English language in Northern England

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A map of England, with isoglosses showing how different regions pronounce "sun"
The vowel sound in sun across England. Northern English dialects have not undergone the FOOTSTRUT split, distinguishing them from both Southern England and Scottish dialects.[1]

The spoken English language in Northern England has been shaped by the region's history of settlement and migration, and today encompasses a group of related accents and dialects known as Northern England English (or, simply, Northern (English) in the United Kingdom).[2][3]

The terms 'accent' and 'dialect' are broadly defined terms in the English language,[4] this article strives to comply with these accepted definitions. This article largely focuses on accents. Most current language differences in the north of England are arguably accent orientated, though there are some clear historical influences from older true dialects that are no longer in common use.[5][6][7][8] Certain 'local words' and speech patterns certainly are inherited from older dialects that existed in the area.[9][10]

Well-known accents and dialects in the United Kingdom are Cockney, Welsh English, Yorkshire, Scouse and Scottish English; in modern Britain, these differ largely through word pronunciations, though vocabulary differences certainly still exist. These accents are not typically notable when speakers with such accents/dialects write in standard English.[11]

An accent can be thought of as a subpart of a dialect and a dialect is a subpart of a language.[12][13] The term 'dialectology' is also used in some academic studies relating to accent/dialect studies.[14]

In the context of this article, an exhibit of the relationship between key terminology is as follows:

Manchester Local Accent - Regional Dialect - British English Language.

Examples of recognized dialects that are in current use: Quebecois French, provincial Irish variations, and numerous Chinese dialects, these dialects focus on word pronunciation, vocabulary and deeper linguistic structure and are distinctive from their parent/stem dialect-language in both the spoken and written forms of the language. Dialects may also be associated with other non-linguistic cultural attributes such as 'perceived social or educational status'.[15][16]

Another more extreme example is Afrikaans and Dutch - though seen as distinctive languages they are largely mutually intelligible and serve as an interesting model for how languages develop and language dialects fork when a population is geographically isolated or comes into contact with other language groups.[17]

The strongest influence on the modern varieties of the English language spoken in Northern England has been the Northumbrian dialect of Middle English, in addition to contact with Old Norse during the Viking Age, as well as Irish English following the Great Famine, particularly in Lancashire and the south of Yorkshire, and Midlands dialects since the Industrial Revolution, all of which having produced new and distinctive styles of speech.[18][19]

There are traditional dialects associated with many of the historic counties, including the Cumbrian dialect, Lancashire dialect, Northumbrian dialect and Yorkshire dialect, but new, distinctive dialects have arisen in cities following urbanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[20]

Northern England's urban areas have numerous distinctive accents[21] There are unique expressions and terms that are very local, and arguably were once aligned with older northern dialects.[22] Northern English accents are often stigmatized, and native speakers commonly attempt to modify their Northern speech characteristics in corporate and professional environments.[23][24][25]

In the vernacular the terms 'accent' and 'dialect' are used without a great deal of distinction, and there are clear examples of unique words or expressions that might have at one point been part of a unique dialect, in modern English speaking Britain, spoken English is broadly intelligible across the whole of the British Isle, all British English speakers can understand each other.[26]

There is some debate as to how modern spoken English has impacted modern written English in the north, though it is clearly hard to represent a spoken accent in a written language.[27] The existence of the works of well known 'Lancashire Dialect' poets emphasizes the historical shift from a true northern dialect in the 1700s to northern accents in the modern north.[28]

Many people from northern England traditionally have taken 'lessons in elocution' in order to adopt a more standard use of the English language. This has been viewed as archaic, but recent studies demonstrate attempts by professionals to 'soften their northern accents' is currently on the rise.[29][30]


The varieties of English spoken across modern Great Britain form an accent/dialect continuum, and there is no universally agreed definition of which varieties are Northern.[31] Other linguists, such as John C. Wells, describe these as the 'dialects' of the "Far North" and treat them as a subset of all Northern English accents. Conversely, Wells uses a very broad definition of the linguistic North, comprising all accents that have not undergone the TRAPBATH and FOOTSTRUT splits.

