After living in the United Kingdom for a certain period of time, “externals” are bound to familiarise with different aspects of British society that are not necessarily exported overseas. A good example of this sort is the never-ending north vs. south debate. I currently live in the Midlands and attend a university where the majority of home students come from the south, especially the South-East (London, Kent, Surrey, Essex and so on). These two realms pride themselves on different historical backgrounds that have kept them separated from each other for a good deal of centuries. Clashes have arisen quite bitterly during the Thatcher Era, since which the South-East has profusely flourished at the cost of a severe impoverishment of the northern areas (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, etc.). This economic gap has expectedly affected relations between the two and, overtime, old dissimilarities have re-emerged from the past.
Language represents one of the most striking factors of this domestic socio-cultural clash. Accents have become a sort of unmistakable mark to be proud of (or not). They differ significantly from the ones widespread in the southern counties (I am not referring uniquely to RP) but I am actually thinking of the local accents, local speech peculiarities that are (often unconsciously) the heirs of almost two millennia of history. Although nowadays English paves its way into globally ‘weaker’ languages, disseminating those words and expression around that undermine the ‘purity’ of individual languages, this language is the daughter of hybridity par excellence. Celtic substratum and Latin influence aside, albeit especially the latter has been crucial throughout an ongoing process, Anglo-Saxon languages have prevailingly affected the evolution of English to such an extent that English is unequivocally considered a Germanic language. Old English (or Ænglisc as I prefer calling it) is incredibly similar to languages like German, Dutch and Frisian in terms of vocabulary and syntax. But the next linguistic source is what I will analyse more closely in this article.
Old Norse was the language spoken by the Vikings who invaded Britain in the ninth century AD and ruled over the Danelagh (Danelaw in English) which corresponded to present north-eastern England, roughly between today’s Lancashire and East Anglia. Old Norse is stunningly similar to Icelandic and it can be visually recognised by the use of Latinised runes (þ, ð, ƿ and Ȝ – voiceless dental fricative th, voiced dental fricative th, w and y respectively). The vowel system is also peculiar and it represents one of the most evident factors that impacted on certain areas of northern Britain. Nevertheless this section of English glottology is tricky because – to cut it short – loads of things happened in a very short period of time and historical evidence is limited. The Battle of Hastings (1066) pinpointed the French domination over Britain and the shift from Old to Middle English, ‘the dialectal phase of the history of the English language’ (Lerer 2007). And it was then that dialects drifted away from each other. This phase can also be considered the Dark Ages of English, as French prevailed in the highest ranks of society, thus pushing the local language back to the background – at least until the kingdom of Richard I.
From this period we can recognise five major dialects: Kentish, Southern, East Midland, West Midland (spoken where I currently live) and Northern. The latter distinguished itself for a more encompassing influence wielded by Scandinavian languages (i.e. Old Norse). Geoffrey Chaucer gives an account of this particularity in his most well-known work, The Canterbury Tales. The Reeve’s tale features two
Cambridge students who came from ‘fer in the north’ and gives the audience an interesting linguistic description throughout the narration. If compared with the rest of the text, drafted in the London English of the time, this section possesses some linguistic particularities that can be associated with the contemporary Northern dialect, as demonstrated by the close analysis of manuscript of the time produced in specific areas of the former Danelaw. Some examples?
Northern and Southern English do not always agree on when to use the ‘a’ or ‘o’ sound. Today foreigners might struggle to distinguish ‘four’ and ‘far’ pronounced by a northerner speaker. This can be observed in the vocabulary adopted by Chaucer when imitating the students’ speech: hom(e) becomes haim or ham (see Birmingham, Cheltenham, Durham, – the house of… some people living there when the town was funded). Likewise, the ‘ch’ was pronounced as a voiceless postalveolar affricate [t͡ʃ] in the South (like the modern English ‘church’) but the voiceless palatal stop was liked better in the north, i.e. [c] like in cattle, castle, carve, caterpillar. For instance, ‘such’ is ‘swich’ in Southern Middle English, but ‘slyk’ in Northern M.E.. Toponyms represent further evidence of the Scandinavian domination. Just look at place names like Wetherby, Selby, Derby, Whitby, Grimsby. Guess what’s the word for ‘town’ in Danish? Yes, right: By. What about ‘village’ in Icelandic? Oh well, þorp is the answer. Or thorp if we want to use properly Latin letters. This easily echoes Scunthorpe, Copmanthorpe, Mablethorpe. Geography has spoken. And if we are confused because we don’t understand our friend from York, it’s probably because we are not familiar with Norwegian and Swedish either!
So, my conclusion? I love the northern dialect as I love Scandinavian languages. And, no, it’s not the inability to speak English properly. It’s a precious linguistic identity that needs to be preserved, as a piece of history that has shaped and marked today’s Britain. North is cool, even though over there lunch is dinner and dinner is tea, which is weird. But you’ll get used to it, trust me.
Benskin, M., M. Laing, V. Karaiskos and K. Williamson. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).
Burrow, J.A. and Turville-Petre, Thorlac, A Book of Middle English (Oxford: Blackwell 2005)
Lerer, Seth, ‘Lord of this Language: Chaucer’s English’, Inventing English (New York: Colombia University Press 2007).
Milroy, James, ‘Middle English Dialectology’, The Cambridge History of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992).
Tolkien, J. R. R., Chaucer as a Philologist: the Reeve’s Tale, read at a meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford on Saturday, 16th May, 1931. [Yes, THAT Tolkien]