Northerners speak true English: are you having a laff?

Posted by Laura
Who put the R in bath? Surely this is a trick question, you may think, there is no R in bath. But if you search hard enough in certain parts of Britain the rogue consonant is there – squatting erroneously between the A and the T.

So which linguistic criminals are to blame? The Americans? Nope. They may have been guilty of savagely stealing the U from honour, colour and glamour, and ruthlessly usurping poor S from its position among realise, organise and their lexical brethren so they could replace it with the rather radical Z, but we can’t pin this one on the English-speakers across the pond. If we want to uncover who really put the R in bath we need look no further than England’s great capital.

London, home of the Queen and the apparently “proper” English speakers, is actually to blame for the mutated pronunciation. According to an expert at the British Library, the Telegraph reports today, the R sound in words such as laugh and bath only came about 150 years ago when Londoners adopted the trend into their speech. Apparently, the entire nation used the bath and "laff" pronunciations about 250 to 300 years ago – a tradition which is still alive and kicking in northern England. The south gradually adopted an “aa” sound which, over time, became the familiar “barth” of the ubiquitous London and Home Counties drawl of today.

So this in effect suggests it is northerners – often ridiculed for their flat-sounding vowels, overlooked as newsreaders for not speaking in a way the general population (well, the population south of Watford) can understand, and stereotyped as being poorer and somehow intellectually inferior because their paths, laughs and baths lack the pedigree of the mysterious invisible R – are actually speaking in what is historically the nation’s true voice.

As a northerner in London I have to say the phonetic grass (not grarse) definitely gets greener as you head up the M1. London may have slowly eroded the northerly twang from some of my words; I now drink Coke, not Cerk, and think ice is cold, not curled, but you will never find an R in my bath. And the British Library research shows this phonetic northern identity shall remain. This week it launches a website dedicated to accents and dialects – Familiar Voices – charting the evolution of the “a” sound across Britain. It has found the “ar” is spreading among the accents of southern England as Londoners move out of the capital, but it is highly unlikely to venture much beyond that due to a near-impenetrable dialect boundary which runs from Birmingham to The Wash.

The changes are attributed to more fluid movements of people within Britain. And, whereas historically southerners were slightly more fickle in their dialect trends, those in the north have been steadfastly loyal to their A sounds.

Will this mean elocution pedants will re-evaluate their curriculum to incorporate the traditional, phonetic sounds spoken by northerners? Will the BBC replace its plummy-voiced breakfast presenters with down-to-earth tones of Yorkshire, Geordie or Scouse accents? And will this finally bring an end to the barth or bath debate once and for all? I suspect northerners will defend their accents as vociferously as they always have done – and southerners will still insist they are speaking “the Queen’s English”. But with more than 300 years of history behind an R-free bath, only one question remains: “Who’s larfing now?”

What do you think? Do northerners or southerners win the pronunciation battle?


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42 Responses to Northerners speak true English: are you having a laff?

  1. Christopher says:

    "And, whereas historically southerners were slightly more fickle in their dialect trends, those in the north have been steadfastly loyal to their A sounds."

    Are you talking about accents or dialects? Make your mind up.

  2. Steve says:

    Why is this discussion being used to segregate England? There are great accents from all over the UK! I love the diversity and I love trying to guess where people are from!
    So what if Birmingham gets a hard time, take pride in your roots and your accents. It was people trying to mimic the richer classes that cause these problems.
    Look at the Spanish, a nation full of \’lisp\’ers becuse they tried to copy the royal court!
    We should be blaming the French anyway, the Normans did more damage to our language than anyone else!

  3. Bri says:

    I disagree I feel that English  language has been  distorted in England  ,  how many  times I have ask friends how in the hell do you get that pronunciation , 
    The English do pronounce  their words but in some places again they corrupt the proper annunciation this creating there own form of the English Language ,  if you  hear how some kids speak in Nottingham you  wonder if  the education system is working in the UK .

