Episode 113: A Zouthern Accent

In this episode, we turn our attention to the south of England and examine some of the unique features of the Middle English dialects spoken there after the Norman Conquest.  We also take a look at a poem composed in the Southern dialect called “The Fox and the Wolf.”  Finally, we explore how developments in this region informed some of the modern differences between northern and southern speech in Britain.


29 thoughts on “Episode 113: A Zouthern Accent

  1. Another great episode. Opens with the Australian speaker saying that she interpreted accents between northern and southern speakers! This is true today, and I’d say it’s pretty humorously acknowledged. In fact I sometimes don’t get the accent sometimes, if it’s strong, within a 70 mile radius – say Geordie/Newcastle and Scouse/Liverpool.

    And perhaps I’m being somewhat regionalist, but I think the northern accents are more divergent than southern ones, with perhaps the exception of the south-west. Travelling along the M62/A1 corridor, you cross Liverpool/Lancastrian/Mancunian/W Yorks/N Yorks/Teeside/Geordie – and they’re wildly different. But you can drive that journey within 3 hours.

  2. Another fascinating episode! Just an FYI, where I grew up in the North East of England (County Durham), “Bury Road” is not pronounced “Berry Road” but phonetically as it is spelled, with the “u” being the same as umbrella. Despite not coming “from” the North East, but living there for 20 years or so in my formative years, now I live in the South East, I would still read “Bury Road” the same way with the “umbrella” u sound!

    I know because I’ve had this discussion with Kevin before that there are a lot of old-English hangovers in that region, so it’s perhaps not surprising, but it is notable and fun to know!

    • Thanks for the note. The standard English pronunciation of “bury” is the Kentish pronunciation, so it is not surprising that northern dialects would have a different pronunciation of the vowel.

  3. Regarding the divergence of Northern Accents, I live in Bolton in Lancashire, to the north of Manchester, and if you travel 7 miles north to Darwen both the accent and some of the vocabulary is completely different (listen to Bernard Wrigley’s song “Is There A Carr Parrk in the Marrket”.

    Almost every valley in Lancashire has its own accent and often its own dialect. A person speaking a Rossendale (East Lancashire) dialect would struggle to be understood on the Fylde Coast (West Lancashire).

    Incidentally the Lancashire town of Bury (home of the Black Pudding) is pronounced “Burry” not “Berry”.

    You may be interested to know that in England we have a Dialect Festival every year where dialect speakers from different counties meet and share dialect performances. This year it takes place in Blackpool in Lancashire.

    • I love the idea of a Dialect Festival. Tracing the history of English dialects is a daunting task. It will inevitably require some broad generalizations, and I will probably cover it in broad strokes without trying to get down to the city level. Hopefully, it will be very interesting.

      • I am a relative newcomer to the podcast, but I’ve been enjoying it, and working to catch up with you. As an ignorant American, I’ve always been curious about the many English dialects, and how there came to be so many. I can’t begin to name all the different regions/dialects (although I am familiar with Cockney and Scouse), but I can hear differences when an English person speaks. Henry Higgins’ assertion that he could pinpoint an English person’s birthplace within a few streets in London fascinates me. How, for instance, did the Cockney dialect originate? And what has kept all these people so completely isolated for so long in such a big city as London? I’m not even into the 100s in episodes yet, but I hope there will be an episode at least to touch on that.

        • Hi Margaret. Most of the modern English accents developed in the Modern English period after the 1600s, so I will try to trace out those developments as part of that discussion. I am currently in the late 1500s, so once I get through the Shakespeare period, I will focus increasingly on the development of modern accents and dialects.

  4. At the very end of this episode, you report on the difference between the northern and southern English pronunciations of the short “a”. You mention that the broad “ah” sound typical in the south developed in the 18th century, and thus never made it across the Atlantic, where Americans pronounce the short, flat “a” in the older, northern English fashion. However, I remember my grandmother (born 1892 in Worcester County, Massachusetts) using the “ah” in words such as “bath”, “path”, “half” and “past”. I don’t believe she was parroting a “posh” English accent—wasn’t her style. In Robin MacNeil’s “The Story of English” in the 1980s, he traces the eastern New England accent back to 17th century arrivals from East Anglia. I wonder whether the broad “ah” sound might have already taken root there and spread throughout southern England and on to New England. Perhaps in some of your voice samples from New England you might hear traces of this accent today.

    • I think there’s a difference. I’m from the north so I say a short ‘bath’ (I sound like ‘cat’); RP English is ‘Barth’ (sounding like ‘Garth’). East Anglian, which I think is a little like South Western, has the long ‘aaah’ sound, so it’s more ‘Baaath’ (difficult to get across in writing, as you can imagine, but said with the mouth open a bit more). I hope I’ve got that right as I’m not a native East Angilan!

    • I agree with Ryan. I think this was a separate development within the English spoken in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern US. If you listen to old radio broadcasts and watch old movies, you’ll hear American pronunciations that are similar to those found in southern England. There may be some connection to the accents of England, but it would have been a later development. There are definitely some linguistic connections between the accents of New England and those of East Anglia (like the tendency not to pronounce the ‘r’ after a vowel), but I don’t think this feature was derived from that original connection. American English is a fascinating story unto itself.

      • I guess this feature is called the trap-bath split. The following video does a good job vocalizing it. Though the clip doesn’t address the trap-bath split of eastern New England, it gives voice to others in New York and the Midwest, neither of which would be considered finishing school affects.

