The Northumbrian burr is the distinctive uvular pronunciation of R in the traditional dialects of Northumberland, Tyneside ('Geordie'), and northern County Durham, but it is now prevalent only in the older residents of rural Northumberland.
According to Påhlsson (1972), the Burr is typically pronounced as a voiced uvular fricative, often with accompanying lip-rounding ([ʁ(ʷ)]). Approximant, voiceless fricative, tapped and trilled uvular pronunciations occur occasionally. The data for Northumberland and northern Durham in the Survey of English Dialects (gathered in the 1950s) suggest that in addition to full pronunciation in syllable onset, uvular /r/ in these dialects was usually maintained in syllable coda position, typically as uvularisation of the preceding vowel.
Effects on neighbouring sounds
The Northumbrian Burr has affected the pronunciation of adjacent vowels, particularly those that precede it, which were subject to 'Burr Modification':
- Påhlsson (1972: 20) notes that "Burr-modified vowels are vowels that have become retracted and lowered (in most cases) due to a following posterior /r/, e.g. 'first' [fɔːst], 'word' [wɔːd]".
- Wells (1982: 396–97) states that "It is the effect of uvular /r/ on a preceding vowel which has historically given rise to forms such as [bɔʶːdz] birds, [wɔʶːmz] worms in Northumberland: the [ʁ] has not only coalesced with the vowel, making it uvularized, but has also caused it to be retracted from centre to back".
- One effect of Burr Modification was the development of the Nurse-north Merger in dialects of English in northeast England.
Since uvular R is not typical of other English dialects, it may be assumed that this pronunciation is an innovation in the northeast of England. When it occurred and whether the development is connected with the spread of guttural R throughout much of Western Europe are both unknown. Heslop (1892) refers to the suggestion by James Murray that the Burr originated in the speech of Harry Hotspur, which Shakespeare describes as peculiar in some way:
Stuck upon him as the sun
In the grey vault of heaven: and by his light,
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts; he was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves,
He had no legs, that practis’d not his gait:
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those that could speak low, and tardily,
Would turn their own affection to abuse,
To seem like him: so that, in speech, and gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashioned others.
However, Shakespeare's text does not indicate what was distinctive about Hotspur's speech so that may not be connected with the Northumbrian Burr.
The first definite reference to distinctive pronunciation of R in Northeastern England was made by Hugh Jones in 1724, slightly predating the more well known description of it by Daniel Defoe, who wrote, in his A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, that:
I must not quit Northumberland without taking notice, that the Natives of this Country, of the antient original Race or Families, are distinguished by a Shibboleth upon their Tongues in pronouncing the letter R, which they cannot utter without a hollow Jarring in the Throat, by which they are as plainly known, as a Foreigner is in pronouncing the Th: this they call the Northumberland R, or Wharle; and the Natives value themselves upon that Imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the Antiquity of their Blood.
In the 19th century, the Burr was recorded by Alexander J. Ellis and by Joseph Wright. In the 20th century, it was recorded throughout much of the Northeast in the Orton Corpus, and in the Survey of English Dialects.
The Northumbrian Burr, like many traditional dialect features in England, has largely disappeared from the dialects of northeast England, and it is no longer found in Tyneside English. Nevertheless, some older speakers, especially in northern Northumberland, still use it regularly.
- British Library Sound Recordings for Northumberland
- Sound Comparisons (Holy Island)
- Påhlsson, C. (1972) The Northumbrian Burr. Lund: Gleerup.
- Orton, H. and Halliday, W. (1962) Survey of English Dialects (B): The Basic Material, Vol. 1, The Six Northern Counties and the Isle of Man. Leeds: Arnold & Son.
- Wells, J. (1982) Accents of English, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Orton, H. (1939) "ɹɛtɹoʊflɛks kɒnsənənts ɪn ɪŋglɪʃ" [Retroflex consonants in English]. Maître Phonétique 67: 40–1.
- Heslop, O. (1892–94) Northumberland Words: A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Northumberland and on the Tyneside, p. xxiv. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
- King Henry IV, Second Part, Act II, Scene 3
- Wales, K. (2006) Northern English: A Social and Cultural History, p. 101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Defoe, D. (1724–27) A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, vol. iii:232-33. London: Dent (1974).
- Ellis, A. (1889) On Early English Pronunciation, Part V: The Existing Phonology of English Dialects Compared with that of West Saxon. New York: Greenwood Press.
- Wright, J. (1905). The English Dialect Grammar. Oxford/London/Edinburgh/Glasgow/New York/Toronto: Henry Frowde.
- Rydland, K. (1998) The Orton Corpus: A Dictionary of Northumbrian Pronunciation, 1928–1939. Oslo: Novus Press.
- Wells, J., op.cit., pp. 368ff., 374.