London accent dominating English

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: May 26, 2016 18:21 IST

An accent associated with London and south-east England is increasingly being adopted across the United Kingdom, reducing the diversity of accents, according to initial results of a free app developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

The English Dialects App was launched in January 2016 and has been downloaded more than 70,000 times. To date, more than 30,000 people from over 4,000 locations around the UK have provided results on how certain words and colloquialisms are pronounced.

The university said that one of the major findings is that some features of regional accents, such as pronouncing the 'r' in words like 'arm' – a very noticeable feature once considered normal throughout the West Country and along much of the south coast – are disappearing in favour of the pronunciations found in London and the south-east. 

Lead researcher Adrian Leemann, from Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, said: “When it comes to language change in England, our results confirm that there is a clear pattern of levelling towards the English of the south-east; more and more people are using and pronouncing words in the way that people from London and the south-east do. 

Co-researcher David Britain from the University of Bern added: “People in Bristol speak much more similarly to those in Colchester now than they did fifty years ago. Regional differences are disappearing, some quite quickly. However, while many pockets of resistance to this levelling are shrinking, there is still a stark north-south divide in the pronunciation of certain key words.” 

The research also shows some areas of resistance. Newcastle and Sunderland stood out from the rest of England with the majority of people from those areas continuing to use local words and pronunciations which are declining elsewhere.

For example, many people in the North-East still use a traditional dialect word for 'a small piece of wood stuck under the skin', 'spelk' instead of Standard English 'splinter'. Other dialect words, like ‘shiver’ for ‘splinter’, are still reported in exactly the same area they were found historically—although they are far less common than they once were.

The researchers said that the data shows one northern pronunciation has proved especially robust: saying words like 'last' with a short vowel instead of a long one. In this case, the northern form appears to have spread southwards in the Midlands and the West Country compared with the historical survey.

Dialect words are even more likely to have disappeared than regional accents. The word ‘backend’ instead of ‘autumn’ was once common in much of England, but today very few people report using this word. 

The researchers said that perhaps one of the most surprising results of the data provided is how the use of ‘scone’ (to rhyme with ‘gone’ rather than ‘cone’) is much more common in the north of England that many might imagine.

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