is talking ‘posh’ or ‘la-di-da’, and indistinguishable from educated Southern speech generally in many ways. Two particular vowels mark RP and southern speech to their ears: the ‘u’ sound as in ‘butter’, more central than the northern more rounded vowel; or what some linguists call the STRUT- FOOT distinction; and the sound as in ‘bath’: longer than the Northern short ‘a’ . These two vowels I shall return to shortly. But such features of pronunciation have readily become linguistic metonyms, part of the stereotype of the Northerner: ‘flat vowels’ = ‘flat caps’; just as ‘hard’ g’s and k’s as in brig (bridge), kirk (church) = ‘hard’ Northerners (v. ‘soft’ southerners).
Although standard English grammar and vocabulary with a regional accent is quite the ‘norm’ in Britain today, the media do continue to patronise the North, and make fun of public figures from the North, e.g. William Hague and John Prescott (particularly Prescott, and quite savagely in his case, since he is also working-class.) It is rare to find the South-West , or even Cockney, highlighted in this way. So features of northern pronunciations, and sometimes local expressions are foregrounded even in headlines: It’s Not Grim ‘oop North (London Midweek, 3.2.97); By ‘eck, lad, this triumph of number crunching adds up to nowt [article on a Barnsley mathematician] (The Guardian 31.1.97); By ‘eck, it’s Radio 4 (The Big Issue, March 1996). A cartoon in the London Evening Standard (30.7.96) focussing on a story about brothels for West Yorkshire, had a Coronation Street -type bar with all the male drinkers in cloth caps (even the barman), two whippets, photos of Yorkshire cricketers, ‘tripe & butties’ on the menu, with the caption: ‘Ee by gum! I thought we had enough competition already with that new wine bar!’ Just the day before this inaugural lecture, it was a major item of national radio news that this Ee! was now in the new revised Concise Oxford English Dictionary; and, true to form, the headline in the Daily Telegraph was Ba gum, there’s an ee in t’Oxford Dictionary (9.6.99). Condescension was particularly rife in Leeds two years ago, when Harvey Nichols opened a branch outside Knightsbridge here. A cartoon in the London Evening Standard featured a dowdy elderly couple (man with cloth cap and scarf) looking in the window: By ‘eck, ‘ow absolutely fabulous, says the woman. Only recently, when the Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison wrote a poem published in The Guardian about the poet laureateship, a full-colour cartoon appeared , with the Queen’s flunkey on the phone: ‘Er majesty says ‘ow about poet in residence at the Tower, Mr ‘arrison: ‘h’-dropping, in both cases, a feature of many dialects in England, not just the Northern, and strongly stigmatised.
Another ‘story’ this year produces a striking irony. When Alan Bennett turned down an honorary degree from Oxford University , the headline in The Guardian ran Nooooo, nooooo, ever so gently, nooooo. What would they have done if it had been Ben Elton or Michael Caine, I wonder? Actually, in his diary for 18 September 1984 Bennett is irritated by ‘the inane’ publicity hand-out for A Private Function. ‘I find myself described as "This Northern Lad" - Is Pinter ever described as " This East End boy" ?’ Moreover, on the 22 November 1990 he records how The Guardian have printed his ‘fairly uninspired’ comment about Mrs Thatcher’s departure- but preface it with ‘Oo ‘eck and systematically drop all my aitches. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t report me as saying: " EE ba gum, I’m reet glad t’Prime Minister’s tekken her ‘ook"’.
It is the vowels as in ‘butter’, ‘up’, and ‘bath’ , ‘grass’, which do come up time and again in the issue of a North- South linguistic divide. My own students, as well as lay-folk, commonly see these two particular vowels as a prime means of distinguishing Northerners from Southerners: Northerners broadly having no centering of ‘u’ in many words, hence lacking the FOOT- STRUT split; and also keeping a short ‘a’, not a lengthened vowel, in words followed by /f/, /s/, and ‘th’. The lengthening and centering seem to have become fashionable in London in the late 18c. However, as map 1 reveals in the Appendix, taken from Chambers and Trudgill (1980), and reproduced in Wells (1982), it might come as a surprise to many people to see just how far ‘down’ the country the isoglosses or linguistic boundaries come ; moreover, the two isoglosses do not coincide. Both having the Wash at one side, the southern limit of unsplit FOOT-STRUT (or Northern ‘oop’) dips well down into the south Midlands, then rises sharply before the Severn estuary along the Welsh border up towards the Mersey estuary. (This isogloss was identified in 1889 by the phonetician Alexander Ellis, and it has remained relatively stable in the past 100 years.) The short ‘a’, however, has its southern limit north of the other isogloss, gently sliding into the West Midlands with a dip round Greater Birmingham, and another dip near the Welsh border ‘downwards’.
