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British Language Is Only Getting Posher

In the not-too-distant future, all Brits may sound like Benedict Cumberbatch.
December 4, 2013, 5:30pm
Will all Brits sound like Benedict Cumberbatch one day? Image via Flickr/honeyfitz

Contrary to popular opinion, not all Brits speak like a Jane Austen character or sound like the sort of person who swans about Downton Abbey. We may live on a relatively small island, but our regional differences in lexicon, phonology, and syntax are really quite remarkable.

A Londoner might have a roll for dinner, for instance, while a Mancunian might have a barm, a bun, or a muffin for tea. But they’d both be eating the same thing (a small, round hunk of bread) at the same time (evening).

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In a survey of how British English speakers talk, linguists from the University of Manchester looked at the different words and pronunciations used by people across the country, and compiled the results into a series of interactive maps you can explore here.

It’s quite striking how compartmentalised some of the language trends are. To look at lexical trends (which words people use), the 1400 speakers who took part in the survey were asked how they’d describe items shown in photographs. Presented with a pair of Vans shoes, for instance, the majority—91 percent—called them “plimsolls,” but there were obvious geographic pockets where “pumps” and “daps” (no, I hadn’t heard of it either) were preferred.

The most notable trend is a general difference between northerners and southerners. That won’t surprise anyone who’s spent time in Britain, where the “North-South divide” is regularly alluded to in reference to everything from culture to economics and politics and, of course, class. The latter is pertinent to a discussion of linguistic differences: southern pronunciation is broadly considered “posh” and northern, well, not. All your favourite stereotypically British actors—Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch—have decidedly southern accents.

To take one example, the survey looked at whether the way respondents pronounced “strut” rhymed with “foot.” They found 81 percent of northerners rhymed them, while only nine percent of southerners did. (On a side-note, this example also shows how ingrained our own styles of speaking are. I come from vaguely northern British roots, and can’t for the life of me imagine how one could say “strut” and “foot” without rhyming them.)

But the survey also suggests that this North-South divide is starting to close a bit, at least on that particular pronunciation front. Phys.org quoted linguist Laurel MacKenzie as saying that the northern way of rhyming the words “cut” and “put” is in fact how they were pronounced centuries ago. “Speakers in the South of England moved away from this pronunciation in the 1500s, but their way of saying these words didn't make it to the North,” she said. “However, we've compared our maps to those put together a few decades ago, and it looks like the Southern pronunciation is slowly creeping northward.”

It looks like Brits across the country might only sound more posh as time goes on.