By Sam Wong
What do you call your grandmother? Do the words but and put rhyme? Would you eat a bread roll, a bap, a bun or a cob?
If you grew up in the UK or Ireland, an online quiz by The New York Times will try to pinpoint where by collecting your answers to 25 questions like these. For a small sample of New Scientist journalists, the quiz proved shockingly accurate.
“There are a lot of distinct dialects in the UK for a small land mass,” says Laurel MacKenzie, a linguist at New York University.
Dialects develop when groups are isolated from one another, which has been the case for most of the thousands of years in which people have lived in the UK and Ireland. Although it is now very easy to travel, dialects stick around because they are a matter of local pride and identity.
Barm and mither
“People hold on to their traditional ways of speaking because that’s who they are,” says MacKenzie. Her favourite dialect words are “barm” – a bread roll in Manchester – and “mither”, which means bother in north-west England.
These differences aren’t just reflected in society. By studying how people speak using ultrasound, researchers have learned that people move their tongues in different ways, even when they are making the same sound. “There’s so much variation in language and so much of it is under the surface,” says MacKenzie.
One important factor that isn’t taken into account by the New York Times quiz is class. Regardless of where you are, people higher on the social class ladder tend to sound the same, but lower down the ladder, you hear a lot more regional variation. That’s also true of other countries.
MacKenzie directed a UK dialect map project at the University of Manchester. One question that the researchers wanted to investigate was where the north ends and the south begins. The answer depends on which dialect feature you look at. One line across the country would separate people who pronounce “foot” and “strut” as rhyming. If you ask people whether “farce” and “class” rhyme, you get a different line.
When the team compared their results to an earlier study, they found that the boundary had moved further north than it used to be. In other words, southern pronunciation is becoming more prevalent in the Midlands.
“Dialects are always changing. Some traditional forms are lost and others come in. That’s why doing this work every 10 or 20 years is so important,” she says.
Although we are exposed to a wide range of accents through the media, research suggests people only change the way they speak when they interact face-to-face with people from other dialect groups. That seems to be happening in some places, as commuting patterns change and people travel longer distances.
It’s hard to predict how language will evolve in the future, but the best indication is to look at young people – particularly young women, who seem to lead the way in linguistic innovation, for reasons we don’t understand. “If we want to know how language is going to change, we should listen to how young women are speaking now,” says MacKenzie.
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