Sound and vision blog

21 July 2014

The shifting sand(-shoes) of linguistic identity in Teesside

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Coxhoe, Hartlepool and three discussions in Middlesbrough (one with a group of young friends, one with rival football fans and one with three generations from the same family). Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cleveland. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Coxhoe and the friends in Middlesbrough, also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

Teesside was the focus of considerable linguistic debate last summer when BBC business correspondent, Sophie McGovern, revealed she received regular complaints from viewers about her Middlesbrough accent. This followed reports earlier the same year that a Middlesbrough primary school had solicited parental support in addressing teachers' concerns that local dialect features were compromising children's formal written English. Personally I've always enjoyed the accents and dialects of the region and local celebrities such as Bob Mortimer (from Acklam, Middlesbrough), Vic Reeves (from Darlington, County Durham) and Mark Benton (from Guisborough, North Yorkshire) are extremely popular figures whose speech patterns are, I sense, an integral part of their appeal.

The backgrounds of these three entertainers hints at the competing cultural and linguistic influences in the area as Teesside straddles the historic counties of Durham and North Yorkshire - Middlesbrough itself was historically in North Yorkshire. Successive changes in administrative nomenclature (North Riding, North Yorkshire, Teesside, Cleveland) have been hotly contested locally as confirmed by this Middlesbrough family and this repeated upheaval underpins the study of Middlesbrough dialect by academic linguist, Carmen Llamas, who explores how local linguistic features reflect speaker identities across generations.

Intriguingly the Middlesbrough accent is frequently confused with accents further up the east coast in Newcastle upon Tyne and, perhaps more surprisingly, on the west coast in Liverpool. Similarity with speakers in Tyneside is most apparent in a shared tendency to glottalise the sounds <p>, <t> and <k> between vowels in words like happy, better and lucky. This distinctive pronunciation is a recent innovation on Teesside thought to be influenced by increasing identification - especially among younger speakers - with the North East. The equally striking pronunciation of word final <t> in words like it and that (pronounced as if it were a <h> sound) and the vowel sound used in words like first, bird and turn is probably more widely associated with English on Merseyside and thought to reflect the earlier influence of large-scale migration from Ireland to Teesside - and Merseyside - in the nineteenth century. All three phenomena can be heard frequently in the recording with former Middlesbrough schoolfriends.

What is also clear from this set of recordings is that the area remains lexically distinctive with examples of 'pan-northern' vocabulary (e.g. lass [= 'girl']), words shared with the North East (e.g. netty [= 'toilet'] and cuddy-wifter [= 'left-handed']) and with Yorkshire (e.g. mafted [= 'hot']) and iconic Teesside items (e.g. nick off [= 'to play truant']). The emergence in Middlesbrough of a second person plural form yous is also shared with other northern cities (notably Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow), while the recording in Coxhoe is particularly rich in typical local discourse markers:

0:07:31 by you're all proper from Cassop man

0:17:34 saying that mind [...] they certainly have interest when it comes round to the presentation evenings

0:19:56 you used to get great crack to them how but

0:35:33 that's just as old-fashioned as the hills like

0:36:48 why let them start their own clubs


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