Academic confirms that the North East speaks ‘properly’

You have probably never taken issue with Daniel Jones, who became head of phonetics at University College London in 1912. But you might do.

Sunday, 26th January 2020, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 4:37 pm

He isn’t the perhaps the most obvious target for a 2020 polemic, but Professor Jones still manages to antagonise.

He was the gentleman who more-or-less decided that accents, such as the faultless ones used by natives of the North East and elsewhere, were somehow “wrong”.

He backed the idea of Received Pronunciation (RP), which essentially means speaking like Stephen Fry.

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Comedian Bobby Thompson with fans in 1981. Academic studies show that he was speaking correctly all along.

Professor Jones was purportedly the inspiration for the character of Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

His popularity in the provinces, such as it was, waned further when he defined RP as “the speech of the families of Southern English people who have been educated at the public schools”.

His perceived “because I say so” approach continues to rankle.

“Standard” English: the North East speaks it very well.

Dr Michael Pearce, senior lecturer in English language at the University of Sunderland.

RP is not concerned with the slang so beloved of the North East and elsewhere. It deals with the way we pronounce everyday words used throughout the English speaking world.

For many, the main riposte to the controversial view, that some people say certain words “incorrectly”, has been to rhetorically ask: “Says who?”

However, there is a more forceful and study-based academic argument against Daniel Jones on the matter.

Dr Michael Pearce, senior lecturer in English language at the University of Sunderland, has plenty to say on the subject.

He told us: “One of the things that some people, thankfully, perhaps fewer people now than in the past, wrongly think about English accents and dialects is that they somehow represent an inferior form of the language; that ‘Standard English’ (often with a southern pronunciation) is ‘proper’ English, and that speakers with marked regional accents and dialects are simply failing to get English ‘right’.

“This, of course, is wrong on many levels.”

The ‘rules' of Standard English were made up as they went along.

It seems that there is no genuine arbiter of how we should speak. There is no more reason to decide that the accent for Standard English should be that of the southern counties, any more than it should be Mackem, Geordie or Hartlepool.

Dr Pearce continued: “What we know as Standard English, the kind of English we see used in newspapers like this across the English-speaking world, is a relatively late development in the 1,500-year history of the language.

“For about 1,000 years there was no standard; in the Middle English period, the age of Chaucer, texts were written down in the local dialect of the place they were produced in.”

Long nights and lang neets.

But what about what Dr Pearce calls North East English (thereby wisely sidestepping some age-old squabbling)?

He said: “One of the most distinctive characteristics of the English spoken here is how certain pronunciations differ from pronunciations in other parts of England.

“As someone with a professional interest in the history of English, what really gets me going is the fact that so many of the features of North East accents have such a long historical pedigree. Here are a few examples.

“Do you, or anyone you know, pronounce words like long, strong and wrong with an ‘a’ sound rather than an ‘o’ sound?

“During the early Old English period, around 1,500 years ago, all speakers of English, who were originally migrants from what we now know as northern Germany and Denmark, would have said ‘lang’ rather than ‘long’.

Dr Pearce says: “All adjectives which in modern English are spelled with -ong would have been pronounced with ‘a’ rather than ‘o’.”

“And what about words like night and right? Do you sometimes pronounce night and right as ‘neet’ and ‘reet’? People who do are also preserving an earlier pronunciation.”

Wearside, Tyneside, Hartlepool and H-dropping.

Dr Pearce makes similarly robust defences for ‘dee’ (do), ‘diz’ (does) and even H-dropping. H-onest.

He added: “H-dropping is also an interesting accent feature to consider in North East England. This is a more recent development in the accents of the North East.

“Some people reckon that Sunderland people drop their aitches in words like ‘hat’ and ‘hotel’, but that Newcastle people don’t. There might be some truth in this.

“Research has shown, for example from the Survey of English Dialects, carried out in the 1950s and 60s, that County Durham was an area where ‘h’ was variably dropped, although it was retained in Northumberland and Tyneside.

“More recent research I did suggests that ‘h-dropping’ is associated with south-west County Durham and a narrow coastal strip extending as far north as Sunderland. Is it ‘Hartlepool’ or ‘Artlepool’?”

Conclusion.

It seems the North East accent was never wrong at all, or even wrang. It was reet, even if we ‘ardly knew it.