        • The trap-bath split in New York and the Midwest most likely does not come from the Southern English trap-bath split, however; more likely, the /æ/ raising present in these American instances developed independently, if somewhat convergently. In other words, the consonants that induced the trap-bath split in Southern England did so in many other dialects of English, though independently and with different vocal results.

          Additionally, a number of Southern accents in the States as well as some Canadian accents demonstrate a sort of /æ/ raising, or at least an alteration of that vowel sound before the same consonants identified with the trap-bath split. While I cannot say with certainty (because I have no primary-source accounts of these accents historically), I think that once again, the sound-change demonstrates a convergent (rather than linear) evolution.

          Finally, the /æ/ raising found in certain parts of New England does not sound like the Southern English /æ/-/ä/ shift (and probably didn’t historically); once again, this raising represents the tendency of the vowel to change before certain consonants. In this way, I come full-circle to my initial argument that any /ä/ trap-bath split in New England probably comes the affected “Mid-Atlantic” accent.

        • Yes, the change of the ‘a’ sound in southern England did created a so-called trap-bath split. As Ryan noted, a split in the pronunciation of those words occurs within other English dialects, but it manifests itself in different ways in different dialects.

  5. Great podcast. Perhaps you’ve touched on it before, but I’m longing to understand why I can’t pronounce ‘thr’ and opt for ‘fr’ instead. I’m from Hertfordshire just above London. Not that it causes many problems, just when ordering three beers.

    • The ‘fr’ for ‘thr’ pronunciation is a relatively recent development. Linguists sometimes refer to it as ‘TH-fronting.’ It was first reported around London in the late 1700s. It also appears in other English dialects. Even in American English, you can hear some people pronounce “north” as “norf.” Check out this link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th-fronting.

    • I am only aware of “five” as a number and “fife” as a musical instrument. Those two words are not related. If I am misunderstanding the question, let me know.

  6. I find the s/z tendencies for the southern English dialects to be strikingly similar to the German standard of pronouncing the initial ‘s’ of words like ‘z’. Many of the words or similar words mentioned in the episode correspond with German: Sommer, Sohn, Sechs, Sieben, and Sünde (sin, which I also found the rounded ‘i’ of southern English, if I recall correctly, interestingly corresponding to the German ü). All of these of course being pronounced with the z sound. These similarities are not too surprising seeing that they’re ultimately from the same language family, but at the same time it’s surprising that old Southern English would share traits with a different language of German that it didn’t even share with another dialect of English.
    Would this suggest that the z sound came from influence with trading with somewhat close German neighbors, would it indicate the z sound is an older pronunciation preserved from the initial separation centuries before, or is it possible that both languages had the same Sound shift in parallel?

    Thank you for your work on this project. It’s brought incredible insight each time I listen.

    • I don’t think the use of ‘z’ for ‘s’ in southern England had anything to do with German. It is very possible that German had a parallel development though. You might recall that the assibilation or palatalization of the ‘k’ sound in the early Middle Ages was common throughout western Europe – among both the Romance languages and the Germanic languages (See Episode 5). So parallel sound changes did happen among European languages.

      • I was going to ask the same question as Adam. I note the phrase “the King’s English” seems to have entered English in the early 1800s. Has anyone drawn a connection between the (reportedly) heavily accented speech of the German kings (and maybe even going back to William and Mary (wasn’t William Dutch?)) and how their pronunciation may have affected speech in the South. Educated people do tend to ape and teach “prestige” speech and think it’s ‘better.’

        • Thanks for the comment. To my knowledge there is no connection between the Germanic-speaking kings of England in the 1600s and 1700s and the speech of southern England.

  7. I was recently discussing put/putt pronunciation with another Northerner (From Teesside/North Yorks) and our broadly Southern English accented wives. Us northerners pronounced ‘put’ and ‘putt’ as if they were exactly the same word, and our wives couldn’t believe we didn’t think there should be any difference between them.

    • On the voice samples page of the website, I have several sentences for listeners to read which are designed to highlight certain differences in the pronunciations of vowels. One of those sentences uses the word ‘put’ and ‘putter.’ Unfortunately, many listeners read the sentences so fast that it is difficult ti discern the difference. But, hopefully, I will be able to highlight that difference in a future episode.

  8. Hi Kevin,
    Are you also implying that we replaced an ‘u’ sound with an ‘o’ pronunciation in ‘love’ with the newer, improved spelling of ‘l u u u…’?

    • No, the spelling was changed, but the pronunciation remained the same. So the letter ‘o’ continued to represent the ‘u’ sound – either a long /oo/ sound or a short /uh/ sound. (The sound was probably short like today even though I pronounced it with a long U sound in the episode). The ‘o’ sound would have been /oh/, which would have produced the pronunciation /loave/.

  9. My wife, from Morecambe in the north of Lancashire, along with most other natives Of the area pronounce tongue as ‘tung’ with a short ‘u’ sound. It provides me with endless amusement as I pronounce it as ‘tong’, with a short ‘o’ sound. Clearly by now I realise there is not right and wrong but it’s interesting to see how we, from near Nottingham in the East Midlands have adapted our pronunciation to align with the medieval scribes’ spelling.

  10. In Dutch we have fox = vos, fish = vis, summer = zomer, set = zet(ten) etc. With vane from fana meaning flag, in German flag = Fahne.

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