Do you pronounce words like ‘bath’, ‘grass’ and ‘dance’, with a short vowel, as in cat, or with a long vowel, like the sound you make when a doctor examines your throat? Discover the origins of this important distinction in British accents and explore how differences in pronunciation can reveal our local and regional identities.
If you overheard the following statement, the pronunciation of the word mask might help you to guess where the speaker comes from:
happen she were wearing a mask
The pronunciation of the word mask here could be very revealing. A well-known difference in British accents is the distinction between speakers in the north and south. Those in the north generally pronounce words such as bath, grass and dance with a short vowel – rather like the vowel in the word cat. Those in the south use a long vowel, rather like the sound you make when the doctor examines your throat. So you can immediately deduce something about a person who pronounces baths to rhyme with maths or pass to rhyme with mass.
The BATH variation map
Click on a location on the map below to hear how speakers in different parts of England pronounce words such as bath, laugh and grass in the 21st century.
Phonological variation – differences between accents – comes in a variety of forms. Some speakers might be difficult to place geographically, while others who speak with a broader accent might use a number of localised pronunciation features. This might include the articulation of certain consonant or vowel sounds. It might be apparent in so-called connected speech processes – the way certain sounds are pronounced in particular combinations of words or phrases. Or it might be revealed in characteristic intonation patterns.
Terms like 'Yorkshire accent' are often surprising to people who live in Yorkshire, as locals will insist quite rightly that there are several different types of Yorkshire accent. A Sheffield accent is different from a Hull accent, which is in turn different from a Leeds accent, but there are numerous features that unite speakers from all three cities. In most cases, an accent enables others to place you in a large geographic area, so the terms 'northern accent' or 'Welsh accent' are reasonably useful descriptors. In a small number of cases a speaker might have an accent that enables listeners to be even more specific, such as Liverpool accent (aka Scouse) or Rhondda Valley's accent.
Listen to these extracts of speakers using regionally specific accent features.
we used to work with a real wide range of young people and we al, also used to go into pubs and nightclubs and, uhm
One of the most recognisable differences in England’s accents is the distinction between speakers in the north and Midlands who generally pronounce the vowel in words such as cup, love and under with rounded lips and those in the south, who use a vowel with lips in a more neutral position. If a speaker pronounces the words bull, full and pull to rhyme with cull, gull, hull and skull then they are likely to be from the north or Midlands. For speakers in this part of England, pairs such as stood and stud or could and cud are indistinguishable, blood and flood rhyme with hood and wood and pairs such as book/buck, hook/huck, look/luck, rook/ruck, shook/shuck and took/tuck might well be homophones. In some parts of the north and Midlands, however, speakers with a very broad accent might have a distinctive pronunciation of words ending orthographically in <–ook>. For these speakers, luck is pronounced with the same vowel as duck, but look might well sound the same as Luke.
Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for examples of a northern vowel: Wearhead, Welwick, Read, Kniveton, Hilton, Warmington, Stannington, Byker, Leeds, Withernsea, Burnley, Birkenhead, Nottingham, Danesford and Banbury.
Definite article reduction
uhm, it crossed my mind for the police service, uh, pris, uh to go in the police force
Listen to the way this speaker pronounces the in his opening statement: it crossed my mind for the police service. Definite article reduction – an abbreviated form of the word ‘the’ – is a distinctive feature of speech throughout Yorkshire and some neighbouring counties. This is often inaccurately represented by mimics who imply people here say t’police or simply omit the definite article altogether. In fact, it’s an extremely complex phonetic process, perhaps best understood as the combination of an unreleased and therefore inaudible <t> sound, produced simultaneously with a glottal stop (although even this is something of an over-simplification). It is important to recognise in some cases speakers produce a more fully articulated the: as in the second part of this extract to go in the police force. This illustrates perfectly how an individual speaker can fluctuate between markedly local features of speech and more mainstream norms.
Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for examples of definite article reduction: Wearhead, Read, Kniveton, Burnley and Leeds.
there, therewere lots of other things, because you could take, there were some, a lot more sports, you could play sport and, eh, there were a lot of other folk that had different ideas other than farming
There are a number of aspects of this speaker’s accent that immediately identify him as Scottish. Above all he is a rhotic speaker – that is he pronounces the <r> sound after a vowel, at one time a feature of speech throughout the UK. Listen carefully to the way he pronounces the words there, were, other, more, sport and farming: in each case we can clearly hear the presence of an <r> sound. In England this pronunciation is increasingly restricted to the West Country and the far South West and a small area of Lancashire to the north of Manchester, but it remains a feature of most Scottish and Irish accents, although the way in which the <r> sound is articulated varies from area to area. Speakers in some rhotic areas of the UK might make a three-way distinction between words such as paw, pour and poor, while non-rhotic speakers might pronounce all three the same.
Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for examples of rhoticity: Welwick, Read, Hilton, Portesham, Peter Tavy, East Harting, Gloucester, Melksham, Plymouth, Milland, Lerwick, Stonehaven, Morningside, Glasgow, Kilmarnock, New Cumnock, Dalmellington, Selkirk, Ballymoney, Belfast, Lissummon and Bleanish Island.
the next one up to me was eight years older than me and then there's ten, then there's sixteen year and all, so all the time as a, as a child I, I, effectively grew up as a single child
An instantly recognisable feature of London speech is L-vocalisation – a process whereby speakers pronounce the <l> at the end of a syllable using a sound more like a vowel or a <w> sound. Listen carefully to the way this speaker pronounces the words older, all, child and single. This feature only applies to a syllable final <l>, but it can be heard across the whole of southern England, extending into the East Midlands and East Anglia. It is also a feature of speech in a number of Scottish accents, notably around Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for examples of L-vocalisation: Hackney (traditional), East Harting, Nottingham, Hackney (contemporary), Canterbury and Milland.
- Jonnie Robinson
- Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.
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