Actually, we can take Birmingham as a kind of ‘terminus’ for both isoglosses in their historical spread northwards: Wakelin (1983) suggests that, at the time of the spread, there were no further big urban centres north of Birmingham for them to ‘hop on’ to, as it were.
There are some extremely interesting accounts in the present century even of how these vowels in particular have presented a ‘crossing the Rubicon- dilemma’, causing much existential conflict. For, under strong pressure to change your accent, you may feel a traitor to your past and roots. Tony Harrison’s poem Them and [uz] is an apt illustration , symbolizing the great ‘divide’ between his working class origin and the language of education- the grammar school acting as his ‘rite of passage’. In Alan Bennett’s case,
‘I tried to lose my Northern accent at one period, then reacquired it, and now don’t know where I am, sometimes saying my ‘a’s’ long, sometimes short, and ‘u’s’ a continuing threat, words like ‘butcher’ and names like ‘cutbush’ always lying in ambush. Anyone who ventures South of the Trent is likely to contract an incurable disease of the vowels’ (1994, p.xiii; my italics).
However, like Harrison and many Northern writers, Bennett, out of this ‘inbetween-ness’ of provincial and metropolitan intellectual, finds his own creativity.
Of the two vowels even, short ‘a’ is probably the most salient, because of its more limited distribution. Certainly, as John Wells so vividly puts it (1982:354), himself born in Wigan, but an RP speaker:
‘There are many educated Northerners who would not be caught dead doing something so vulgar as to pronounce STRUT words with [u] but who would feel it to be a denial of their identity as northerners to say BATH words with anything other than short [a]’.
One of my most dramatic examples of existential conflict in respect of the short ‘a’ comes from Wilfred Pickles’ autobiography, Between You and Me (1949). In 1938 Halifax-born Wilfred got his first audition to be a holiday relief announcer at BBC Manchester, and he practiced listening to London announcers like Stuart Hibberd. But the long ‘a’ didn’t sound quite right. Up until the very moment when the light flashed on for his first broadcast, he was thinking only of the long or short ‘a’! He stuck to the short ‘a’.
When he later transferred to BBC London during the War, he became the ‘central figure in a heated national controversy’ (p.95): people more concerned about his accent than the enemy. Headlines appeared like Lahst a Thing of the Pahst, and cartoons with ‘Here is the news and ee bah gum this is Wifred Pickles reading it’, complete with short sleeves, muffler and cloth cap. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose….Yet apparently, according to his boss, the Ministry of Information approved of it, since his accent might not be so easily copied by the Germans!
Now many linguists, especially dialectologists, quite categorically deny that there are distinct dialect boundaries, let alone a North- South linguistic divide; and they would not base it on just these two vowel isoglosses anyway. (However, as we shall see, for some linguists , covertly they actually do. ) So Davis, Houck & Upton (1997) take a firm view on this, and also stress that the great Leeds-based Survey of English Dialects initiated by Professor Harold Orton after the war and published in 12 parts from 1962 onwards, does not distinguish boundaries, but focusses instead on the historical development of individual forms. So the fact that the volumes of the ‘ Basic Materials’ distinguish ‘Northern Counties’ from ‘Midlands’ and ‘South’ is a geographical and pragmatic boundary, not a linguistic; although it is interesting that the Northern Counties volume only covers the counties north of the Humber-Mersey, or the M62.
To illustrate the lack of clear dialect boundaries therefore, Davis, Houck & Upton show in a series of maps how no isoglosses actually coincide which might appear individually to show North-South distinctions (see also Orton & Wright (1974) for more feature/ word maps; also Upton & Widdowson 1996). So as map 2 in the Appendix reveals, if you take either the variant pronunciations or lexical items from the set of words UNCLE, WEASEL, BUTTER, THUNDER, CHAFF, LAST, CROSS, OFF, (DISH-)CLOTH, CATTLE, there is not just one North-South divide, but several. They graphically term this a ‘spaghetti effect’, and ‘utterly unrevealing’ (p.272), yet this is not wholly the case. For one thing, the ‘spaghetti’ is very clearly concentrated in the Midlands, which many people do perceive (and have perceived through the ages) as having a ‘mixed’ kind of dialect, neither one thing nor the other. Secondly, we are left with a definite extreme North and South : what we can call ‘focal areas’. These are speech areas which ordinary speakers can identify, and which do get strongly represented in stereotyping and commentaries. They do also relate to the distribution of the very traditional rural dialects in England, on which Orton and his co-workers concentrated.