  4. Adam says:

    I think you\’ll find even people as far south as Plymouth & even Bodmin say "bath" & "path"! Its not to do with geographical location its to do with the class system in Britain. I was forced to have elecution lessons when i was younger and consequently was taught to pronounce "baRth", "paRth" and even "grarss". Since leaving school though and travelling fairly extensively around the south and most of Wales I have found many people to understand grAss, pAth & bAth alot better than the previously stated. It is not a "Northern thing" but a social issue to do with class & income.

  5. Unknown says:

    Interesting that you decided to put an \’r\’ in your pronunication of \’cold\’ Laura- linguistic insecurty? Why have you been \’steadfastly loyal\’ to your pronunciation of \’bath\’ but not of \’cold and \’coke\’?Anyway, you\’ve missed a fairly major point for a blog about the pronunciation of \’bath\’; that the residents of Bath, Avon, pronounce it with no \’r\’ at all. There is more than one \’southern\’ accent, some just as maligned as assorted northern accents.

  6. Kay says:

    Brilliant!! I\’m sending this round to everyone at work who constantly make fun of my accent!

  7. Abigail says:

    I don\’t think that you can box someone as speaking correctly or incorrectly (although I do sometimes tease my Hullensian boyfriend about his accent). Most people speak in the matter in which they are brought up, and that is the right way for them to speak. Even if northerners do speak the so-called original English, since our language is derived from so many other language, including Latin and Spanish, surely there cannot be any "correct" way of speaking it.
    I also agree with the comments on Americanisms. Why are we worried about whether Northerners or Southerners speak proper English, when so many people are not even speaking English!
    Also, with regard to the comment by magicalbeanbag, tide and tied rhyme because, in they way that i speak, they do sound exactly the same. Good and food don\’t rhyme just because they are spelt the same. I would say food putting more stress on the \’oo\’, in the same way that cough and tough do not rhyme. And, Lyn, you are being very selective by saying all Londoners say \’barf\’. I have lived in London all my life and neither I, nor any of my friends, have ever said \’barf\’ (although there are some that do say this).

  8. katie says:

     Im a northern born woman and proud of it, no ! R ! in my bath unless his name bgeins with it…so u can keep your barth i shall carrying on saying bath, even though i live in the south i hate the accent here ,so no more putting the northeners down  try listening to the Essex accent if  ypu need to change something change  that…it needs improving…

  9. Unknown says:

    \’Cerk\’ and \’Curled\’? You\’re not from Hull by any chance are you?

  10. meena says:

    Although not strictly on the topic but somewhat related, my husband often tells me im posh- purely for the fact that i pronounce all my "t\’s" and ennuanciate my words properly!

  11. Unknown says:

    As a Scot I was always led to believe the purest form of English was spoken in Inverness!  A previous contributor mentioned the Southern pronunciation of drawing as drawRing – certainly one of the most annoying.  No one has yet mentioned another which grates – PROPLY when meaning PROPERLY.
    Very interesting topic – enjoying the read.

  12. Alan says:

    Born in the midlands and studied in Hull and Manchester, now working in the city.  Felt like an alien for so long.  Get called a snobby southerner when i\’m home and seen as a thick northerner down here
    Laura, you are my dream woman.  Northerners win!

  13. Homepage says:

    Laura writes back: a Hull accent well recognised, no name (11.34)!

  14. Alexandra says:

    Born in Portsmouth, grew up in Chester, 4 years studying at University of Southampton – suffered sooooo many comments about my \’Northern\’ accent!!!!  ha ha, this is fab, have now emailed all my old uni mates to tell them to read this!! Made my day!

  15. chocolatey says:

    So what about the "R" in "father"? Don\’t they pronounce that in the north?
    "Northerner\’s definatly rule, they in my eye\’s say all the correct word and pronunciation." – Not that one, sadly!
    Literacy is more important than dialect.

  16. Rasiha says:

    Laura- what a fab piece to write!
    I am a Londoner born and bred and have lived over in Suffolk and now in the Black Country where "ar" is used instead of yes and a "buzz" is something you catch to go into town not the sound a bee makes… the local dialect across the Uk is great because you don\’t get the same thing twice! Now known as a cockney Yam Yam – I get called a brummie when in London and a cockney southerner when in the Midlands. Perhaps I should have just practiced picking up my foreign father\’s accent which has not changed after over 30 years of being in the UK! NIce one : o ) I would say look to the centre of England for inspiration- or perhaps the Normans!