Using this definition, the isogloss between North and South runs from the River Severn to the Wash – this definition covers not just the entire North of England (which Wells divides into "Far North" and "Middle North") but also most of the Midlands, including the distinctive Brummie (Birmingham) and Black Country dialects.[32]

In historical linguistics, the dividing line between the North and the North Midlands (an area of mixed Northumbrian-Mercian dialects, including the Lancashire, the West Riding and the Peak District dialects) runs from either the River Ribble or the River Lune on the west coast to the River Humber on the east coast.[33]

The dialects of this region are descended from the Northumbrian dialect of Old English rather than Mercian or other Anglo-Saxon dialects. In a very early study of English dialects, Alexander J Ellis defined the border between the north and the midlands as that where the word house is pronounced with u: to the north (as also in Scots).[34]

Although well-suited to historical analysis, this line does not reflect contemporary language; this line divides Lancashire and Yorkshire in half and few would today consider Manchester or Leeds, both located south of the line, as part of the Midlands.[32]

An alternative approach is to define the linguistic North as equivalent to the cultural area of Northern England – approximately the seven historic counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, County Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire, or the three modern statistical regions of North East England, North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber.[35]

This approach is taken by the Survey of English Dialects (SED), which uses the historic counties (minus Cheshire) as the basis of the studies. The SED also groups Manx English with Northern dialects, although this is a distinct variety of English and the Isle of Man is not part of England.[36] Under Wells' scheme, this definition includes Far North and Middle North dialects but excludes the Midlands dialects.[32]

Scottish English is distinct from Northern England English, although the two have interacted and influenced each other.[37] The Scots language and the Northumbrian and Cumbrian dialects of English descend from the Old English of Northumbria (diverging in the Middle English period) and are still very similar to each other.[38]


Many historical northern accents reflect the influence of the Old Norse language strongly, compared with other varieties of English spoken in England.[39]

In addition to previous contact with Vikings, during the 9th and 10th centuries, most of northern and eastern England was part of either the Danelaw or the Danish-controlled Kingdom of Northumbria (except for much of present-day Cumbria, which was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde). Consequently, modern Yorkshire dialects, in particular, are considered to have been influenced heavily by Old West Norse and Old East Norse (the ancestor language of modern Norwegian, Swedish and Danish).[40]

During the mid and late 19th century, there was large-scale migration from Ireland, which affected the speech of parts of Northern England. This is most apparent in the accents along the west coast, such as Liverpool, Birkenhead, Barrow-in-Furness and Whitehaven.[41]

Northern accent and dialect varieties[edit]

Variations in modern Northern English accents/dialects include:

In some areas, dialects and phrases can vary greatly within very small geographic regions. Historically, accents did change over very small distances, but this is less true in modern Britain due to enhanced geographic mobility.[47]

Phonological characteristics[edit]

Red areas are where English dialects of the late 20th century were rhotic; in the North, only some of Lancashire is included.
Pronunciation of [ŋg] in the word tongue throughout England; the major Northern counties with this trait are located where the North West and West Midlands meet.

There are several speech features that unite most of the accents of Northern England and distinguish them from Southern England and Scottish accents:[48]