In Chapter 7 of Graddol et al (1996), Susan Wright presents a map of England with a different set of (8) variables, mostly long vowels and diphthongs, which show a
more consistent pattern of lines running together from Cumbria south-eastwards gently to the Humber and also to the Wash. (This map is actually based on the work of Wakelin (1983), one of the co-editors of the Survey of English Dialects volumes, but not attributed.) The actual long vowels and diphthongs, in words like ‘cow’ (Northern ‘coo’; ‘blind’ (Nt ‘bleend’) show a ‘relic area’, characteristic of traditional rural dialects, where, for example, the Great Vowel Shift of the 15c, starting in the South, failed to have any effect. This also unites this part of the rural North with the Scottish borderlands. Wakelin and other dialectologists therefore call this the ‘Humber-Ribble ‘ line.
The general point is that you can draw dialect boundaries according to whatever set of diagnostic features you choose; and no dialectologist’s boundaries even will necessarily be the same as another’s. Sociolinguists, however, are perhaps bolder. Peter Trudgill (1990), as map 3 in the Appendix reveals, does quite explicitly distinguish a linguistic North from a South on the basis actually of a different set of pronunciation variables (including initial ‘h’/ ‘h’-dropping; silent or present ‘g’ in ‘-ing’ forms; final ‘r’; but not the ‘bath’-vowel, strangely!) . As a result, much of his Midlands (‘East Central’ and ‘West Central’) is actually in the linguistic North, but not East Anglia. Interesting is his distinction of a ‘Lower North’ (from the Humber to the Tees and ‘over the top’ (i.e. the Pennines), with its echoes of Severus’ Roman Britain. Actually, a close examination of his North-South dividing line reveals that it more or less corresponds to the FOOT-STRUT line in map 1: the same dipping down south-westerly from the Wash, then rising up again to the middle of the Welsh border.
(And the broken line to the north of it, delimiting ‘Northwest Midlands’ from ‘west Midlands’, and ‘Central Midlands’/ ‘Northeast Midlands’ from ‘East Midlands’, looks very much like the line of the ‘bath’ variable, which he has not apparently used.)
The phonetician John Wells (1982) is also explicit in stating that there is a ‘North-South’ linguistic divide, although his reasons for its placement are not made apparent. For him, it is the Severn- Wash line, running NE- SW and so differing from Trudgill’s in keeping resolutely down, not dipping up, in the SW Midlands. Interestingly, geographically speaking, this ‘divide’ seems to form the basis of the Collins English Dictionary definition of the South as ‘generally regarded (sic!) as lying to the South of an imaginary line between the Wash and the Severn’. This line is also close to John Ray’s sectioning in his Collection of English Words (1691) (noted Ihalainen, 1994: 201).
If you visualise the Severn-Wash line; and also Trudgill’s Shropshire-Wash line; and then add the Danelaw/ Watling Street lines discussed earlier running NW-SE they all actually cross quite close to the present Watford Gap in Northamptonshire. So perhaps there is more to jocular Watford Gap references than it would appear. In general, cultural references and stereotypes do seem to be close to the perceptions of professional linguists.
In the adjacent county Warwickshire, and not too much further north, is Birmingham, which acts as the ‘terminus’ for ‘bahth’-vowels for some speakers, and the point of departure for ‘bath’ for others. Interestingly, when my own seminar students (66 over 2 years from all over the country) were asked to mark dialects they knew on a map of England, a line just north of Birmingham across the country more or less corresponds to the lowest limits of Northern dialect areas they offered. So ‘North of Birmingham’ could replace ‘Watford Gap’ as a reference point for the ‘divide’ in the future.
Not that many students actually knew where Birmingham itself was, although it was the 5th most frequently delimited dialect (after ‘Geordie’, ‘Cockney’, ‘Scouse’ and ‘Yorkshire’, and well ahead of ‘Manchester’). Birmingham could be anywhere from Cheshire to Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire, confirming popular vagueness as to the actual location of this Midlands city. Nonetheless, I feel that perceptions of location and speech, however skewed, have real interest and value for linguists, with implications for the study of dialectal variations themselves and linguistic change that have yet to be explored; and in my seminars I have been much influenced by the work of Denis Preston (1989) on perceptual dialectology. A ‘composite’ map of their overall perceived dialect areas actually produced quite a surreal linguistic geography, confirming our individual skewed mental mapping, referred to earlier; yet with an interesting southwards ‘slide’, as it were. This probably reflected the magnetic pull of London and the Home Counties, since Scottish English straddled the border to the Wear; ‘Geordie’ covered the border and southwards to the Humber (including the NW) (and so akin to Trudgill’s idea of a ‘Lower North’); ‘Yorkshire English’ in to Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire; and Lancashire west to east from Cheshire across south Yorkshire and part of Staffordshire. The only other really salient dialect area noted (outside London varieties) was the South-West (including ‘Dorset’), which actually stretched eastwards along the coast into Sussex; the whole composite map therefore strangely reminiscent of a map of Old English dialect areas!