  17. Graham says:

    Fascinating – I hate the commonization (sorry I forgot to check my thesaurus to see if that was yet another made-up Americanism?) and standardised English Language that is forced upon us by modern technology. We enjoy a wonderful language which must be confusing, especially if you cough as you bow under the bough of a tree to tie a bow in your shoelaces.
    I grew up in Berkshire – and after moving to Dorset when I was six I was often treated as a Posh Berk – I chose to conform so as not to be bullied, and as I enter middle age I am often complimented on clear speech. Why was it that when the English Language was standardised during Saxon times that Old English Words were altered?  A butterfly used to be called a flutterby – much nicer!
    We don\’t use accents on our words like they do in Spanish or Portuguese – perhaps we should?  (I was very embarrassed once when I asked someone how many "bottoms" they had instead of how old they were!)
    English is a growing moving language – enjoy it.  A few years ago I gave the Lonely Planet British English Phrase Book to a friend who had been taught American English – it is a superb reference for the differences in the two langages, and also includes a section on local dialects too.
    I look forward to seeing this topic grow!  Anyone for a scone?  (It\’s not a scone (think "phone") til its scone! (think "gone!")

  18. mags says:

    In parts of the yorkshire there is indeed no R in father, they say it as it is lad, theres also no R in water either!   🙂 

  19. Jennifer says:

    Abby, tide and tied are entirely different words, spelled entirely differently. Why on earth should they not be distinct from each other? You could say it\’s all about context, and how people say something which will make you use your common sense, but they just aren\’t the same word!!!! That\’s my point. It\’s not a very good one… But they just aren\’t the same thing, so why use the same pronunciation?

  20. Martin says:

    I always understood that the differences between Northern England and Southern English went back to the Danelaw.  Northern English being equally valid but with slightly different origins.  Southerners tend to write off many Northern expressions like the shortening of "them" to " \’em " but it just has different etymology to the way the word is used in the South.Drama is a Greek word originally (OED) and though first recorded in 1515 but would not have been in common use until relatively recently.MB

  21. Andy says:

    Hah, southerners; they live too close to France.

  22. Geoff says:

    Whereabouts in the Telegraph did you find this? Trying to show all my London colleagues that it is actually me speaking properly rather than them!

  23. Unknown says:

    I\’m a 22 yr-old Northerner, proud to be so, and love my accent.  I\’ve known for a few years that Northerners speak true\’, proper English, not Southerners.  To me, a Northern accent is nicer to listen to than most Southern accents, because they\’re pretty annoying.  The fact that most of the "influencial" media / tv is based in London, doesn\’t help our country at all.  They\’ve always had a Southern bias, no matter what.  It\’s refreshing to hear this story, that\’s why i say it.  Not just language, but Northern culture, history, etc… is always being constantly ignored, in favour of the South.  Guess it\’s a combination of extreme ignorance, rudeness,
    arrogance, inferiority, etc…  (Northerners know what i mean)
    The media / tv always show the negative sides to the North, but rarely show the many positives – yet they always make sure we\’re aware of how amazing Devon, Cornwall, etc… are, and all the other amazing things the South has.  Pathetic!!! 

  24. Bruv says:

    You lot aving a larf , , , is there an R in monkey oopss sorry  i mean munkie … south london la la la south london la la la …..

  25. alan says:

     I\’ve always thought this larf in the barth business was a poncey southern affectation, now I\’m vindicated. The stupidity of it is that it\’s totally inconsistent : they don\’t say marn or plarn so why contarminate their speech with all these unnecessary Rs? And while I\’m on the subject, can we have an end to Afganistarn (why not ARfgaRnistaRn ?) and similar corruptions of foreign names. At one point the BBC anouncers were pronouncing Chechnya (correct pronunciation Chechnyuh) as Chechnneeyaar ! I arsk You!

