18th c. Language Attitudes to Northern Accents Vs. 21st c. Language Attitudes to Northern Accents

This post was inspired by a particular piece of research conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) on dialect and accent perceptions in Greater Manchester. The study aimed at understanding how certain language varieties are geographically placed as well as what social judgments are attached to language varieties and their speakers. If you would like to look further into the details of the project, please visit the following website http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/?id=3687. However, I also wanted to add another interesting slant to this blog post by tracing present day attitudes towards northern accents back in time to the views held by 18th century society. In particular, the contribution by Jonathan Swift will be a fruitful point of departure.

Northern accents were often met with hostility from the upper-middle classes in the 18th century. For example, the northern accent was deemed as ‘abominable’ and speakers were vilified in society as having ‘impediments in their speech’ but more interestingly these accents were branded as degenerate and their speakers accused of an ‘imperfect knowledge of the English Tongue.’ What could the consequences of such toxic attitudes be? Well, these descriptions seem to indicate a deep animosity to non-standard English as well as a sense of superiority over northern speakers. I would like to highlight the following phrase for my readers to reflect on – ‘impediments in their speech’. What could we say about 18th century attitudes based on this? I would argue that comments such as these actually hint at some very dangerous, underlying beliefs. For example, this isn’t simply an issue of whether the way certain individuals speak is pleasing to the ear, it creates this opinion that these varieties wouldn’t even exist if there wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with the speaker. The presumption follows that there is only one correct way of speaking which is the standard.

Essentially, this imposes societal pressure on all other groups and forces the creation of benchmark standard without having to physically enforce the standard via language policies. Southerners are keen to stigmatise those features of Northern dialects which are quite distinctive and identifiable. For Instance, those features which mark a distinction between northern and southern speech such as abbreviating words by retrenching vowels are tagged as ‘barbaric’, ‘rough’ and as ‘harsh unharmonious sounds’ (Swift, 1974).

The following map was constructed by MMU after researching the perceptions on language varieties in Greater Manchester:

map mmu

However, unlike the negative attitudes of 18th century society, present-day attitudes to varieties spoken in Greater Manchester are much more of a mixed bag of nuts. The map consists of five clear dialect areas: ‘rough’, ‘poor’, ‘broad’, ‘multicultural’ and ‘posh’. Why is there such variation in attitudes to certain areas and the dialects associated with these areas? It is important to note that individuals filling out questionnaires were residents living in Manchester. Therefore, we could argue that there are two main reasons for the use of adjectives such as ‘working – class’, ‘rough’ and ‘poor’. The first being that participants either hailed from these areas and have been told they sound like this, or else they do not originate from these boroughs but are aware of negative stereotypes associated with these areas. For instance, Oldham being an area which is densely populated with a certain type of demographic i.e. working class or economically disadvantaged peoples. Another plausible explanation is that participants felt inclined to rate outgroup varieties more negatively in order to distance the speech of these members from their own dialect.

These negative perceptions reflect attitudes held by 18th century society. If working – class individuals speak in a distinct way they are categorised under one umbrella and because all working-class speakers share a particular set of features, their dialect is considered ugly. This is also the case in present day attitudes as well; for example, since speakers living in Oldham are part of a certain type of demographic and share particular dialect, it is automatically assumed that if you speak in this dialect, you too will be hailed as belonging to this speech community. Essentially, you will be running the risk of being associated with these labels.

On other hand, positive attitudes were also expressed, and this marks a stark contrast from 18th century attitudes. This may be due to increased social mobility which has taken place over the last two centuries and may mean that class distinctions are not so very clear anymore. Another plausible reason is ingroup identity; for example, all participants belong to the county of Greater Manchester. Thus, it is possible that positive attributes are result of ingroup preference because any label attached to the group will essentially represent the participant too.

Swift, J. (1974). A proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue. London: Scolar Press.



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