Map that shows Northerners have the last laff

Adam   Tue Mar 27, 2007 5:21 pm GMT
Map that shows Northerners have the last laff

By Ben Fenton

The map -

The grarse spreading out from its London roots is gradually stifling the graaas, but one of Britain's leading accent experts said yesterday that a larf will never drown out a laff.

Students of the voices that make up a patchwork quilt of spoken English across the country have drawn up a map of the way in which the long "a" of received pronunciation has followed the exodus of Londoners into the rest of southern England.

But a sort of linguistic Hahdrian's Wall just south of Birmingham is keeping the long grass out of northern England and the rest of Britain.

Not so long ago people in counties such as Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire would pronounce "grass", "bath" and "after" as if they were spelled with a double "a".

Today, younger generations will say those words as the Queen does, or indeed as they do in the Queen Vic on EastEnders, as if the "a" was lengthened with an "h".

The old, extended "aa" is restricted to southern England west of a line from Cheltenham through Bristol and Bath to the south coast and in a redoubt around Norfolk.

But the curt northern "bath", "staff" and "laff", sorry "laugh", has stood resolute against southern invasion. A line drawn from the Severn, just south of Birmingham and up to the Wash delineates larf from laff and it looks like it always will.

It is of course the Northerners who are the honest, basic types and the Southerners merely victims of fashion.

"Originally, we all said 'laff', but about 250-300 years ago the pronunciation 'laaff' was taken up in London and slowly began to spread out over southern England," said Jonnie Robinson, curator of English Dialects and Accents at the British Library.

The library is opening an internet website called Sounds Familiar tomorrow that will allow visitors to hear the enormous variety of accents across Britain and use interactive maps to trace their spread.

One of those maps follows the evolving "a". "No sooner had the "laaff" sound become dominant in the South than, about 150 years ago, people in London began to say "larf" and that, too, is in the process of spreading out, following Londoners as they move," Mr Robinson added.

The library wants people of all ages, but particularly schoolchildren and students, to contribute to the website, allowing a detailed record of accent and dialect development to be built up.

It is hoped to compile a "sound map" of the country.

The accents recorded on the website include voices taped 50 and more years ago, which Mr Robinson said were bound to excite feelings of nostalgia.

He said British society was now so fluid, especially in the South, that accents were becoming less distinctive.

"There is no doubt that what people tap into is the localness of this and when they hear older people speaking, it really reminds them of home," he said.

Huddersfield, for instance, is becoming more like Leeds, while towns nearer Hull that once had their own sound were becoming absorbed into the Humberside accent.

"Really large towns stand firm, but the rest can lose their distinctiveness. And in the South, accents in places such as Reading and Oxford have become more like London."

There are power accent bastions, with Liverpool being the most obvious.

A combination of Irish and Welsh immigrants in the second half of the 19th century gave the city its distinctive voice, but association with what was then not a very healthy or law-abiding urban centre did not appeal to folk within easy reach.
Adam   Tue Mar 27, 2007 5:35 pm GMT
Rick Johnson   Tue Mar 27, 2007 7:37 pm GMT
An interesting map and article. It's pretty much exactly the same as a map I drew a while back of the 3 splits, and what I've been arguing on here for a while now.
Andy   Tue Mar 27, 2007 10:17 pm GMT
Your avin a larf aincha?
Liz   Tue Mar 27, 2007 10:34 pm GMT
No, they aint avin no larf, mate. They are avin a laff. They aint from the Sarf.
Liz   Tue Mar 27, 2007 10:44 pm GMT
Andey I ope you doan spake loik thet in Oxford...thet would bay well serious!!! A Hugh Grant toip ov eccent? No, I doan belave ya. :-)
Northern Englander   Tue Mar 27, 2007 11:28 pm GMT
"laff" is correct. "larf" is substandard. There's no "r" in the word "laugh", hence it shouldn't be pronounced "larf".
Mxsmanic   Wed Mar 28, 2007 1:02 am GMT
Did someone say "substandard"?
Lazar   Wed Mar 28, 2007 2:23 am GMT
<<It's pretty much exactly the same as a map I drew a while back of the 3 splits, and what I've been arguing on here for a while now.>>

I found that map hard to understand. I thought there were just two basic pronunciations of "bath" in England: [{]/[a], and [A:]. What do they mean when they talk about a tripartite distinction between <bath with 'a'>, <bath with 'aa'>, and <bath with 'ah'>? As an amateur linguist, I wish they could just use IPA instead of this ad hoc faux-netic mess.

So when they talk about this tripartite distinction, do they mean

[a] versus
[{] versus

or do they mean

[a]/[{] versus
[{:] versus

or what?
Guest   Wed Mar 28, 2007 3:06 am GMT
>>What do they mean when they talk about a tripartite distinction between <bath with 'a'>, <bath with 'aa'>, and <bath with 'ah'>? <<

I'd pretty sure it's the following:

'a' means [{] (N. England)
'aa' means [a:] (S. England)
'ah' means [A:] (London)
Damian in Alba   Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:20 am GMT
In England those three versions of the vowel sound in a word like "bath" are quite clearly defined. The London/Home Counties/Southern Central and South Eastern version is a definite "barth" (the r is not sounded, of course). Long, rounded and drawn out. Hugh Grant is a perfect example. Quite a larf really.

The South Western/West Midlands/East Angian version is a broader, longer more drawn out vowel sound - "baaath" - similar to the "baa" sound associatd with the cry of a sheep or a lamb. :-)

The Northen England version is different altogether - it's short, sharp and as flat as a pancake, characteristic of the stereotypical image of Northern England: "bath" - the "laff" description is the closest you can get to it.
Damian in Alba   Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:22 am GMT
***Did someone say "substandard"?***

Not than I can recall, no. Why?
JHJ   Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:48 am GMT
<I'd pretty sure it's the following:

'a' means [{] (N. England)
'aa' means [a:] (S. England)
'ah' means [A:] (London) >

Yes, except that the N. England sound is [a], not [{].

On the actual website it makes it clear that "aa" is a lengthened version of "a", while "ah" is further back in the mouth.
Guest   Wed Mar 28, 2007 12:13 pm GMT
??? But following that link you provided, where you click " bath with 'a' " to show the areas on the map with that pronunciation, you can hear [{] by clicking the samples: castles, past, shaft, bathrooms...
Guest   Wed Mar 28, 2007 12:22 pm GMT
So clicking the little man icons...

The grey areas were 'a' [{]
The green areas were 'aa' [a:]
The pink areas were 'ah' [A:]