  26. steven says:

    I\’m Blackpool born and bred, and proud. I feel people in the town don\’t have much of an accent in comparison to local Lancashire towns such as Preston, Blackburn or Bolton. With it being cosmopolitan and having such a varied background of people who decide to decent upon the town our accent isn\’t very broad. Although when i\’ve met folk from \’south of the border\’ they say it is quite strong. Yorkshire folk are quite right in pronouncing \’father\’ and \’water\’ instead of \’farther\’ and \’warter\’. The essex accent is far from proper English with the likes of Jade Goody saying \’sumfink\’, where the hell does the k come from?
    Northerners rule!

  27. Princess Frankie says:

    hi i\’m from London or course!! and we are awesome who ever wrote this i\’m shocked!! when ever i go up to my mates in Leicester i wanna scream at how shitty they sounds i\’m sorry i don\’t mean to offend but you sound like a butch if whining cats!! everyone should speak like meeeee!!! like a true Londener

  28. mags says:

    Its a shame that what started out as a nice polite friendly debate has to descend into mud slinging and nasty coments about another persons accent, apart from anything else our accents are part of us, we do not chose them, they arise from the surroundings in which we grow up, i happen to hate my accent but theres little i can realistically do about it.

  29. Bruv says:

    well done frankie ,, cant let em ave all there own way chatting crap,,.. and jade goody comes from bermondsey not essex take the time to get ya facts rite.. ive lived up north, most not all but most of ya are arrogant and small minded , you hate anything different,its a big wide world out there so get out ya boxes….. theres more to life than drinking for the sake of getting drunk and pumping iron thats all you seem to do..

  30. Amy says:

    Right, Big Bro…. Don\’t get all shirty. I am a northerner… Drinking for the sake of getting drunk is fun! Leave us alone on that one! As for pumping iron, I know noone that does that. It\’s just a really bad stereotype.
    I am originally from Sussex, though I moved to the Sheffield area when I was 18months old, so I haven\’t got any southern speech left in me, and it\’s often commented on how broad my northern accent is, with all my \’Ahd like a bus ticket t\’taaahn please\’ and \’Me fattha\’s cat popped it\’s clogs\’, and what have ya. My dad, however, still lives down south and has the broadest cockney accent you can imagine.
    On a number of occasions I have mocked him for his \’barth\’ and \’grarss\’ but I don\’t mean anything by it. Ican\’t understand you people getting so het up (sorry, that\’s notheren again… I mean \’heated up\’) about it. Mind you, I study linguistics at university, so I suppose I have to be on the fence here. BUT… The way some of you are going on, it\’s as though you want the whole world to speak in your accent. Noone goes to Ethiopia and has a go at the people for their clicking language, do they!?
    Right, we\’re all different… \’nuff said.

  31. Amy says:

    And also… in my defence… Telling us to \’get out of our boxes\’ is a stupid comment to make. I spread my time between Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, London and Sussex… as well as the odd times that I go abroad. You make it sound like we\’re inbreds. Also; who cares where Jade Goody is from? She probably doesn\’t even know where she\’s from.

  32. steph says:

    well said. reading this has made my day. me and my boyfriend are from the north, outside of manchester, but he studies in london, so i visit him every other week. it annoys me soooooooo much, the traffic down there is the worst!! what about peter kay . . . he\’s a northener, and i love his accent!
    southerners think they are better because its proven that they have better jobs and earn more money . . . . yeah, you know why?! because all the big companies are bloody situated in london, now, im not going to travel from manchester every day to work in london am i?!! duh!! yes, they earn more money, the jobs are better paid . . . but everything is dearer! its stupid! so really it all works out the same does it not?
    i definetly say laugh and grass without the R! its really not needed!

  33. steph says:

    Princess Frankie – grow up luv!! you are pathetic.

  34. fiona says:

    It doesn\’t matter where you come from, each dialect is part of who the individual is. To say that one dialect or accent is \’better\’ than the other is an insult to each persons history, culture and individuality. When people from other countries speak \’English\’ they have an accent which is different from \’standard English\’. We do not all speak RP (Received Pronunciation) Thank God!!!