In general, apart from ‘Yorkshire’, the most salient areas for the students were urban varieties, foci of clubbing and major football teams no doubt, and all, apart from Cockney, north of Watford Gap. Geordie, Scouse, ‘Brummie’, ‘Mancunian’ and Cockney are all varieties that have tended to attract negative evaluations in surveys of attitudes. Nonetheless, in the late 20c the northern cities are the loci of regional standards , where, historically, there was immigration from the local rural districts only in the main,; and currently in competition and in collusion with London influence, even if sociolinguistically speaking, they are quite heterogeneous. I say ‘in competition and collusion with’ London English. A lot is being written currently (and exaggerated in the national press) about the possible spread of glottal stops, etc , not from ‘BBC English’ or RP, but so-called ‘Estuary English’, particularly that of young people. These features appear to be ‘hopping’ from one urban centre to another, and further north than Birmingham. (But because of the rapid or instant dissemination of speech made available through television and other communication systems this century, the idea of city-‘hopping’ may be an outdated hypothesis.)
Does this mean the ‘ extinction’ of Scouse as warned in the Daily Telegraph (1.6.99)? Will the linguistic ‘North-South’ differences disappear? Certainly many educated Northerners have crossed the ‘bath- bahth’ line, and even more ‘fudge’ their ‘u’ vowel in the direction of a southern one. Conversely, it has to be said, austrocentrism does not always prevail: many educated southerners fudge their central ‘u’ in turn; they also say ‘crash’ not ‘cresh’, and ‘chance’ not ‘chahnce’. Everyone is much more aware of regional varieties from far-flung parts of Britain than ever before; there is greater population mobility; so dialect ‘levelling’ of some kind is inevitable. However,
so long as people want to be different from each other; or to show their allegiance to a social group or region, dialect differences will remain, in competition with dialect ‘levelling’. Scouse will simply redefine itself; and new isoglosses might therefore maintain a ‘North-South’ linguistic divide, or divides.
Cultural stereotypes of North and South are irritating, if sometimes amusing; but a sense of one’s perceived identity in opposition to an ‘Other’s is very strong. In the next Millennium, with political devolution, these feelings of regional identity may get stronger still and the hegemony of London and the South-east weaken: in Bakhtin’s terms, centrifugal forces ( divergence) replace centripetal (convergence). Birming-ham, not Bal-ham may become the major gateway to the South.
As Alan Plater said in 1969 (Close the Coalhouse Door) , ‘there is no such thing as cold objectivity, in theatre or anywhere else’. So neither is there is media discourse, in mental mapping, in linguistic geography, in perceptions of language. And leats of all in inaugural lectures. My own bias, my own linguistic ‘centre of gravity’, has, I hope, been quite obvious.
Simon Armitage (1998) All Points North (London:Penguin)
Alan Bennett (1994) Writing Home (London: Faber)
J. K. Chambers & P. Trudgill (1980) Dialectology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
L.M. Davis, C.L. Houck, and C.Upton (1997) ‘The Question of Dialect Boundaries: the SED and American Atlases’, in A. Thomas (ed) Issues and Methods in Dialectology (Bangor: University of Wales), pp. 271-283.
P. Gould and R. White (1974) Mental Maps (London: Penguin)
O. Ihalainen (1994) ‘The Dialects of England since 1776’, in the Cambridge History of English Language vol.V (ed. R. Burchfield), pp. 197-270.
H. Orton and N. Wright (1974) A Word Geography of England (London: seminar Press)
Wilfred Pickles (1949) Between You and Me (London: Werner Laurie)
D.R. Preston (1989) Perceptual Dialectology : Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics (Paris: Dordrecht)
E.Said (1978) Orientalism; extracts reprinted in P. Mongia (ed) (1996) pp. 20-36.
R. Samuel (1994) Theatres of Memory (vol.1): Past and Present in Contemprary Culture (London: Verso)
C.Upton and J.D.A.Widdowson (1996) An Atlas of English Dialects (Oxford: Oxfrod University Press)
M.F. Wakelin (1983) ‘The Stability of English Dialect Boundaries’, English World Wide, 4, 1: 1-15.
J. Wells (1982) Accents of English, vol.2: The British Isles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
S. Wright (1996) ‘Accents of English’, in D. Graddol, D. Leith and J. Swann (eds) , English: History, Diversity and Change (London: Routledge/ Open University)
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