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Do you come from Manchest[^]?

Submitted by on July 19, 2013 – 9:07 amNo Comment
Fackin el

Fackin el

“Got the time mate?” Ever been asked this on the way to the match? It could have been a genuine question, but more likely an old school hooligan ploy to discover whether you’re friend or foe, based on your accent.

Someone’s accent may betray whether they’re a Geordie, Cockney or Scouser, but it takes a keener ear to recognise the accent differences within a particular region.

A frequently discussed topic by Mancunians is the accent pattern across Greater Manchester. How can one area host such a number of varying accents?

Of course, Greater Manchester was cobbled together in the 70s from cities and towns in their own right, but why do towns in such close proximity to each other show such distinct differences in accent?

Why do some Boltoners pronounce hair and her the same, or pour and poor differently? Within Central Manchester, some of us pronounce war and wore the same, whilst others have a clear distinction between the two vowel sounds.

Linguists believe that your accent is shaped by the community around you. Moreover, studies have shown that your accent doesn’t change much past puberty. This was initially thought to be because when we hit a certain age we can’t acquire a new accent.

A bit like learning a second language when you’re 18 – you’re never going to be as fluent as someone who started learning as a child. More recent research has shown that some people do change a bit, but on the whole we tend to, more or less, stick with our adolescent accent for the rest of our life.

As a teenager, you sound like your peers from the local community, the people with whom you have face-to-face contact on a daily basis. Such communities tend to have a centre to which people gravitate.

In Central Manchester, this would be town, and the centres of Ashton, Oldham, Bury and other areas in Greater Manchester function as the gravitation spot for the surrounding communities.

Traditionally, working-class communities were very tight-knit and people tended not to venture out of the immediate area very often. Linguists believe that changes in accent happen through face-to-face contact.

That is, it’s unlikely that you would pick up a Cockney accent from watching Eastenders, but if you moved to East London and immersed yourself in the local community, you might adopt one or two features of the local twang.

In traditional working class communities, almost all face-to-face contact was between people with the same accent, reinforcing the local way of speaking. Different communities may remain separate through actual distance, physical geography reasons (e.g. a big hill) or poor public transport links.

Even though Greater Manchester is a metropolitan county as far as jurisdiction is concerned, it is made up of many smaller communities with their own individual centres of influence.

Historically, the accents of Central Manchester and surrounding satellite towns were different due to the relative lack of contact between them. The situation today is slightly different. Due to increased social mobility, people are more likely to move away from their hometown.

Whereas in the past, people might have taken a job anywhere on their street, like on Corra, today employees travel much further to work, increasing the different accents they come in contact with. But as your accent is fixed by your mid-teens, you will take this with you to your new job in town/Stockport/London.

Some speakers may cover up stigmatised aspects of their accent if they are insecure about it, whereas others see a covert prestige in their non-standard-ness and become even broader in the face of a rival dialect. Linguistic pride is often cited as a reason as to why the Manchester and Liverpool accents, with just 35 miles between them, are so vastly different.

But language is constantly changing. Who knows how Mancunians may sound in 50 years time? Take the pronunciation of a word like book as an example, a sound change which dates back hundreds of years.

In Scottish accents, and Scouse too, speakers still pronounce this word with the original oo sound, but you won’t find many central Mancunians under the age of 60 with this pronunciation today. For whatever reasons, the oo sound in book, cook carries old-fashioned connotations.

At some point in the middle of the last century, adolescents in Manchester stopped using this form, and started pronouncing book the same as buck, leaving only older (mainly male) speakers as the torchbearers of this traditional Northern pronunciation.

This traditional form also carries connotations of yonner-ism, probably because speakers of all ages from further out in Greater Manchester, such as Oldham or Bolton, may still use it. This corroborates claims that accent changes affect big cities first, before spreading to surrounding smaller towns.

However, the interesting thing to note is that this is how we used to speak originally, before the prestige variant from the south crept in.

Adolescents are said to be the driving force behind linguistic change. It tends to be this age group who invent new words, and innovate their pronunciation in subtle ways. Teenagers are rebellious or non-conformist in many ways, be it attitude, fashion or language.

Teenagers take on innovative ways of speaking, however subtle, and this differentiates them from the generation above, who can’t legitimately start talking like their kids (in the unlikely case that they’d actually want to). This is the accent of this generation and the subsequent generation will vary their speech from that which they acquired from their parents, causing a shift all over again.

There are many changes in progress ongoing in the Manchester accent across generations of speakers alive today. Most of these go unnoticed – small changes in vowel sounds which shift gradually over the years, largely below the level of conscious awareness.

Recent changes in accent commented on in the media and by the general public tend to focus on consonant sounds. Kids don’t pronounce their ts properly, teenagers say three and free the same. Can’t they read the spelling?

These types of moans are as old as time. We used to pronounce the final b in bomb (as is preserved in forms such as bombard) and the n in damn (cf. damnation) and over time they became silent, and accepted pronunciations. In England, we all used to pronounce the final r at the end of a word like car, like they do in America, Scotland and Ireland.

Now most of us in England, with the exception of parts of Lancashire and the West Country, pronounce this word by lengthening the vowel sound, with no r at all.

Far from being stigmatised, like dropping your ts at the end of a word like cat, dropping your rs is prestigious, with West Country farmers the source of mockery. How arbitrary. Why would no longer pronouncing one consonant be OK, but another be “incorrect” or “lazy”?

The reason dropping your rs isn’t moaned about (and most people aren’t even aware of this as an accent change from the past) is because it’s part of the standard accent of English.

When the rich and powerful do it, it’s OK. Only regional, urban or non-standard varieties of English seem to get moaned about. Accents are forever changing, as you’ll find by listening to an extract of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales.

To cite the English spelling system as an accurate guide of pronunciation is at best ill-informed and at worst socially irresponsible.

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