  35. Steve says:

    Is it me or is it mostly Northerners that bring this up and not Southerners?  A case of “He doth protest too much” by any chance?  But seriously, this argument is just plain flawed because none of us pronounce every word in the English dictionary as is written; we’d sound pretty daft (pronounced ‘darft’)  if we did!
    I have a Brummie manager at work and he has this debate with all us southerners.  He had it with me and the next day I heard him refer to a shopping centre as a “more-ll”  (mall), so I questioned him as to why he didn’t use the correct English pronunciation (it’s phonetic) as that would be more in tune with his argument on “bath”.  He brushed it away by saying he was talking in Americanisms or something as equally dumb.
    And this is the first major flaw in the argument from our Northern chums.  All other four letter “_all’ words are contrary to mall’s British pronunciation in that they are spoken with an “or” sound. Call, ball, tall, fall, hall & wall aren’t pronounced phonetically up North (or South).  An invisible o and r are added, so what’s so crazy about doing the same kind of thing to bath, path and daft?
    The second major gaff is one of hypocrisy, which ironically is what they accuse Southerners of committing with words like the aforementioned ‘gaff’.  When the ‘invisible R’ argument is made, it implies that there should never be one after an “a” in any word. How do Northerners pronounce “Panama”?  I’m presuming with an invisible ‘R’ on the end.  I’ll await the “yeah but you don’t say Parn-arm-ar” rebuttal.  And there are other words where even those from the North add an ”R” sound after an “A”.  Bra, cinema (except Brummies), palm and balm are just a few examples and our pals from “above Watford”  tend to refer to mum and dad with silent Rs in “Ma” and “Pa”.
    Thirdly, “laugh” is a bad example because of the “u”.  When two vowels are together it can change the sound of the first.  Caught, because, Australia are just a few examples.  Really, you should be arguing that ‘laugh’ should be pronounced “lorf”.
    The Americans could have the opposite argument with the whole of Britain as they have a rhotic accent which means they always pronounce their R’s.  We tend to leave them off the end and turn the e into an “a” when we say things like September, broker and mirror.
    It’s weird how such a small part of our language causes so much debate, but one thing is for sure; you can’t argue that someone is incorrectly adding missing letters unless you speak 100% phonetically yourself.  It would be like Howard Marks calling Pete Doherty a junkie.
    From now on I’m going to stop calling it a “nife” and eat my dinner with my “kinifee” and fork, I’ll stop using the “fone” and start using the “pahone” and then I’ll be on a higher horse than you.

  36. Bingo says:

    What a load of old tripe !

  37. Norah says:

    I read  once that Wilfred Pickles, Yorkshire radio personality, catch phrases, "Are yer courtin\’ " and "Give-\’im the money Mabel," was employed by the BBC to read the News in order to confuse German eavesdroppers during WW2.  Mabel was listening to his first news broadcast in a London hotel and became enraged when London types expressed incredulity at his accent. She didn\’t give them the money; she gave them what for. I can\’t remember the name of his regular radio show, but it was very popular, but then so was ITMA (It\’s That Man Again) starring Tommy Handley and characters such as Colonel Chinstrap and Mona Lott.  Every show the same catch phrases were aired as the climax of every joke.  Seems we laughed at familiar things rather than witty new ideas.  Maybe it was something to do with clinging to the familiar in a very uncertain world.

  38. matthew says:

    iam northern and proud, but many of my fellow northerners seem to get very worked up when they hear anything to do with the north south divide and start mouthing off about arrogant, ignorant southerners, just get over it, yes people are paid more in the south thats because london is one of the largest financial centres in the world so naturally there will be lots of money there, yes the media does tend to ridicule or ignore the north of England but you have to understand the south is both larger and more populous than the north so its understandable that the media won\’t be full of things only northerners would understand if the rest of the population wouldn\’t get it. if you really can\’t take these facts then console yourself in the fact that the north has more varied colloquialisms and more varied geography in a smaller space and campaign for more local media and cultural things etc

  39. Crystal says:

    LOL.. must admit I do agree somewhat with the comment on the different "personalities" you  speak on the callcentre lines.. I work in a small but very friendly one in bedfordshire( usual, orderlines- virtuals and o/hours relays) and I must admit the friendliest do appear to be north of the border lmao…. some southerns do think it is beneath them to "speak" to a call centre, which I find a shame as we are just ordinary people trying to do a job to live. some I feel, should remember their roots perhaps and take the plum outta their mouths… lol lol.. light and love..

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