  • The accents of Northern England generally do not have the trap–bath split observed in Southern England English, so that the vowel in bath, ask and cast is the short TRAP vowel /a/: /baθ, ask, kast/, rather than /ɑː/ found in the south. There are a few words in the BATH set like can't, shan’t, half, calf, rather which are pronounced with /ɑː/ in most Northern English accents as opposed to /æ/ in Northern American accents.
  • The /æ/ vowel of cat, trap is normally pronounced [a] rather than the [æ] found in traditional Received Pronunciation or General American while /ɑː/, as in the words palm, cart, start, tomato may not be differentiated from /æ/ by quality, but by length, being pronounced as a longer [aː].
  • The foot–strut split is absent in Northern English, so that, for example, cut and put rhyme and are both pronounced with /ʊ/; words like love, up, tough, judge, etc. also use this vowel sound. This has led to Northern England being described "Oop North" /ʊp nɔːθ/ by some in the south of England. Some words with /ʊ/ in RP even have /uː/book is pronounced /buːk/ in some Northern accents (particularly in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and eastern parts of Merseyside where the Lancashire accent is still prevalent), while conservative accents also pronounce look and cook as /luːk/ and /kuːk/.
  • The Received Pronunciation phonemes /eɪ/ (as in face) and /əʊ/ (as in goat) are often pronounced as monophthongs (such as [eː] and [oː]), or as older diphthongs (such as /ɪə/ and /ʊə/). However, the quality of these vowels varies considerably across the region, and this is considered a greater indicator of a speaker's social class than the less stigmatized aspects listed above.
  • The most common R sound, when pronounced in Northern England, is the typical English postalveolar approximant; however, an alveolar tap is also widespread, particularly following a consonant or between vowels.[49] This tap predominates most fully in the Scouse accent. The North, like most of the South, is largely (and increasingly) non-rhotic, meaning that R is pronounced only before a vowel or between vowels, but not after a vowel (for instance, in words like car, fear, and lurk). However, regions that are rhotic (pronouncing all R sounds) or somewhat rhotic are possible, particularly amongst older speakers:
  • In most areas, the letter y on the end of words as in happy or city is pronounced [ɪ], like the i in bit, and not [i]. This was considered RP until the 1990s. The tenser [i] is found in the far north, and in the Merseyside and Teesside areas.
  • The North does not have a clear distinction between the "clear L" and "dark L" of most other accents in England; in other words, most Northern accents pronounce all L sounds with some moderate amount of velarization. Exceptions to this are in Tyneside, Wearside and Northumberland, which universally use only the clear L,[50] and in Lancashire and Manchester, which universally use only the dark L.[51][52]
  • Some northern English speakers have noticeable rises in their intonation, even to the extent that, to other speakers of English, they may sound "perpetually surprised or sarcastic."[53]
Major distinctive sounds of Northern English[54][55][56][57][58][59]
Example words Manchester
Lancashire Yorkshire Cumbria Northumberland
/æ/ bath, dance, trap [a~ä] listen
/ɑː/ bra, calm, father [aː~äː] listen [äː~ɑː] [ɒː] listen
// fight, ride, try
[aɪ~äɪ] listen
Geordie and Northumberland, when not final or before a voiced fricative: [ɛɪ~əɪ] listen
// brown, mouth [aʊ] [æʊ] [aʊ~æʊ] [ɐʊ] [æʊ] [ɐʊ~u:] listen
// lame, rein, stain [ɛɪ~e̞ɪ] listen
[e̞ː] listen
Lancashire, Cumbria, and Yorkshire, when before ght as in weight: [eɪ~ɛɪ]
[eɪ] listen [ɪə~eː]
/ɛər/ fair, hare, there
rhotic Lancashire and some places by the Scottish border: [ɛːɹ]
[eː] listen
(square–nurse merger)
/ɜːr/ fur, her, stir
[ɜː~ɛː] listen
rhotic Lancashire and some places by the Scottish border: [əɹː]
[øː~ʊː] listen
/ər/ doctor, martyr, smaller
[ə~ɜ~ɛ] listen
rhotic Lancashire and some places by the Scottish border: [əɹ~ɜɹ]; also, Geordie: [ɛ~ɐ]
// beam, marine, fleece [ɪi] [i] listen [iː~ɨ̞i] [iː~ei]
/i/ city, honey, parties
[ɪ~e] listen
also, North Yorkshire: [i]
[ɪi~i] [i]
/ɪər/ beer, fear, here
rhotic Lancashire and some places by the Scottish border: [ɪəɹ]
[iɛ̯] [iɐ̯]
/ɔː/ all, bought, saw [ɒː~ɔː] [o̞:] listen
// goal, shown, toe [ɔʊ~ɔo]
[oː~ɔː] listen
West Yorkshire, more commonly: [ɔː]
[ɔu~ɜu~ɛʉ] [ʊə~oː]
/ʌ/ bus, flood, put
Northumberland, less rounded: [ʌ̈]; in Scouse, Manchester, South Yorkshire and (to an extent) Teesside the word one is uniquely pronounced with the vowel [ɒ], and this is also possible for once, among(st), none, tongue, and nothing
/ʊər/ poor, sure, tour
rhotic Lancashire and some places by the Scottish border: [ʊəɹ]
[o̞:] [uɐ]
// food, glue, lose [ʏː] listen
North Yorkshire: [ʉ:]
[ʉː] listen [yː] [ʉː] listen [ʉu~ʊu~ɵʊ]
/ɒ/ lot, wasp, cough [ɒ]
/ɛ/ bed, egg, bread [ɛ]
intervocalic & postvocalic /k/ racquet, joker, luck [k] or [k~x] [k] listen [k~x] listen or
[k~ç] listen
initial /h/ hand, head, home [∅] or [h] [h]
/l/ lie, mill, salad
/l/ is often somewhat "dark" (meaning velarised) [ɫ] listen throughout northern England, but it is particularly dark in Manchester and Lancashire.
[l] listen
stressed-syllable /ŋ/ bang, singer, wrong
[ŋ] predominates in the northern half of historical Lancashire
[ŋg] predominates only in South Yorkshire's Sheffield
[ŋg~ŋ] [ŋ]
post-consonantal & intervocalic /r/ current, three, pray
[ɹ] or, conservatively, [ɹ~ɾ]
[ʁ] in Lindisfarne and traditional, rural, northern Northumberland
[ɾ] [ɹ~ɾ]
intervocalic, final
& pre-consonantal
attic, bat, fitness [ʔ] or [t(ʰ)] [θ̠] listen or [ʔ]

Grammar and syntax[edit]

