New northern accent appears

Sounds of cities merge among the educated

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You may think your accent identifies you as specifically coming from northern cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester or Sheffield but for some people the computer says no.

That’s the basic finding of a new study of how people speak in the north of England.

Research has shown that a new and more generic northern accent is evolving, although not for everyone. This accent is shared by educated and largely middle class city dwellers, and has been given the name of general northern English.

Machine learning

It was identified by computer analysis, according to linguistics expert Patrycja Strycharczuk, who led the study team at Manchester University. “It may seem as though local accents are dying out,” she said. “But we believe we’re actually seeing a new variety being established.”

To study northern accents the team sought volunteers to download an app called English Dialects. Eventually, 105 people were selected from five northern cities – 17 in Liverpool, 23 in Manchester, 19 in Sheffield, 27 in Leeds and 19 in Newcastle – and they were asked to record themselves reading a 216-word passage from the Aesop fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This was selected because it contains all the English vowels in so-called keywords, ones that would provide good indicators of local accents, such as “kit”, “bath”, “near” and “face”.

The volunteers had to drop a digital pin on a map to identify where they were from, as well as give information about their age, gender, ethnicity and level of education. The study group eventually comprised 59 per cent female and was largely white. Two-thirds of volunteers had a higher education degree.

Their recorded samples were fed into a computer, which measured the soundwaves created by each voice and turned it into numerical data. The process is known as machine learning and, said Strycharczuk, when it is exposed to a sample of accents it can usually tell if the speaking sample was provided by a person from Liverpool or other from specific locations in the north.

Dwindling dialect

However, the machine learning struggled to distinguish between the accents of volunteers from Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, suggesting that middle-class educated people from these cities now speak in a very similar way.

The machine learning also analysed individual vowel sounds and compared them to traditional descriptions of different northern dialects. This revealed that dialect features once associated with some northern areas are no longer present, although most speakers still sounded distinctly northern, for example, using short vowels in words like “glass” and “bath”, and pronouncing “crux” the same as “crooks”.

The researchers found that people from Liverpool were the mostly likely to resist the change in accent evident in the other cities. But in Newcastle, far from clinging to the familiar Geordie accent, middle-class educated volunteers sounded closer to people who live in the south of England than
they did to those from Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. They had a more standard accent. What’s driving this, according to Strycharczuk, is a desire in Newcastle to have a more neutral accent and sound educated while still preserving some aspects of their local identity.

“One thing about the general northern accent is that it is northern,” she said. “So it’s not the same standard accent that people speak in the south. It’s a kind of middle ground.

“I believe that a lot of speakers of general northern English don’t think they have a northern accent, yet they do to people in London. I saw someone comment on Twitter that while they still sounded northern to people in the south, they now sounded southern to people in the north.”

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