A new study has shown that Britain’s youth are turning to regional accents and dialects to proclaim their identity.
The march of estuary English was once thought irresistible. Now, however, Britain is being rescued from bland linguistic homogeneity by resurgent regional accents and new urban dialects fashioned from the ways immigrants speak English.
Cities including Birmingham, Bradford and London are the homes of the new urban dialects, while the fastest spreading regional accents are to be found in the northeast and West Midlands.
The development has confounded fears that England may one day be left with little but generic northern and southern accents.
In a new study, Paul Kerswill, professor of sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, has found that the language called Multicultural London English — nicknamed “Jafaican” — may owe its roots to immigrants, but is now spoken across many ethnic groups.
After studying the speech of 200 young people in east London and Essex, Kerswill found it was strong in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, which were once home to cockney. This traditional accent has now all but disappeared from the East End, moving instead out to Essex and providing the base for the “estuary English” speech derided as mockney.
A similar process may be under way in the West Midlands, where the Brummie accent is spreading west into Wales. In its Birmingham heartland, a new, immigrant accent and dialect is developing alongside the old.
The resurgence of accents is being driven partly by the popularity of celebrities such as Cheryl Cole speaking in regional accents. She was dropped from the American version of the television show The X Factor two weeks ago, reportedly because US viewers would struggle to understand her Geordie accent, acquired while growing up on the Walker and Heaton council estates.
Television presenting is increasingly populated by regional accents — from the Brummie tones of Adrian Chiles and Cat Deeley to the northeastern banter of Ant and Dec. Geordie is now one of the most rapidly expanding regional accents, pushing out competitors, for example around the Scottish Borders.
“The Newcastle influence can be felt more than ever before in the northeast and there is evidence to suggest the accent is spreading to Berwick and Cumbria,” said Kerswill.
Carmen Llamas, a sociolinguist at York University, where a study is underway into the changing linguistic map of northeast England and the Borders, added: “Some parts of speech typical of Tyneside English are becoming more frequent in Middlesbrough, but there is still variation within the northeast.”
In Liverpool, young people have not only retained scouse accents but are intensifying them. Kevin Watson, a lecturer at Lancaster, said the traditional “h” sound that replaces “t” at the end of onesyllable words — turning “what” into “whah”, for example — is now being extended to longer words such as chocolate, which becomes “chocolah”.
“Jafaican” is one of the strongest of the new dialects springing up in the midst of bigger regional accents. Influenced by rap stars such as Dizzee Rascal, young people speak in a staccato rhythm and their accent has taken on a lilt, turning “face” into “fehs” and “coat” into “coht”. The dialect, which has its own expressions such as “this is me” for “I said”, was already apparent in children as young as five — including those from a white background, suggesting it is picked up from peers rather than family, Kerswill found.
Kerswill, whose study has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, believes the spread of city accents will continue, wiping out more localised variations, particularly rural accents. He said the rolled “r” of the West Country accent was likely to disappear in 20-30 years.
Meanwhile, immigration changes will fuel new dialects. He added: “Parts of the country with large concentrations of eastern Europeans could well find that this will eventually have an effect on local English.”