The grammatical patterns of Northern England English are similar to those of British English in general. However, there are several unique characteristics that mark out Northern English.[60]

Under the Northern subject rule (NSR), the suffix "-s" (which in Standard English grammar only appears in the third person singular present) is attached to verbs in many present and past-tense forms (leading to, for example, "the birds sings"). More generally, third-person singular forms of irregular verbs such as to be may be used with plurals and other grammatical persons; for instance "the lambs is out". In modern dialects, the most obvious manifestation is a levelling of the past tense verb forms was and were. Either form may dominate depending on the region and individual speech patterns (so some Northern speakers may say "I was" and "You was" while others prefer "I were" and "You were") and in many dialects especially in the far North, weren't is treated as the negation of was.[61]

The "epistemic mustn't", where mustn't is used to mark deductions such as "This mustn't be true", is largely restricted within the British Isles to Northern England, although it is more widely accepted in American English, and is likely inherited from Scottish English. A few other Scottish traits are also found in far Northern dialects, such as double modal verbs (might could instead of might be able to), but these are restricted in their distribution and are mostly dying out.[62]


While standard English now only has a single second-person pronoun, you, many Northern dialects have additional pronouns either retained from earlier forms or introduced from other variants of English. The pronouns thou and thee have survived in many rural Northern dialects. In some case, these allow the distinction between formality and familiarity to be maintained, while in others thou is a generic second-person singular, and you (or ye) is restricted to the plural. Even when thou has died out, second-person plural pronouns are common. In the more rural dialects and those of the far North, this is typically ye, while in cities and areas of the North West with historical Irish communities, this is more likely to be yous.[63]

Conversely, the process of "pronoun exchange" means that many first-person pronouns can be replaced by the first-person objective plural us (or more rarely we or wor) in standard constructions. These include me (so "give me" becomes "give us"), we (so "we Geordies" becomes "us Geordies") and our (so "our cars" becomes "us cars"). The latter especially is a distinctively Northern trait.[64]

Almost all British vernaculars have regularised reflexive pronouns, but the resulting form of the pronouns varies from region to region. In Yorkshire and the North East, hisself and theirselves are preferred to himself and themselves. Other areas of the North have regularised the pronouns in the opposite direction, with meself used instead of myself. This appears to be a trait inherited from Irish English, and like Irish speakers, many Northern speakers use reflexive pronouns in non-reflexive situations for emphasis. Depending on the region, reflexive pronouns can be pronounced (and often written) as if they ended -sen, -sel or -self (even in plural pronouns) or ignoring the suffix entirely.[63]


In addition to Standard English terms, the Northern English lexis includes many words derived from Norse languages, as well as words from Middle English that disappeared in other regions. Some of these are now shared with Scottish English and the Scots language, with terms such as bairn ("child"), bonny ("beautiful"), gang or gan ("go/gone/going") and kirk ("church") found on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border.[65] Very few terms from Brythonic languages have survived, with the exception of place name elements (especially in Cumbrian toponymy) and the Yan Tan Tethera counting system, which largely fell out of use in the nineteenth century. The Yan Tan Tethera system was traditionally used in counting stitches in knitting,[66] as well as in children's nursery rhymes,[66] counting-out games,[66] and was anecdotally connected to shepherding.[66] This was most likely borrowed from a relatively modern form of the Welsh language rather than being a remnant of the Brythonic of what is now Northern England.[66][67]

The forms yan and yen used to mean one as in someyan ("someone") that yan ("that one"), in some northern English dialects, represents a regular development in Northern English in which the Old English long vowel /ɑː/ <ā> was broken into /ie/, /ia/ and so on. This explains the shift to yan and ane from the Old English ān, which is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz.[68][69]

A corpus study of Late Modern English texts from or set in Northern England found lad ("boy" or "young man") and lass ("girl" or "young woman") were the most widespread "pan-Northern" dialect terms. Other terms in the top ten included a set of three indefinite pronouns owt ("anything"), nowt ("naught" or "nothing") and summat ("something"), the Anglo-Scottish bairn, bonny and gang, and sel/sen ("self") and mun ("must"). Regional dialects within Northern England also had many unique terms, and canny ("clever") and nobbut ("nothing but") were both common in the corpus, despite being limited to the North East and to the North West and Yorkshire respectively.[70]

See also[edit]


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  69. ^ Griffiths, Bill (2004). A Dictionary of North East Dialect. Northumbria University Press. p. 191. ISBN 1-904794-16-5.
  70. ^ Hickey (2015), pp. 144–146.


Further reading[edit]

  • Katie Wales (2006), Northern English: A Social and Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-86107-1